- By Andrew LebovichAndrew Lebovich is a Sahel consultant and researcher with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, based in Dakar, Senegal.
While press coverage of the Middle East and North Africa has spent the past month focused on Tunisia and Egypt, Algerian opposition groups calling for mass protests on February 12 have stirred speculation that their country, now set to be the largest in Africa (given South Sudan’s recent vote for secession), may be the next domino to fall. Yet while Algeria is beset by many of the same problems of unemployment, corruption, and governance facing its North African neighbors, a true mass revolt in the country remains unlikely — but far from impossible.
Algeria witnessed a massive wave of protests in early January that spread to 20 of the country’s 48 wilayas (provinces) and continues to see successful or attempted self-immolation from disaffected men in the capital Algiers and elsewhere. While the ostensible cause for the protests was a hike in the price of basic staples, such as sugar and cooking oil, the anger unleashed by the protests, albeit briefly, and the subsequent movements of both Algeria’s government and its opposition groups indicate a much deeper anger over the country’s political and social condition.
In response to the earlier violence and demands of civil society groups, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999 and amended the constitution in 2009 to be able to run for a third term, announced last week that he would lift "in the very near future" the state of emergency that has governed Algeria since 1992, when the military canceled free elections and a brutal civil war broke out. Bouteflika also promised moves to lower the prices of staple goods and provide government help in housing and job creation.
These half-measures changed little; opposition groups calling for major protests on Feb. 12 were unmoved, demanding the actual end to the state of emergency and greater press freedoms, if not the outright removal of Bouteflika from office. Even with the state of emergency lifted, a 2001 law that sprang from the deadly "Black Spring" riots prevents marches of any sort in Algiers, and Bouteflika indicated that a new anti-terrorism law would replace the state of emergency, signifying that little will change in terms of police powers or Algerian human rights even if this relic of a darker time disappears. The government on Feb. 7 dutifully announced the continued ban on marches in the city, but the group planning the rally, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD in French), refused to cancel, setting the stage for a possible conflict between massed protesters and armed riot police.
There are numerous factors counting against such a conflict. Some observers are discounting the possibility that Algeria could become the "next Tunisia" or "next Egypt," and not without reason. For one, although Algeria has fairly high literacy, press readership, and a proliferation of civil society organizations (though these latter organizations exert little actual influence), its political parties are weak, worn down by civil war just after Algeria’s brief flirtation with opening the party system in 1989 and the legacy and inertia of one-party rule before that, under the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).
Moreover, not only are Algeria’s opposition parties mostly impotent, but they are unpopular and divided as well. While the CNCD is an amalgam of several parties and associations, it’s most significant component party, the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie (RCD), headed by Said Sadi, controls a mere 19 seats out of 389 in Algeria’s lower house of parliament, and that from an election that garnered just under 37 percent turnout — the lowest ever in Algeria. Despite his attempts to take the reins of a new protest movement, Sadi’s proposed rally on Jan. 22 failed to draw large crowds and was broken up easily, if harshly, though without the death tolls seen in Egypt or Tunisia. Sadi’s legitimacy as a mass political leader is also undermined by his well-known closeness to the head of Algeria’s military intelligence service, Gen. Mohamed "Tewfik" Mediene, Bouteflika’s main rival and head of one of the "clans" constantly competing for power and economic influence in Algeria.
Nor do Algeria’s opposition parties play well together; the rival Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) party (both the FFS and RCD draw support from Algeria’s Kabylia region), while calling for reform and democracy in Algeria, has chosen not to participate in the CNCD and will instead hold its own rally on Feb. 12.
And even if the Feb. 12 march goes ahead as planned, the Algerian internal security forces will be ready, with a reported 20,000 men and quite a bit of experience disrupting riots.
Still, one cannot discount the possibility of something more serious occurring if marchers pour into Algeria’s streets. For all of the divisions among Algeria’s opposition, its ruling classes fare little better. Various "clans" headed by Bouteflika, Mediene, and others compete for influence, and the current unrest may lead to a reshuffling of Algeria’s cabinet, and with it a possible shake-up in the search for a successor to the aging and unhealthy Bouteflika. Amid all this turmoil and closed-doors jockeying for position, it is difficult to say how the army and DRS, shaken in the past year by scandal and a murder that raised public attention to corruption and the army’s role in the country’s economy, will react to any mass public protests.
But more broadly, analysts cannot ignore the slow but ineluctable degradation of the way of life for average Algerians. Algeria expert Hugh Roberts recently noted how the failure of Algerian political institutions to provide solutions for its people, let alone services, has created a worsening culture of rioting in the country, often the only way to bring government attention to bear on pressing problems. He writes: "The greater part of Algerian society has been in a permanent state of moral revolt against the regime for the last four or five years.… Since 2005, scarcely a fortnight has gone by without a riot somewhere in the country."
In the past and last month, the Algerian government has attempted to paper over problems, deploying some of its nearly $150 billion in foreign currency reserves and applying political pressure to ease prices on basic goods. But in the absence of genuine solutions to Algeria’s problems, be they housing shortages, price hikes, corruption, or dependence on oil revenue, the protests will continue in one form or another. And as groups continue slowly to join the protest movement, as strikes and riots continue to break out across the country, as young men desperately flee across the Mediterranean, and as Algerians continue to try to burn themselves in the streets, no one can predict what may happen.
A cartoon that recently appeared in the Algerian daily El-Watan summed up the situation nicely. It depicts a can of gas spilling out into the shape of Algeria, with several unlit matches lying next to a matchbook near the flammable liquid. The caption reads "Algeria today" — placid, but with the possibility of an explosion always lurking nearby.
Andrew Lebovich is a program associate in the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation.