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Algeria: Between Democracy and Jihad – Professor Hussein Solomon

March 16, 2019

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Algeria: Between Democracy and Jihad

By Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 5 (March 2019)

Algeria’s 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has certainly lived a charmed life. He has been in politics since the dawn of his country’s independence and has suffered setbacks from which he has recovered. Serving as Algeria’s president for 20 years, he watched whilst the Arab Spring unfolded in the region. Tunisia’s Zinedine El Abidine was forced into exile in 2011. Libya’s strongman, Muammar Gaddafi was killed by his people and Egypt’s latter-day pharaoh, Mubarak, was overthrown. Not seeking to emulate their fate Bouteflika moved quickly to placate a restive population by providing subsidies, increased government jobs and public sector pay increases. All this was financed by oil revenues. For a while, it seemed the population was placated and it was business as usual for Bouteflika and the `pouvoir’ (power) behind him representing members of the military, secret services and businessmen.

However, recent events suggest that a combination of external and internal factors are finally catching up with Bouteflika and his cabal. In Sudan, the tripling of the price of bread sparked nation-wide protests which resulted in Sudan’s long-running president to step down from the ruling party. Similar economic issues has also sparked tens of thousands of Algerians to take to the streets, the largest protests the country has seen since the Arab Spring uprising eight years ago.

Algeria has always been heavily dependent on its oil and gas reserves, but this has not translated into economic benefits for the ordinary citizens. Indeed, the distribution of this largesse has always been opaque, resulting in Algeria being perceived as one of the ten most corrupt countries on the planet. To complicate matters, oil revenues have fallen by 50 percent and there has been a marked decrease in public services including health, education and housing. Whilst fiscal and trade deficits spiralled upwards, international reserves plummeted and the depreciation of the currency followed. This served to further impoverish ordinary Algerians whilst more than 270,000 educated Algerians sought greener pastures elsewhere with negative consequences for the economy. Moreover, 50 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and youth unemployment is over 20 percent. Frustrated and impoverished youth were the foot soldiers of the Arab Spring and so they have proved again in Algeria as they took to the streets.

In a desperate bid to postpone the inevitable, Bouteflika did attempt to assuage popular anger by promising to serve only one year should he be re-elected for an unprecedented fifth term in the poll to take place on the 18th April. He further proposed to call for early elections and not stand for a sixth term. Popular anger was unabated and the continuing protests compelled him to withdraw from seeking a further presidential term and postponing the April poll for fresh candidates to contest the elections. Whilst this does hold the promise of a new and democratic Algeria, there are dangers too. The question is whether the pouvoir will allow the democratic space to open up – knowing full well that a democratic Algeria cannot allow their aggrandisement of wealth at the expense of the nation to continue or do they dig in their heels and risk civil war?

There is another aspect to this and this relates to the jihadist threat. Militant Islamists have been a problem for this blighted country since the 1990s. It is now clear that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seeks to exploit the chaos in the country to advance its own agenda in the same manner it did in Libya following Gaddafi’s ouster. On the 10th March, Abu Ubaydah Yusu al-Anabi, a senior AQIM commander, and Algerian national referred to Bouteflika and the Algerian government as corrupt and illegitimate and spoke of the need to replace it with an Islamic government. He also spoke approvingly of the protests and of the socio-economic plight of Algerians at the hands of Bouteflika’s government. This was clearly an attempt on the part of AQIM to exploit the existing challenges in Algeria to advance its Islamist agenda.

As Algerians celebrate the demise of the Bouteflika era, there is a desperate need not to embrace the message of the jihadists whilst also challenging the pouvoir – knowing full well that their military and intelligence structures are compromised by their role in Algeria’s secret state but that they need this security apparatus to fight the jihadists if they do not want to have a repetition of the 1990s. Professionalism and patriotism is what is needed on the part of Algeria’s serving men and women in uniform now more than ever.

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