- March 20, 2019
- Posted by: Marc Babel
- Category: Africa, Politics
Lynx Fellow Peter Wineman
Over the past few weeks, protests have erupted across Algeria in response to the government’s announcement that the ailing 82 year old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika would run for an astounding fifth consecutive presidential term in the upcoming elections. On March 9th, “le pouvoir” another term for the current regime reversed course by ceding to the protestors and stating Bouteflika would not run for another term. More cryptically they continued, “the government would be reshuffled, and the April 18 elections would be delayed until an “inclusive and independent” national conference revises the constitution.  This delay could be viewed as a grasp for time in order to shape a path forward that would maintain the status quo and current regime’s control of power regardless of the eventual successor as president.
Looking back, these protests join a long history of political and social unrest in Algeria, beginning with the establishment of the current regime in the 1950s and 1960s following a brutal war of independence against the French. The regime’s power was centered around a well funded military and defense establishment which was further cemented over the last three decades after first wresting control from democratically elected Islamic officials in a brutal civil war during the 1990s that cost upwards of 200,000 lives. Unlike Algeria’s past, the unrest of 2019 has been likened to the earlier Arab Spring of 2011 and been portrayed as a youth movement. Affirming this narrative, at least ½ and upwards of ⅔ of Algeria’s population are 30 years or younger.  Describing this generational difference in a Washington Post article discussing the protests, the famed Algerian journalist and novelist Kamel Daoud was quoted as saying, “This generation has lived through neither the war of independence nor the civil war, just the freedom of social media…The internet has been the great giver of freedom of speech in Algeria and the regime has realized it too late.”  At the same time, though the internet certainly played a role in the current unrest, limited economic opportunity for Algerian youth paired with widespread corruption and suppression by the government. These sentiments finally ignited the recent protests when the incumbent Bouteflika, after suffering a paralyzing stroke in 2013, which left him unable to lead was nonetheless put forward by his political party members to run for the presidency because they could not agree on an acceptable successor.
While forcing the ailing Bouteflika on the Algerian people for a fifth term may have been a grave miscalculation by le pouvoir, the most probable path forward for Algeria will see their continued control over the means of political and economic power. This would be done with a delay to elections along with the eventual abdication of Bouteflika to appease the main aims of the protestors. Regardless, any revision of the constitution would be limited in nature and any transition of executive power would most likely be to a member of Bouteflika’s inner circle that will seek to unite the nation in appearance while at the same time working to cement the regime’s political and economic control in practice. Asking whether or not the Algerian people would accept a maintenance of the status quo, Algeria expert Isabelle Werenfels argues, “One thing we do not know is how the silent majority – the many Algerians who have not left their homes to march – feels”  For many in Algeria, the current regime was responsible for whatever economic improvements have come over the last few decades. For those who remember life under the colonial French rule and decades following, it is difficult to see any widespread acceptance of regime change and the coming political and social fight could become one between generations. However, reporting from within Algeria, our Lynx primary source argues that the 2019 protests show greater unity between the protestors and overall population which could prove a catalyst to further democratization.
Another possible path forward would be an intervention by the military which leads to further autocratization of Algeria. Discussing this possibility for Foreign Policy, Steven Cook noted, “Algeria’s military establishment is the primary beneficiary and defender of the existing political order.” A Lynx primary source agrees with this possibility arguing the military leader Gaid “is still threatening to return the country to the 1990s,” which saw the military overthrow the democratically elected government. However, unlike the 1990s, the primary source argues that the military is more neutral and understanding of the protests which could prove consequential in shaping Algeria’s political future. Nonetheless, if Gaid wishes to carry out his threat, a model towards military autocratization has already been demonstrated by Egypt. In Egypt, the military initially seen as the the savior of the revolution during the Arab Spring quickly became the mechanism allowing for the creation of a repressive autocratic government that followed.
Furthermore,“Algeria is [also] a strategic ally of the United States and France in combating Islamic extremists in the Sahara. Its military, honed by a 10-year battle against militants in the 1990s, has a reputation for brutal efficiency and benefits from one of the largest defense budgets in Africa.”  Consequently for the current regime, its relationship with the military, though showing recent signs of fracturing has ensured that it has the means and expertise to fight for its future against both violent extremists and peaceful protestors. This means that while it is improbable that the West would intervene on behalf of the regime in suppressing democratic protests, indifference by the international community and media to the situation would also help to serve the interests of the current regime. Therefore any ignorance or acceptance of a delay to elections by the West would aid the current regime and be equally damning for any democratization movement within Algeria.
Unfortunately the path towards a more democratic future in Algeria is problematic and shrouded in unknowns. Platitudes currently being proclaimed in the media about the protests leading to democratization and a more equitable future for Algeria’s youth may be just that. For le pouvoir, the current protests mark an important intersection. At worst leading to further autocratization and brutal suppression or at best meaningful changes and revisions in the coming transitional government and constitution which could prove foundational in paving the way towards a more democratic government and equitable economy in Algeria. Yet time is on the side of the powers that be strengthening their ability to suppress, marginalize, or simply wait out the protestors until they can transition legislative and executive power away from Bouteflika to a new successor willing to maintain the status quo. This most probable path forward means that for the protestors and their goal of democratization, demands for an inclusive and independent national conference to revise the constitution must be expedited. Social and political movements must continue to pressure the regime while also ensuring that protests are kept non-violent to mitigate against any unwarranted suppression by the defense and intelligence establishment whose historical allegiance has been to the current regime fighting to remain in power.
For the international community, there must be verification and solidarity regarding peaceful democratic protests to deter against violent suppression by the current regime. Unfortunately, confirmed by the Lynx source within the country, the regime’s intelligence and policing services are powerful and limit foreign journalists reporting from within the country inhibiting any meaningful dissemination of truth to the global community. Additionally while there are certainly journalists reporting on the protests, much of the established media continues to support the regime and its objectives, forcing protestors to utilize social media platforms in order to disseminate information and recruit support.
In conclusion, a comparison between Western media coverage and official statements regarding unrest in Venezuela and Algeria may be the most consequential to understanding the West’s stake in the future of both countries. For the Maduro regime, a notable ally of Russia and China, its days may be numbered. To this end, the motivations for US interest in Venezuela are varied and complex, though interestingly greatly shaped by US domestic politics. For the Trump administration, campaign strategy in preparation for the upcoming 2020 election is focused on highlighting and denouncing the failures of socialism, with Venezuela being a prime example. This has led to public attacks on the Maduro regime by all levels within the Trump administration, even threatening military intervention. Of course while Algeria falls further from the center of US foreign policy than Venezuela, the US and its allies remain officially silent on the recent unrest in Algeria. For the the Bouteflika regime, which continues to aid the West in the Global War on Terrorism, ignorance or a policy of non-intervention by the West and specifically the US is interpreted as an acceptance for the continuance of the political status quo in Algeria. Therefore by utilizing a strategy not atypical to Algeria, the current regime’s greatest strength in maintaining control over the Algerian government, economy and society would be their ability to support Western geo-political objectives while also wearing the mask of good governance and democratic rule to ensure a policy of non-intervention by the international community.