Algeria Between Reform and Stability

Daniele Enriquez

Monday, April 01, 2013

On March 28, Daniele Moro – founding member of the US-Italy Global Affairs Forum and Visiting Scholar in the African Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington D.C. – assembled a panel of experts to discuss the current situation and future of one of the most interesting countries of the so-called Arab Spring: Algeria. This was the third event organized by SAIS on Algeria, a country at the crossroad of political change, terrorism, energy matters, and many other dilemmas. Is it possible to change such a difficult area? Why do people seem to be interested in stability rather than in reforms, with regard to Algeria?

According to William Zartman, Professor Emeritus in Conflict Management at SAIS,stability shouldn’t be the world’s priority in the countries experiencing the Arab Spring. In fact, “stability” was the condition under Mubarak and Ben Ali.

As happened in other North African countries, Algeria had its intifada in 2011. However, the world seemed to pay less attention to it. Why? A reason can be found in the differences between Algeria and the other Arab Spring countries. Tunisia and Egypt were characterized by a short, successful uprising against their old rulers, armies that refused to fire on the people, and uncertainty about their future. These elements are not present in the case of Algeria. The country was impacted in the 1990s by the Red/Black Decade, which can be considered a sort of “antidote” to any intifadas. Furthermore, Algeria has a big, expensive army that its current President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, needs under his control in order to govern.

Just as Tunisians and Egyptians, Algerians protested and continue to protest in the streets of their cities. However, in distinction from other North Africans, the latter complain only about local problems – which the government can solve easily, and thus calm tensions – rather than against the regime. On the other side, some protesters seem to have utopian goals, such as dismantling the entire military apparatus.

The professor continued by highlighting how the elections in 2010 – for the Parliament – and 2012 – for local counsels – allowed citizens to express their preferences freely through voting, and in the process changed Algerian political landscape. The Islamic Salvation Front lost power, while the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Rally for Democracy (RND) increased their presence in the Parliament, and created a sort of  “double party regime”. Now the world is waiting to see what will happen in 2014, when Algerians will be called to vote for their new President. Professor Zartman’s hypotheses are not reassuring: If Bouteflika is going to be reelected, the youth – who are awaiting a new political wave – will protest; if the current President loses, his acolytes will try to put him back in power.

Furthermore, there is also the possibility that elections will be postponed for two years. In any event, an existing law ensures the safety of the current President’s family which, in case of a significant uprising, would be legally free to leave the country.

During an exciting exchange of opinions with representatives from the Algerian Embassy in Washington D.C., Professor Zartman stated that though sometimes risksand opportunities can be used as synonymous, uprising don’t always bring risks butare always opportunities. They are symptoms of something wrong and the need for change. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the protesters are always right in their demands.

The point of view on security was given by Eammon Gearon, Professorial Lecturer in the African Studies program at SAIS . The professor began with brief overview of the main historical events in Algeria to show how the security of its oil fields is of extreme importance to the country. The French invasion of Algeria in 1830 started the so-called “scramble for Africa”. Nevertheless, in the first decade of the French invasion the country maintained its own name and was known as French Algeria. After that, it experienced about 132 years of occupation through the 1960s, when the country became extremely wealthy thanks to its oil fields – only to assist in the drop of the price of oil in 1983.

With regard to Al-Qaeda, Professor Gearon stressed how the Algerian movement was born from its civil and independence wars. On those occasions, the level of violence experienced by civilians was unbelievably high, though they became normative for the country. Terrorist groups in Algeria and in the neighboring Mali want to spread fear among the population and take control of the oil platform zone, which is so spread out as to be almost impossible to secure. Kidnapping has becoming such a frequent practice in the area that the government passed a law which bans payments to kidnappers.

From a social point of view, the biggest problem facing Algeria is its unemployment rate. While “only” 10% of adults are without a job, among the 25-year-old population the rate goes up to 25%-30%. Although Algeria was blessed with a huge amount of oil, operations do not require a lot of people working “on the floor”. On this topic, a positive point of view was given by a member of the U.S.-Algeria Business Council, who spoke about the many programs of the Council, based on pharmaceutical research, which are aimed at creating new jobs for the young generation, focusing attention on healthcare, and diversifying the economy.

The event began with the projection of a video about Algeria’s past and its war of independence .

At the end of this extremely interesting conversation, where all could exchange ideas and learn from experts, many questions remained unanswered. Why did Gheddafi’s family leave Algeria last week and go to Oman? What does this tell us about the difficult relationships among the North African countries? How can stability be achieved without reform or passing through a period of instability? Is there any chance for renewed collaboration between France and Algeria?