In mid-February, with autocratic rulers deposed in Tunisia and Egypt, and another tottering in Libya, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy took to the streets in the capital of Algeria. The organization, which was created on January 21, following a series of riots in several cities across the country, is led by the Rally for Democracy and Culture (RCD), an opposition party whose narrow constituency includes mainly Berber-speaking people in Algiers and the nearby Kabylia region. The Coordination includes other small political parties, as well as the National League for the Defense of Human Rights, the National Association of Families of Missing Persons (those who “disappeared” during the internal war of the 1990s), an association of the unemployed and many other groups. It called for “change and democracy, the lifting of the state of emergency, the liberalization of the political and media fields, and the release of people who were jailed for having protested or for their opinions.”
The National Coordination attempted to mount a massive but peaceful demonstration on February 12 in Algiers, pointing the finger at the entire system of government, known to Algerians as le pouvoir, or “the powers that be,” as the cause of Algeria’s deteriorating socio-economic conditions. The rally was to demand immediate political and economic reforms. But the government, fearing an Egypt-like scenario, went all out to prevent what it labeled an illegal gathering under the state of emergency. The authorities deployed an overwhelming number of police (some 30,000 personnel), closed off streets, erected checkpoints, halted bus and train services, and blocked access to Facebook. A few hundred demonstrators managed to get through the countless roadblocks and chanted slogans before being roughed up and dispersed by the police. Another demonstration was organized the following weekend, but fewer people attended and their assembly was quickly broken up.
Nevertheless, on February 24, the government seemed to respond to the protesters’ grievances, publishing a notice lifting the 19-year state of emergency, which had allowed the authorities to suspend and suppress civil liberties whenever they saw fit. In promising this step two days earlier, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika had said that the emergency law was in place “only for the purposes of the fight against terrorism,” a reference to the war of the 1990s between the military and Islamist fighters. As relative peace had returned to Algeria, Bouteflika implied, there was no longer any justification for such harsh measures. This announcement was good news for most Algerian citizens and seems to have dampened the protest movement for the time being.
The formal end of the state of emergency does not necessarily mean the end of arbitrary state control and curtailment of liberties, however. Bouteflika, for example, said demonstrations in the capital would continue to be banned, law or no law. The protest movement of 2011 will not die as a result of this decision, therefore, even if it remains substantially smaller than the Algerian movements of the late 1980s and early 1990s and those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya today.
An important reason why the 2011 mobilization is small thus far may be the decade-long national trauma starting in 1992. In that year, the government canceled parliamentary elections the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win as part of a crackdown on the Islamist party, touching off an internal war. The subsequent years of fighting the system — and losing — are still fresh in the popular memory. The wounds have not yet healed, and few feel ready to fight another battle, albeit one that is peaceful. Another reason is that, in the past, Algerian security forces have fired upon and killed unarmed protesters with live ammunition and tortured them in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Citizens fear the troops would shoot again if le pouvoir thought the risk of instability was high.
A third reason is that, in spite of recent changes, the military establishment remains the most powerful institution in Algeria. The civilians like Bouteflika who are the face of government have limited authority. Any struggle against the system would therefore need the blessing of the military, the dark heart of le pouvoir, or need to be willing to face the army’s proven capacity to repress serious challengers.
Still a fourth reason is the absence of a solid, united opposition front with critical mass to summon a nationwide movement against the regime. Neither the peaceful protests of February nor the riots of January had the backing of the General Union of Algerian Workers, a major force in the country. Key political parties and professional orders also stayed away. The smaller opposition groups gathered under the National Coordination have not been able to articulate clear goals for their mobilization, sticking with vague denunciations of the equally hazy le pouvoir, rather than targeting the head of state as in Tunisia and Egypt. Finally, a possible reason for the weakness of the National Coordination is that Said Saadi, the leader of the RCD, is known as a “pro-government oppositionist,” having supported the cancellation of the 1992 election and the crackdown on the Islamic Salvation Front.
The RCD and other parties — whether they hold parliamentary seats or not — have lost substantial popular appeal in recent years as their leaders appear to have grown closer to the regime and detached from their constituents. Many Algerians see the formal opposition as part of the problem, because these politicians have accepted cooptation into the system and acquired an interest in maintaining the status quo on which their material wellbeing has come to depend. Parliament, in any case, has no function except as a rubber stamp for the policies desired by le pouvoir.
In the face of unresponsive public institutions and political parties, Algerians have come to rely on methods of direct action, such as riots and sit-ins, and even attempts at self-immolation in front of government offices, to express their grievances. Such outbursts are intended to shame the state and its top officials for failing the people they are supposed to serve.
From 1988 to 2011
On January 5, for instance, while riots and protests were rocking neighboring Tunisia, thousands of youths took to the streets in several Algerian cities and towns demanding an improvement in living conditions, lower food prices, jobs and respect. It was not the first time that street actions with no overarching political slogan had occurred in the country, but these disturbances were the first spontaneous nationwide uprising since the riots that shook the country in October 1988.
Those historic riots were put down harshly by the army, whose soldiers killed about 500 unarmed youths in the space of a few days. Stung by domestic and international criticism, the government sought to improve its badly tarnished image and reconcile with society by enacting a sudden political liberalization that ended the one-party system in place since independence from France in 1962. The regime allowed the birth of opposition parties and civic associations, as well as a much freer press. While far from a regime change, the political opening emboldened the rising Islamist opposition, setting the stage for the fateful aborted elections of 1992. As armed conflict broke out, the government instituted the state of emergency and reversed much of the earlier political liberalization in the name of security and stability. After the war, the inclusion of opposition parties — even three moderate Islamist ones — and the holding of multi-party parliamentary and presidential elections constituted a substantial change from the one-party system of the past, but failed to affect the nature of the system, which remained stubbornly authoritarian. This history of temporary and partial reform colors Algerians’ view of measures such as the lifting of the state of emergency today.
There are also economic parallels between 1988 and 2011. The main economic reasons for the turmoil of the 1980s included the failure of the state-driven development strategy, a sharp drop in oil prices and the austerity measures, such as cuts to price subsidies, that were taken in response. Economic conditions worsened during the internal war, pushing the state in 1995 to adopt a structural adjustment program sponsored by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Hundreds of thousands of people were laid off from dismantled public companies, while consumer goods became much more expensive due to currency devaluation, price liberalization and a sharp reduction or elimination of subsidies. After the Islamist rebellion was largely subdued in the early 2000s, the government led by President Bouteflika promised an economic revival program, with the state injecting $150 billion into the economy as peace slowly returned and oil and gas prices rose.
By 2010, the country had paid off most of its foreign debt, accumulated $157 billion in hard currency reserves and engaged in major infrastructural projects (mainly construction of roads and housing). Income from hydrocarbons had continued to increase, reaching $51.27 billion, giving the Algerian exchequer a balance of payments surplus of $14.8 billion. These positive aggregate indices, however, stand in stark contrast to a socio-economic malaise among the majority of the population. The unemployment rate is high, measured officially at 10 percent, but widely acknowledged to be well above 20 percent. Among youth, joblessness is officially 21.5 percent but in reality is close to 45 percent — an untenable figure since 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30. According to the Algerian Office of National Statistics, unemployment among university graduates is at 21.4 percent; also, 23.6 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Furthermore, while the prices of basic necessities have risen steadily over the last few years, wages have remained very low. The Minimum Guaranteed Salary, as the Algerian state calls it, was raised in 2010, but to a mere 15,000 dinars ($250) per month, an amount that is inadequate to cover essential household needs. Other problems include a shortage of affordable housing (the construction boom notwithstanding), failing education and health systems, labor discontent and rampant corruption, cronyism and nepotism among office holders in the state bureaucracy and “parastatal” public-private companies.
Faced with such difficult living conditions, an education system that easily dismisses them, a labor market that cannot absorb them and tightening immigration laws in Europe and North America, the youth of Algeria find themselves in a desperate situation. They have lost hope in formal politics, which seems to serve only the well connected and has few channels for the peaceful expression of grievances. They resort instead to street violence. In the last ten years, not a single day has passed without such an event occurring somewhere in the country — a phenomenon that Iván Martin calls “a rebellion by installments.”
More Than Food
The failure of the authorities to heed these warning signs resulted in the nationwide riots that began on January 5. A jump in the price of food staples (semolina, sugar, cooking oil) may have triggered the upheaval, but it was not the deep cause, which lay in the preceding decade of built-up political and economic frustrations.
The price spike had been caused by rumors of impending new regulations on wholesalers and informal traders, and the government swiftly decided to impose a low price ceiling on the affected food items as the disturbances spread. This step stopped the riots in their tracks, but fell far short of resolving the underlying problems. Three hundred youths were invited to air their complaints at a session of Parliament on January 19, and the price of food was low on their list, even though the average Algerian spends 40 to 55 percent of his income on nutrition. The youth representatives spoke instead about the lack of jobs and housing, their marginalization in the Algerian political and economic systems, and the contempt (known as hogra) shown to them by the authorities, including bureaucrats and state security agents. Hogra, indeed, is the core grievance uniting the rough-hewn rioters of January with the more polite protesters of February. Opaque and unaccountable, le pouvoir treats all Algerians who have no stake in the system with a considerable degree of disdain.
The unifying set of demands going forward may focus on the face of le pouvoir, Bouteflika, who in 2008 introduced a constitutional amendment permitting him to run for a third term as president. Should such a movement against Bouteflika develop, the Algerian military, particularly its powerful Department of Intelligence and Security, might be tempted to emulate its Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts and pose as the savior of the people by ousting the aging, ailing leader. The military would take such action to preserve its interests under a smokescreen of seemingly revived political liberalization and ad hoc economic fixes. Such tinkering could be expected to fall well short of the kind of change the country urgently needs: an institutional overhaul, a thoroughgoing change of civilian leadership at all levels, serious protections for civil and political freedoms, total withdrawal of the military and security services from politics, a tough battle against corruption, establishment of an independent judiciary and a system of accountability for all persons exercising public authority — from the simple policeman to the president. Equally needed are sound economic reforms aimed at lessening Algeria’s dependency on the sale of crude oil and natural gas, eliminating the predatory behavior of civilian and military officials and absorbing the 300,000 young people who enter the job market every year. It is a tall order, given the number of powerful Algerians who benefit (tremendously) from the status quo. An alternative course, however, would simply delay the earth-shaking social upheaval that has been building by installments in Algeria for more than a decade.