Change looms on the horizon in Algeria—change that could well touch the edifice of the country’s framework of governance. In the short term, given the protracted period of low international oil and gas prices, the state is likely to introduce economic reforms that will modify its expenditures on popular distributional and social welfare programs. And in April 2019, an election will likely usher in a successor to the sitting fourth-term president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who first took office in 1999. [1] Overcoming both challenges—economic reforms and the transition to a new president—will require substantial citizen participation and consensus, but voter participation has been in continuous decline since the 1991 legislative elections, the annulment of which sparked years of civil war.

Meanwhile, since the mid-2000s Algeria has seen an increase in the micro-riots known locally as protesta. [2] Protesta are small, unauthorized demonstrations that are highly local—occurring at a particular street or intersection. While disruptive, protesta are only symbolically violent, with participants generally limiting themselves to throwing stones at police, blocking roads and burning tires, and refraining from theft, looting or attacks on bystanders. Protesta are usually spontaneous but always make a loud and specific claim on the state. While the regime needs a high level of participation in the upcoming elections to tackle the large political and economic issues, protesta work in the meantime as cues that let the regime know where and how it should act. [3]

Economic Centralization, Eroding Institutional Confidence and Voter Participation

The government’s generous social welfare and distribution programs underwrite much of the president’s continued popularity, which far overshadows public confidence in other state institutions, such as the National Assembly, the Senate, regional councils and municipal councils. Indeed, Algeria has a strong presidential regime. In addition to naming the prime minister and cabinet, a third of the senators, and a third of the Constitutional Council (Algeria’s supreme court) and its chief justice, the president has de facto control of the allocation of state resources. The National Assembly votes on the annual budget, although its real authority is eclipsed by presidential decree. During President Bouteflika’s 17 years in office, the National Assembly, dominated by two pro-presidential parties, has never asserted its role in formulating public spending. Individual members of Parliament do not lobby regularly to capture portions of the state budget for their individual constituencies. The executive instead distributes monies from the state budget directly to Algeria’s various ministries, which in turn send the money downstream to their local divisions in the country’s 48 regional prefectures. In each prefecture, the presidentially nominated prefect, or wali, oversees the distribution of allocated monies to the regional assembly and municipal councils within its boundaries. And while the 1,541 local municipalities—the only level of government where elected officials deliberate on how funds are distributed—have their own budgets, 62 percent of Algeria’s town halls are entirely dependent on centralized monies. [4]

During Bouteflika’s tenure, the Algerian government has vastly increased its spending, contributing to the president’s popularity. While the budget was based on oil revenue at $15 per barrel in 1999, the calculus for spending was increased to $19 per barrel in 2000, when the regime created its Revenue Stabilization Fund, and bumped up again to $37 per barrel in 2008. Following the spike in international oil prices in 2002, the government injected billions of dollars into development programs targeting education, health care, housing, infrastructure and jobs. From a $7 billion five-year investment plan in 2000-2004, government spending jumped to $200 billion, $286 billion and $262 billion for the 2005-2009, 2010-2014 and 2015-2019 five-year plans, respectively.

Algeria distributes its hydrocarbon rent through a number of mechanisms: directly via state employment, subsidized public goods and service provision, and indirectly through subsidized interest rates on home mortgages and other credits. Between 2009 and 2012, the average share of government expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was 40.8 percent—significantly higher than elsewhere in the region. [5] Under President Bouteflika, state employment has been an important driver of domestic consumption: In 2013, nearly 35 percent of the Algerian work force was employed by the state. [6] While a significant proportion of this work force is made up of temporary workers employed by the provincial government—akin to the Works Progress Administration in the United States that was part of the New Deal in the 1930s—permanent employment offers virtual life tenure and retirement benefits and thus continues to attract recruits. [7] In 2012, government subsidies made up 18.3 percent of GDP. [8]

A look at the 2010-2014 plan, dubbed Algeria’s Second Marshall Plan, gives a good sense of how public investment monies have been spent. While 22 percent of monies were directed to health care, education, public utilities and transportation infrastructure—collective goods—a significantly greater portion funded programs that targeted individuals for state-subsidized redistribution, viewed as a form of social justice. Rural and urban employment and job creation schemes (e.g., direct employment or subsidized loans) accounted for close to 8 percent of the plan. Housing made up the lion’s share—17 percent of the 2010-2014 plan, which set a target of 2 million new subsidized housing units. The government’s program offers four layers of subsidized housing, including a $7,000 grant for rural housing, free public housing for the poor, government-private participation programs and a final program that offers 0 percent interest on bank loans for housing. [9] Accounting for close to a quarter of each of President Bouteflika’s four five-year plans, [10] the program is one of the distributional cornerstones of the government.

While such top-heavy distribution has boosted the popularity of the chief executive, the practice also calls into question the utility of elected officials, political parties and civic groups. [11] According to a 2013 Afro Barometer survey, 91.9 percent of Algerians have some or a lot of trust in the president, while 89.5 percent approve or strongly approve of his performance. [12] In the same survey, only 11.4 percent of Algerians believed that Parliament listens to what people have to say. [13] The Arab Barometer surveys also show that between 2006 and 2011, the percentage of Algerians who claim to have little or no confidence in Parliament increased from 63.7 to 75 percent. [14]

Declining levels of public confidence in elected institutions’ ability to effect change are reflected in voter participation rates for the National Assembly, which has declined steadily over the past 25 years. [15] Fifty-nine percent of registered voters participated in the first round of the annulled 1991 elections, dropping to 55.7 percent in 1997. Participation fell further in 2002 to 46.2 percent and hit a historical low in 2007 at 35.5 percent. While participation rates did increase slightly in 2012 to 43.1 percent, the bump is likely linked to the effects of the Arab uprisings. [16] Rates fell again in the 2017 contests to 37.09 percent. Morocco saw similar declining participation rates with a record low in 2007 at 35.51 percent, also increasing slightly in 2012 to 45.5 percent before falling again to 42.3 percent in 2016. [17]

Protesta in Algeria

Against this background of declining voter participation, the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have seen a proliferation of agitation against unpopular regime policies. One significant dimension of this turbulence is the increasing number of protesta. While Algeria witnessed nearly three protesta per day on average in 2008, the Ministry of Interior recorded more than 11,000 interventions by riot police units in 2011 and nearly 10,000 in 2012.18 In February 2016, the Ligue Algérienne pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme cited 14,000 protests during the preceding year.

What characterizes these micro-riots, and what are they about? Scholars of social movements do not agree on a single definition of a riot, including events as diverse as low-intensity conflicts, large and small urban protests that turn violent, pogroms and inter-ethnic violence. The common thread is that, during riots, “unruly crowds burn, loot or otherwise assail stores, public buildings, cars and/or symbols of state power.” [19] Algerian protesta, however, are generally small, contained events with only theatrical displays of violence. A subset of demonstrations, protesta have a specific target and script: They always make claims. Unlike most demonstrations, however, they appear to act in “radical disconnection from Algeria’s political parties, but also…without any links to or help from trade union movements or other organized associations.” [20] They generally involve between 50 and 200 citizens from a common locality and are rarely citywide. While they can sometimes involve entire neighborhoods, they most often occur within localized parts of neighborhoods or along sections of streets.

According to a database of nearly 500 protesta in Algeria between 2008 and 2012, most protesta make distributional claims on the state. [21] Nearly two thirds of those protesta called for the provision of public goods. The most common demand, at nearly 29 percent, was for better housing. But the next most common claims asserted by the protesters varied by municipal size. In Algiers, the capital, youth mounted protesta over the cost of living and continued access to subsidies. In large provincial cities, the claims concerned greater access to municipal water, electricity and gas supplies. In mid-sized provincial towns, citizens demanded small-scale municipal public works, such things as paved roads, speed bumps and pedestrian overpasses. In villages, protesters demanded employment in local state-owned enterprises. Although protesta rarely called for democratization, many (15 percent) decried police abuses. Most protesta assert claims against the state for its inattention to local issues or the mismanagement or misallocation of state resources by local elected officials or state cadres.

Why are protesta so common in Algeria, averaging around 10,000 annually? One answer concerns the ways in which the highly centralized state and economy have sidelined elected officials. Algeria’s semi-open political system permits vocal opposition and uses the distribution of state resources through select social justice programs, such as housing policy, to fulfill the state’s mission while buying enough support to maintain internal cohesion. Finding the right balance, however, is difficult. Pro-regime and opposition political parties and civic groups attempt to function as effective intermediaries between citizens and the state. In Algeria, however, neither political parties nor civic groups play an active role in formulating socio-economic policy or in distributing state resources to citizens. Rather, many such groups and organizations are themselves financed by the state, thus diminishing citizen trust in their efficacy and probity. Citizens view elected bodies as an ineffectual component of the current system, as demonstrated in public opinion surveys as well as by steadily declining voter turnout at national and local polls. [22] Surveys show that Algerians have little trust in state institutions or their capacity for political performance, which larger cross-national studies have shown to be a condition necessary for the proliferation of micro-riots. In such contexts, citizens view peaceful opposition as ineffectual and look instead for means of confronting the state directly. Even when they are small and localized, protesta bring significant levels of disruption and noise that the state cannot easily ignore.

Elections, Economy and Participation

The outcome of Algeria’s May 2017 National Assembly elections may define the state’s commitment to its generous social welfare and public investment programs, as well as the relationship between the presidency and the legislature.

Since the 2014 oil price slump, the country’s foreign currency reserves have steadily decreased from a record $190 billion in 2014 to $109 billion today. [23] While the International Monetary Fund admitted that its growth estimates for 2016 were off—the organization had predicted 3.6 percent, against a real growth rate of 4.2 percent—it has lowered its estimate for growth in 2017 and 2018 to 1.4 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively, and predicted an increase in unemployment from the current 10.5 percent to 13.2 percent in 2018. [24] While the 2017 Algerian Finance Law aims to re-equilibrate government spending—expenditures in key sectors have been decreased, government employment in certain ministries frozen and rules on importation imposed—significant changes are being discussed in semi-official circles. The government has promised not to deviate significantly from its current course of action, although leading regime figures have announced the need for a broad-based dialogue on the future economic relationship between citizen and state [25]—a dialogue that many party leaders claim begins with a large voter turnout.

But how a Parliament-led dialogue could occur remains unclear. The March 2016 constitutional revisions strengthen parliamentary prerogatives, including Article 136, which gives any group of 20 or more deputies the right to initiate bills. The article also protects smaller parties’ interests from being automatically blocked on the floor. The incoming National Assembly, however, is unlikely to be altered significantly in political composition: Low voter turnout has historically benefited ruling-coalition parties, which have great resources at their disposal to mobilize supporters to the polls. While the National Assembly can play a greater role in preparing legislation, the executive will continue to pass laws via decree unless the leadership of both government and the major parties actively push for dynamic debate.

Should the 2017 parliament break with past behavior and assert its constitutional rights, elected representatives could initiate a series of dialogues with political parties, trade unions, economic associations and civic groups over the role of the state in the future economy. Such a debate could shape a wide consensus on how to embark on significant administrative, economic and political reforms. More importantly, such actions would surely increase political participation in future contests, possibly strengthening the parliament further and opening the possibilities for greater democratizing reform. Absent changes that promote dialogue between pro-regime parties and the opposition, and between citizen and state, the ongoing liberalizing economic reforms will likely result in even more protesta—citizen actions from the streets that could either force reform or, just as likely, push the system to a breaking point as has happened elsewhere in the region.


[1] The March 2016 constitutional revisions limit the president to two five-year mandates. It remains unclear whether the revision is applicable retroactively, or beginning mid-term, or beginning with the next presidential election.
[2] The term protesta has no corollary in Algerian Arabic. Algerians also use the expression al-khuruj ila al-shawari‘ (taking to the streets) interchangeably with muzaharat (demonstrations). Larger riots that include looting and widespread destruction of property are sometimes called balbala (confusion) or simply shaghab (riots). The term fawda (disorder) is used interchangeably to describe demonstrations, riots and protesta. In Oran, khalt (mixing, or stirring up) is also used to describe protesta.
[3] Robert P. Parks, “Algeria, Hydrocarbons, and the Provision of Public Goods and Services,” paper presented at the Varieties of Rentierism Workshop, London School of Economics, September 16-17, 2016; and “Sounds Like Participation: Protesta and Claim-Making in Algeria,” unpublished manuscript.
[4] Algérie Presse Service, May 25, 2016.
[5] Lahcen Achy, “The Price of Stability in Algeria,” Carnegie Middle East Center (April 2013).
[6] Alberto Behar and Junghwan Mok, “Does Public-Sector Employment Fully Crowd Out Public-Sector Employment?” IMF Working Paper 13/146 (Washington, DC, 2013).
[7] For a breakdown of the Algerian labor market, see Mohamed Saïb Musette, “Employment Policies and Active Labour Market Programs in Algeria,” Algeria: Background Paper (Algiers: European Training Foundation, 2013).
[8] Andrew Jewell, Amina Lahreche and Gaëlle Pierre, “Algeria: Selected Issues,” IMF Country Report 14/342 (Washington, DC, 2014), p. 18.
[9] Of the close to 1 million housing units built during the 2005-2009 plan, 11.7 percent were reserved for poor urban families, 27 percent for poor rural families, 30.4 percent for government-private and 30 percent for lease-to-own with 0 percent interest. 2012 Year Book, Housing Finance in Africa: A Review of Some of Africa’s Housing Finance Markets (Parkview, South Africa: Center for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa, 2012).
[10] Malika Seddiki, “Investissements publics et gouvernance en Algérie: Quelle relation?” Faculté des sciences économiques, commerciales et sciences de gestion, Université de Sétif 1 Conference, Évaluation des effets des programmes d’investissements publics 2001-2014 et leurs retombés sur l’emploie, l’investissement et la croissance économique (Sétif: Université de Sétif: 2013), pp. 1-24.
[11] Robert P. Parks, “Algeria and the Arab Uprisings,” in Clement M. Henry and Jang Ji-Hyang, eds., The Arab Spring (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 101-126.
[12] See the 2013 Afro Barometer.
[13] The 2015 Afro Barometer numbers are a bit different. Trust and approval in Parliament continued to slide: Only 31.2 percent of respondents claimed to trust or somewhat trust Parliament, and only 29.6 percent reported strongly approving or approving parliamentary performance. Confidence and approval in the president, more importantly, took a steep decline: in 2015, only 47.2 percent of respondents claimed to trust or somewhat trust the president (down from 91.9 percent), and only 45.8 percent claimed to approve or strongly approve of his performance (down from 89.5 percent). This rapid erosion likely signals widespread concern for the health and capacity of the president, following his April 2013 stroke.
[14] Unless otherwise indicated, subsequent data presented from the 2006 or 2011 Arab Barometer Survey is derived from: “Comparative Findings of all Arab Barometer Surveys in Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Algeria and Kuwait,” 2006; “Algeria Country Report,” 2011.
[15] Robert P. Parks, “Algerians Head to the Polls Thursday: Here’s What to Watch,” Washington Post, May 3, 2017.
[16] Robert P. Parks, “Algeria’s 10 May 2012 Elections: Preliminary Analysis,” Jadaliyya, May 20, 2012.
[17] See the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s Voter Turnout Database and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ Election Guide.
[18] Parks, “Algeria and the Arab Uprisings.”
[19] Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), p. 31.
[20] Hugh Roberts, “Algeria’s National ‘Protesta,’” Foreign Policy, January 10, 2011.
[21] Data on Algerian riots compiled by the author are based on various social movement and conflict databases and the local Algerian press.
[22] According to the 2015 Afro Barometer Survey, only 35.6 percent of respondents approved or strongly approved at the way their local mayors or city council performed their jobs. According to the same survey, only 22.9 percent of respondents claimed local officials always or often listen to the public; while 79 percent of respondents reported that some or all of their town council was involved in corruption. In the 2011 Arab Barometer Survey, 72.3 percent of respondents claimed to have little or no confidence in political parties—60 percent for civic groups.
[23] Reuters, March 6, 2017.
[24] Algérie Presse Service, April 18, 2017.
[25] Algérie Presse Service, April 21, 2017.

How to cite this article:

Robert P. Parks "Voter Participation and Loud Claim Making in Algeria," Middle East Report 281 (Winter 2016).

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