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Will The Arab Spring Ever Reach Algeria?

Article illustrative image Partner logo Algerian security services clashed with youth demonstrating over high unemployment and food prices.

- Editorial -

PARIS - A revolution is a riot that has succeeded. A riot is a revolution that has failed...

For the second time since 1990, Algeria has missed another rendezvous with history, the Arab Spring. Like Saudi Arabia, it remained mostly extraneous to the unrest that overwhelmed the Arab world and led to the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in neighboring Tunisia in Jan. 2011, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt the following month, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in October, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen last February. A similar fate appears to be drawing closer for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Paradoxically, all the ingredients for a regime change can be found in Algeria. Just like in Egypt and several other Arab countries, "Algeria is facing demographic pressure, a police state, a private company and there has been no significant reform," recently noted Bruce Riedel from the Brookings Institution, a former CIA officer and adviser to the White House.

Yet these ingredients were not enough to create a significant movement. The wave of protests of Jan. and Feb. 2011 against the soaring food prices was marked by riots and demonstrations despite tight police control. But aside from the lifting of the state of emergency, it did not lead to any deep institutional change.

Just like the King of Morocco, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave the "illusions of reforms" without creating any significant change in the country, notes Barah Mikail from the European think tank FRIDE (Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior).

If these social movements are frequent (10,000 were reported in 2012), "they are a short, weak and geographically limited," as showed Louisa Dris-Aït Hamadouche in one of her studies. According to this political analyst from the University of Algiers, "they can arise for any pretext: a soccer game, public housing distribution, a power outage or the revocation of someone's driving license." Yet they fail to gain the momentum they did in several other Arab countries.

A rich country

The first reason for this relative restraint lies in the trauma of the “black decade”– the civil war between the Islamists and the government that led to the deaths of more than 100,000 people after the cancellation of the 1991 elections that would have been won by the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF). This may explain why the desire for a securitarian approach is so strong in Algeria today. The war in Libya and its aftermath, the growth of terrorist cells in the Sahel as well as in Northern Mali, have also enhanced this sentiment. "Algerians prefer stability. This explains a certain adhesion of the population to the current regime," says Barah Mailkai. A sign of this was the clear victory of the former single party NLF (National Liberation Front) in last May's election. 

Yet this is not enough to explain why the population hasn’t experienced as much unrest as its neighbors. Algeria is a rich country. According to the International Monetary Fund, which just borrowed $5 billion from Algeria to refund its emergency rescue funds, the country’s foreign reserves are actually at $205 billion, with a public debt that is under 9% of the GDP. This financial situation allows the government to maintain subsidies and "buy itself" a relative social peace – like in Saudi Arabia. According to many analysts, the situation of the Algerian people is better on average than the Moroccan's, although there are still huge disparities – especially amongst young people, who are the worst hit by unemployment. 

Another reason is the fragmentation of the representation within society. The government has encouraged the multiplication of associations and trade unions – that they have failed to structure in a single force. Writer Mohamed Kacimi also blames the absence of a real elite, despite the "existence of scattered and isolated voices here and there." In an interview with daily newspaper El Watan, he said: "Algerian society has been undermined and broken up by the colonial presence,” and then by the civil war "that dismantled civilian society and decimated the intelligentsia." This is different than Tunisia and Egypt, where "the backbone of society is stronger, thanks to its cultural, social and economic bases." 

Another – more complex – factor for this lifelessness lies in the tight police control of the society as well as the fact that Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been head of state since 1999 and is considered to be "a sort of shelter value," as Barah Mikail puts it. His removal would probably lead to a period of uncertainty.

Although Algeria did not have its Arab Spring, no one can exclude a brutal awakening. Income from gas has its limits and it is not sure if this income can be guaranteed with shale gas – something the country is believed to have plenty of. On top of that, Algerian society remains deeply unequal and ridden by corruption. The weakness of the political parties in the opposition should not hide the fact that Algerians are extremely politicized. And finally, who had foreseen the awakening of the Arab World in 2010?

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France's top business daily, Les Echos covers domestic and international economic, financial and markets news. Founded in 1908, the newspaper has been the property of French luxury good conglomerate LVMH (Moet Hennessy - Louis Vuitton) since 2007.

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