Analysis

Algeria’s Aging Leader Could Spark a Belated Arab Spring

Protesters are demanding that the 82-year-old Bouteflika step down due to his health and old age however Algeria’s longtime leader has support of army, elite and Europe

Algerians protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plan to extend his 20-year rule, Algiers, Algeria, March 1, 2019.
Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

With tens of thousands of demonstrators massing in Algiers and other cities in Algeria over the past three weeks, it’s natural to wonder whether the country that avoided the upheavals of the 2011 Arab Spring is on the brink of its own revolution.

The demonstrations were triggered by the announcement by the ruling party, the National Liberation Front, that incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will run for a fifth term in the April 18 election. Last month the social networks were roiling following the announcement of his candidacy, as tens of thousands of surfers demanded that he leave the race. From the networks, the protesters spilled into the streets, carrying placards reminiscent of those carried by demonstrators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya eight years ago.

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In theory, the 41 million Algerian citizens could wait until the election to determine who will be their president, as they did in the four previous elections, since Bouteflika was first elected in 1999. But elections in Algeria are far from free. The 82-year-old Bouteflika, who is known to be ill, has the support of the military and intelligence services, as well as the country’s tycoons, so he could very well win the election and continue for another term.

His opponents argue that the president’s health and age (he hasn’t appeared in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013) do not permit him to lead the country and implement the necessary economic reforms. They are already demanding that parliament implement Article 102 of the country’s constitution, which allows the temporary transfer of power to the chairman of the upper house of parliament in the event of the president’s being incapacitated for health or other reasons. In short, they want elections without Bouteflika.

FILE Photo: Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seen on a wheelchair as he casts his vote at a polling station in Algiers during parliamentary elections, May 4, 2017.
AFP

The power centers in the military understand and in some cases even identify with the protest movements, but fear what will happen the morning after. The horrific collective memory of the early 1990s is resurfacing. Then, there were huge demonstrations due to the difficult economic situation; the government’s austerity policy set the streets alight and the Islamic movements rode the wave of protest and won the local elections. The army, alarmed at the prospect of the country being controlled by Islamic radicals, canceled the general elections in 1991 and appointed its own government. That’s what launched “the black decade,” during which civil war killed some 200,000 people.

Bouteflika spent 16 years in exile in Switzerland, where he had fled to avoid prosecution for massive embezzlement. In 1999, he was returned to his homeland as a sort of national hero and was elected president by a 74 percent majority. His great achievement was establishing a national dialogue in which he suggested that all sides “forget the past and build the future together.” The Islamic movement leaders were pardoned, the economy recovered, boosted by rising oil prices, the government invested in infrastructure and revived exports to Europe, which gets about a third of its gas from Algeria, and order was restored.

But along with the economic boom came oppression and curbed freedom of expression. During this period, strict censorship was instituted and the control of the intelligence agencies was absolute. Bouteflika gave the country a fine window to the world: He cultivated ties with Western countries, attracted foreign investment, and gave the elites a free hand. The full coffers and the large foreign exchange reserves allowed the government to buy quiet by subsidizing the prices of basic goods, which is how the state weathered the political storms of 2011. Citizens received interest-free loans, tens of thousands of clerks, soldiers and police were absorbed into the government, and a housing plan for young couples managed to block the revolutionary winds that threatened to sweep the country.

Although order was restored returned and the management of the economy seemed successful, the absolute dependence on oil and gas exacted a high economic and political price. In 2014, oil prices plunged. State oil revenues dropped from $74 billion in 2007 to $24 billion in 2017. Foreign currency reserves dropped from $178 billion in 2014 to $97 billion at the start of 2018. Unemployment jumped to 12 percent, and among young people, who make up more than half the population, it’s 29 percent. The economy grew an anemic 0.8 percent last year, the budget deficit is expected to be 10 percent of GDP and the country’s trade deficit is 12.5 percent. It’s a crisis economy that requires deep reforms and strong political control to be able to implement them.

The country’s military, political and economic elite, however, never allowed the emergence of new leaders of stature who could take on the role of president. Anyone who stood out too much found himself outside the circle of decision makers. Right now, there is seemingly no one to replace Bouteflika.

Both the army and Europe want to keep Bouteflika in office. France, Italy and Spain need Algerian gas and oil and see the country as an essential barrier blocking the flow of refugees from Africa. Algeria, which fights terrorist organizations, also stops groups like Al-Qaida from making inroads overseas.

But these countries have little influence on the internal politics of Algeria. Bouteflika’s campaign manager announced on Sunday night that the president will run in April’s elections, but would offer to step down a year later if he is re-elected.The president’s insistence on seeking a fifth term is likely to intensify the stormy wave of demonstrations, compelling the army and police to act forcefully and perhaps even impose emergency rule..