It has now been nine years since protests broke out across the Middle East and North Africa. After citizens took to the streets, the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were deposed during the Arab Spring. What about Algeria - the tenth-largest country in the world, the largest in Africa and a country with the tenth-largest reserves of natural gas? Up until now, there has been no change of government since 1999, no calls for revolution despite a gross inequality of wealth and no overthrow of its leader. Understandably, Algeria has been off the media’s radar.
The country has been ripe for revolution. Economic conditions have worsened since the 1980s with declining oil prices. There has been high unemployment. Between 1988 and 1995, for example, the percentage of the population below the poverty line increased from 8 to 14 per cent. Almost 70 per cent of the poor live in rural areas.
For four consecutive Fridays, hundreds of thousands of Algerians have protested throughout the country. Revolutions can spread, such as in 1848 in Italy, France, Germany and Austria. While during the Arab Spring Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hasni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah in Yemen left power, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has remained president of Algeria. Although there were protests in Algeria in January and February 2011, he and his followers have dominated Algerian politics for two decades.
The government has provided stability. The 1991 to 2002 Algerian civil war was a devastating armed struggle between the Algerian Government and Islamic rebels. The total number of dead has been estimated at around 200,000, during what has been called the “dark decade” in Algerian history.
Memories of how the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win an election in 1992 when hundreds of thousands took to the streets have been omnipresent and reason to accept the important position of the military. Bouteflika, his circle, and the army, with obvious support from the West, have provided a buffer against fundamentalist radicalization and ensured that there would not be another “dirty war” or takeover by groups like ISIS.
History has been on Bouteflika’s side. He has been a respected leader during much of Algeria’s post-colonial era. He was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1963 to 1979 and first elected president in 1999. Despite a stroke in 2013, and his recent frail health, his four terms in office have allowed Algeria to avoid the regional chaos.
But it seems that the historic need for stability has now been overcome by calls for anyone-other-than-Bouteflika elections. His announcement that we would seek a fifth term while continuing declining health – reports had him dying or near-death last week - have proven this to be the election too far. His stay in a Geneva hospital and incapacity to be physically in Algeria to present his candidature have finally created the momentum for a radical change some 20 years after the Arab Spring.
What will happen? Bouteflika and his political party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), have dominated Algeria for twenty years with support from the West because of easy access to the considerable reserves of natural gas and oil. Post-Bouteflika is not clear. Many Algerians say they have learned the lessons of the Arab Spring; Algeria is not Syria. While the presidency of Bouteflika was superficially democratic – there were, after all, four presidential elections – the young are questioning the legitimacy of the regime in power and those around him.
Opposition political parties have been hindered by a lack of access to national television. The major news outlets have been controlled by the government. There is no well-organized institutional opposition. On the other hand, Algeria does not lack talented political leaders. Ali Benflis, former Prime Minister and twice presidential candidate has said he will not run because he doubts the legitimacy of an upcoming April election. Former Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the United Kingdom Ahmed Attaf has been active in opposition, but for the moment no major opposition candidate has stepped forward.
Even if Algeria has been off the media’s radar, there is no doubt that some preparations have gone on for the post-Bouteflika era. The current protests and the president’s worsening health have accelerated the process. But, there has been no obvious roadmap for who will take over. If the lessons of the Arab Spring have been learned within the ruling party and the demonstrators, there will be a peaceful transition. For the last twenty years, Algeria has been an exception in the region. A peaceful, democratic transition would be an exception as well.