Modern Alegria is a lot like a sports car whose engine needs a tune up. Beautiful to look at but its running slow and its dependent on fossil fuels. For the past 19 years President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has run Algeria and has run it in such a way that rarely unless it’s about football does Algeria pop up in Western headlines. Algeria is stable nation, in an unstable neighbourhood, and that stability is in large thanks to the 81-year-old President Bouteflika who enjoys support for not only ending the brutal civil war in the 90’s that saw the deaths of 200,000 Algerians but of keeping Algeria’s relationship with the Arab Spring from getting past a few protests. He did this with promises of political reforms, higher wages and quick violent police reaction and whilst the legislature has received some powers as part of the reforms Algeria remains overwhelming a country where the executive has control and the legislature is just a place with a rather delightful collection of nice chairs. Therefore, next year’s Presidential elections are so important with Algeria’s leader debellated by a stroke in 2013 and speculation over his health rife there are thoughts that he might not run again, and that Algeria may be approaching a turning point.
Algeria’s economy in recent years has been stagnant with the drop-in oil prices in 2014 showing the key weakness in the economy. That economy which relies on petro-carbon for 90% of its exports took a bigger hit then I did when the spice girls broke up. State oil company Sonatrach revenues slumped to $27.5 billion in 2016 from $60 billion in 2014. The manager of Algeria’s economy has been consistently since independence form France in 1962 been the National Liberation Front (FLN) who much like the ANC in South Africa enjoy the prestige and voter support of being the party of liberation. The FLN has implemented social subsides that have gained it wide support, with Algerians receiving help in everything from housing to healthcare. But with the price drop austerity has started to bite and the failure to expand industries other then oil has left many worried about the economic future. Youth unemployment is at over 25% and strikes have increased in recent months which whilst controlled for now could escalate. Thiers been a failure to diversify, tourism remains far behind its rival Morocco who out do them in both tourists and commercially viable rappers. This despite the fact Algeria has been blessed with beautiful beaches, Roman ruins and a rich cultural life, making one wonder if their lack of investment in tourism is just a them doing a favour for the tourism sectors of Spain and Greece. With foreign investment stifled by rules such as the government demanding a 51% share in all new businesses in the country, the attempts to encourage outside funds has met with all the success of a kale flavoured milkshake. This policy is understandable in a proud nation wary of outside control or exploitation, but it could leave Algeria struggling to attract investment all the same. A huge amount of the support for the government comes from social security and if cuts like its recently announced plans to abolish fuel subsides in 2019 continue a major pillar of the FLN powerbase will be shaken.
Alongside this is an increased apathy with the political process in Algeria in last year’s legislative election the FLN won the largest share of the seats but not enough to form a government and had to enter a coalition. Voter turnout was just 37% a trend that was reflected in the 2012 elections were turnout was 43% and less so in the 2014 presidential elections were turnout was just over 50% percent. Such increasingly low turnouts show an increasing pessimism with the government and the electoral process and could be an indicator that Algerians are tired with an electoral system that presents little real change. Two thirds of the population are under the age of thirty and feel little connection with either the generation of the 62 revolutions or with those in power behind the curtain and with unemployment among the young especially being high Algeria seems to have a generation as disaffected with politics now as they are with Pokémon Go. Ambiguity remains over whether President Bouteflika will run, though the FLN have asked him too and many on the opposition may see an opportunity to turn Algeria into a democratic nation if Algeria’s longest serving leader since independence steps down to enjoy the some much needed Netflix time.
All this might leave some commentators to end the article and get back to their rapidly cooling cup of tea considering the FLN a spent force, but they are far from it. Algeria is a nation that has had to triumph against adversity, the civil war in the 90’s, which began when Islamist parties that seemed set to take power were blocked by the government, scared the country to its core and many still remember the horrors of the “black decade” and long for stability. The FLN and the president enjoy support as well for their ability to keep Algeria’s resources Algerian in a nation that gained independence at a high cost, keeping foreign influence and control limited as in past decades has been welcome. With nearby neighbours like Libya experiencing chaos in the wake of their democratic transitions many Algerian’s are rightfully warry of rapid change seeing stability under the FLN as far superior to a leap at a democratic future few have any past with. This should not and cannot be read as Algerians not desiring democratic change, as the fore mentioned voter apathy and high migration abroad shows Algerians are tired with the current system. But they are also wise enough to be cautious and do not demand or expect rapid change, they have learned that changing national institutions can take years and will campaign to make that change happen Terrorism is another Spector that haunts Algeria with attacks still happening every few years as Islamist groups continue to fight from the mountains, and the border regions. Attacks are sporadic, but every attack brings a reminder of a past still too recent to be history. With Alegria’s large police force and the strong support the army has for the president makes any regime change by force or coup d’état especially unlikely ensuring a feeling of safety amongst the general population . It wasn’t just the lifting of the 19 year state of emergency that snowed in the Arab spring in Algeria it was economic changes, promises of interest free loans for entrepreneurs and economic aid for many of the countries isolated regions. The youth of Algeria are thinking of both their political and economic future and might continue to support any stability providing government if economic reforms and the guarantees of social security continued. Some political reforms have come with term limits for the president being re-introduced in 2016 giving some dim hope of democratic change but scepticism remains high as whether these reforms will be listened to or if they’ll be ignored like an old myspace page. With the succession of president Bouteflika most likely being quietly arranged by those in power behind the scenes, the generals and politicians of the executive, most Algerians may be content with a leader who provides them with stability, economic change and at least a wink towards democracy.
Algerians face a 2019 election with apathy and uncertainty but with the turmoil of their past and their surroundings, a stable transition could be exactly what many are looking for. Some low-level reforms have begun and if the government makes the necessary economic changes and begin to bring real change to ordinary Algerians the FLN could remain in power but with strikes continuing, the economy far from recovered and foreign investment low it will take a major shift in direction for this oasis to flourish. The FLN will undoubtdly be able to stay in power after 2019 and with economic reforms could become even stronger. But Algeria must diversify, and the political system must engage a disposed young population otherwise many Algerian’s will continue to seek their future not at the ballot box in Algiers but in the offices of Paris and London. Algeria is the second most populace country in the Arab world and with its stability has the potential to become as prosperous as any Medieterain nation and must do if its current leaders want to keep power in a nation that fifty years after it won freedom in the fire and blood of revolution is still pushing towards the bright future that its people deserve.
Article by Jonathan Rhodes