Algeria has remained resilient to the turmoil affecting the MENA region since 2011, with the governing elites of the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika remaining firmly in control. Despite this, Algeria is facing increased pressure from a combination of challenges that may come to a head following the passing of the 79 year old President.
When the Arab Spring ravaged North Africa in 2011 and 2012, Algeria remained largely insulated from the rapidly-spreading unrest. While local protests did take place, they failed to gather a critical level of momentum and as such resulted in little change.
The Algerian economy continues to suffer from low oil prices, which in turn has led to a rise in unemployment, a devalued Algerian Dinar and an inability of the regime to continue with social spending programs aimed at tamping down social discontent. Economic pressures could also begin to negatively affect the state’s ability to fund the military and large internal security apparatus, which in turn could create vulnerabilities given the state’s long and porous borders with the lawless and armament-awash state of Libya, the conflict zone of Northern Mali, and the Tuareg smuggling routes of the wider Sahel.
Although localized discontent continues across the country along economic lines, the memory of Algeria’s bloody civil war serves to temper the older population’s appetite for anything that might risk a return to conflict. That said, 67% of Algeria’s population is now under the age of 30, and as such, memories of the civil war are giving way to unrest amongst a generation that neither remembers the civil war, nor truly replicates the older generations’ respect for a leadership cadre that gained the bulk of its credibility in Algeria’s war for independence. In addition to this, an appetite for change is fermenting in this same youth element, as poor economic prospects and declining government support leads many to question the current status quo.
In what was likely a move intended to appease this restive youth population, the Algerian government passed constitutional reforms in February 2016 to introduce ministerial term limits, changes to the selection process for the nation’s prime minister, and to prepare for the transition when the ageing President Bouteflika leaves power. Bouteflika himself remains in a state of precarious health following a stroke in 2013, and has since made only rare and carefully-managed public appearances. While the new constitution allows the popular leader to remain in power until 2019 and run for a 5th term, he has described himself as “politically tired”, and given his advanced age this weariness is unsurprising. Rumours abound that Presidential decision-making is largely conducted by his brother, Said Bouteflika.
In reality, these recent reforms are relatively superficial and are designed to deliver the desires of the ruling elites rather than the true demands of Algeria’s people. Power in Algeria has long remained in the hands of an extensive oligarchy known locally as “le Pouvoir”, which is believed to have operated behind the publicly visible façade of parliamentary politics. Prior to 2016, this group was believed to be heavily influenced by the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, the state intelligence agency. Bouteflika was likely elevated to the presidency by this very agency, most likely because the old hero of Algeria’s war of independence was assessed as being a pliable character whom would remain under the control of the agency. However, since his reelection in 2014, the President has maneuvered to dismantle the historic kingmaker of Algerian power. In 2015 the President dismissed the veteran chief of the DRS Mohamed Mediene, whose nickname was the highly-revealing “King of Algeria”. Following this, in early 2016, Bouteflika disbanded the DRS, replacing it with a new Presidentially-controlled intelligence service in what many saw as a final move to solidify the President’s power and to undo the shady backroom politics that previously defined Algeria’s political destiny. While the DRS now appears to have been thoroughly removed from political influence, how much influence remains in the hands of other more commercial-centric elements of le Pouvoir is impossible to assess.
Algeria continues to combat Islamic insurgents linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the oil-rich southern desert regions, as well as coping with spillover from the conflict in northern Mali and the influx of arms from Libya. The key challenges to Algeria in the coming years will be the transition of power should Bouteflika pass away or leave office unexpectedly, and the continued economic pressures caused by depressed oil prices and the demands of a growing youth population. If the ailing Bouteflika passes, it is uncertain whether the establishment would be able to maintain the status quo or if his death would trigger a revolt by a population feeling disenfranchised by the existing system.
In a region where the death of a lone fruit vendor can spark revolution, the passing of a President is a risk that simply cannot be ignored.
Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence officer turned private sector Geopolitical Intelligence Analyst who specialises in the Middle East and North Africa region.