Algeria's revolutionary revival gives hope of reconnecting with the Arab Spring legacy, writes Eleftheria Kousta
Algeria’s President of 20 years, Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on Wednesday following weeks of mass protests across the country. Bouteflika planned on running for a fifth term but was forced to resign after growing pressure from the streets. Protesters have refused to leave it at that, and will continue to take to the streets until the entire government – which was just appointed last week - is ousted.
Algeria seems to have the recipe for disaster: oil rich, Salafi insurgents, early memories of intra-civil violence and a fragmented political system with a president who until today just didn’t want to quit. Well not quite, the People's Republic of Algeria still has the opportunity to shine as the child of an Arab Spring that turned into a bloodbath.
A little history
Algeria's deadly past can be traced back to the 60s war of independence, where revolutionaries and the Algerian people managed to rid the country from French colonial rule. Their independence didn't came easy, with up to 1 million Algerians killed, but it was a heroic victory against the French state.
Revolutionary fervour did not last long, as those that took control found that oil sales spoke louder than ideals and Algeria moved away from it's socialist foundations and eventually geared its economy towards western-style capitalism and open markets in 1989.
The following decade signalled a new round of violence where more than 200,000 people lost their lives. The context was a cancelled election and a military coup after the party of Islamists was set to win the elections. Although greatly contained, insurgency by terrorist groups hasn't been completely eradicated and in some cases it has managed to challenge the government and inflict attacks on civilians.
Eventually, Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power as the president of the reconciliation government in 1991. Algerians exhausted by the experience of civil strife and nationwide violence were keen to accept the new government and move on with rehabilitating the country from the destruction it suffered. However, as the economy stagnated and unemployment prevailed, President Bouteflika amended the constitution in 2008 in order to remove two-term limits to the presidency and effectively be the country's de-facto life time dictator. Although elections continue to be held, they are largely fragmented and opposition is miniscule.
The drivers of change
Algeria has a population of 43 million and one of the youngest populations in the world, but also has unemployment figures reaching as high as 30% - at the same time that the economy was expanding by 4% because of the recovery of the oil and gas sector. While the country itself is vastly rich due to its resources, the oil sector has not redistributed gains to most citizens, as is often the case with this industry. As of 2016, plummeting oil prices led to the Algerian government seeking out foreign investors and extending reserve privatisation. In the spirit of 2011, Algeria followed the lead of their neighbours and people occupied the streets, demands ranged from eradicating inequality, jobs and bettering living standards, diminishing poverty to complete government change. However, as the bloodbaths of Syria and Libya proceeded, protests were significantly toned down, but never completely disrupted, as Algerians continued to organise on local level.
Back in the present
As the Bouteflika presidency survived the first round of protests in 2011, prospects for positive change were not altered significantly. At the time, Algerians, who have known the struggles of national disorder, seemed to prefer to save the fight for another day. What we experience now in 2019 is their bounce back into the arena. Protests began after Bouteflika, severely disabled by a stroke, announced that he would run for a fifth term in April's elections. After his condition deteriorated and his public appearances declined, Algerians have been concerned about who is actually running the government as transparency is non-existent at this point. In this pretext, Algerians are out in the streets again coming closer and closer to finish what they started back in 2011.
The prospect of a democratic Algeria
Although Algeria has a number of destabilising factors that would wreck havoc anywhere else, opportunities for a peaceful transition are very real and ultimately attainable. First of all, although low-level Islamist insurgency exists, the Algerian working class is widely unified in their cause. Moreover, aversion to violence and state collapse that motivated them to abandon their first efforts in 2011 are in the past and the fact that local organising never stopped - and instead adopted a more gradual approach - means that Algerians are ready to proceed into the transition smoothly and the regime is more likely to concede to people's demands now that Bouteflika has resigned.
Having said that, it is unlikely that Algeria will immediately bounce back from recession. What can be done, is ensuring a representative and transparent government that listens to its people replaces the falling regime. But ultimately, how far the movement will go will depend on whether or not it can combine political demands for democracy with class-based economic demands that ensure whatever leadership comes out of transition ensures redistribution of the country’s wealth.
The other potential problem facing Algerians is the role of the military. Currently, the military plays a significant role in the government, and military chief Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah joined the calls for Bouteflika to resign. Among the demands of the people is a democratic system that removes (or at least significantly reduces) the military’s influence in the running of the country, so it seems unlikely that the people will go along with a military coup. The danger is, however, that things play out like they did in Egypt where protests against Morsi were coopted by the military who ousted the President and then swiftly implemented junta rule under General Sisi who remains in power today.
Unlike during the Arab spring, it so far looks like US involvement in trying to shape the outcome might be limited, partly due to the decline of the oil industry, but whether this holds or not is yet to be seen. The EU, on the other hand, are likely to be keeping a close eye on developments in Algeria. Through its border agency Frontex, the EU has all but moved its (highly militarised) border to North Africa and will be looking to any new government to support them in stopping sub-Saharan refugees crossing the Mediterranean.
What happens now in Algeria is the momentum of years of struggles, agitation and organising. If Algeria manages to democratise without foreign interference or state collapse, it will set out an example for all of the Middle East and North Africa, sending out the message that people power works. Algerian democracy potentially means reconnecting with the legacy of the Arab Spring.
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