In addition to a looming succession crisis, Algeria faces multiple political, economic and social challenges. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ruled the country without contest since 1999 but has been gravely ill since a stroke in 2014. With no clear heir, his succession could be troubled and worsen Algeria’s ability to tackle mounting economic challenges as oil income dwindles. This would deprive the wider region – particularly the Sahel – of an important stabilising presence. Through fieldwork in Algeria and engagement with senior officials, Crisis Group works to increase the likelihood of peaceful political transition and enhance Algeria’s contribution to stability and conflict resolution in a troubled neighbourhood.
A groundswell of popular unrest has ended Bouteflika’s twenty-year rule and brought Algeria to a fork in the road. The regime should embark on substantive reforms and enter dialogue with protest leaders in order to prevent the cycle of mass protests and repressive counter-measures spiralling out of control.
Following President Bouteflika’s resignation early April, nationwide weekly protests called for end of military’s control of transition and continued to grow, raising risk of more violent confrontation and political instability in coming weeks. After five weeks of protests, Bouteflika resigned 2 April; leader of upper house of parliament Abdelkader Bensalah was declared interim president for three months to prepare for presidential elections. Authorities 8-11 April suppressed protests in capital Algiers in bid to regain control, using tear gas and water cannon and arresting 108; having been forced out, protesters 12 April retook Grande Poste Square. Despite increased repression, hundreds of thousands took part in Friday demonstrations 5, 12, 19 and 26 April throughout country, many shouting slogans against army Chief of General Staff Gaïd Salah and security forces. Twelve autonomous unions 12 April joined demonstrations and went on strike. 100 magistrates 13 April announced they would boycott supervision of upcoming presidential election; in Bouira city, about 100km south east of Algiers, lawyers 17 April organised march demanding end of regime. In Hassi Messaoud and Hassi R’Mel, both in centre, oil and gas workers 14 April went on strike to support protest movement. Civil society organisations and activists 13 April called for citizen committees to work toward democratic transition. Several Islamist and centre-left opposition parties 16 April jointly called for election boycott in absence of reforms, including creation of independent election commission. Authorities removed some regime figures from power: Algerian media 1 April published list of businessmen under investigation for corruption; authorities 22 April arrested Algeria’s richest man Issad Rebrab and four brothers from influential Kouninef family; head of Constitutional Council Tayeb Belaiz resigned 16 April. Ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party 30 April named 50-year-old businessman Mohamed Djemai as new leader.
Political paralysis in oil-dependent Algeria has blocked much-needed economic reform. To avoid a new era of instability, the government should increase transparency and accountability within state institutions and the private sector, as well as improve opportunities for the country’s burgeoning youth.
As waves of protests have hit the hydrocarbon-rich Algerian south since 2013, authorities maintained a tenuous peace through handouts, repression and policing. To calm tensions, the state needs to clarify policies, communicate with local protestors and address underlying issues of governance.
Algeria has emerged as an indispensable broker of stability in North Africa and the Sahel. But, especially as it enters a generational transition in domestic politics, it needs better strategies to deal with financial pressures, a neighbourhood in turmoil, cross-border jihadi threats, and ongoing tensions with France and Morocco. It should also resolve a presidential succession that is paralysing institutions.
This is the third of a series of briefings and reports on Islamism in North Africa. The first provided general background on the range and diversity of Islamic activism in the region, and subsequent papers examine with respect to particular states, the outlook and strategies of the main Islamist movements and organisations, their relations with the state and each other and how they have evolved. The analysis focuses on the relationship between Islamic activism and violence, especially but not only terrorism and the problem of political reform in general and democratisation in particular.
Islamism, terrorism, reform: the triangle formed by these three concepts and the complex and changeable realities to which they refer is at the centre of political debate in and about North Africa today.
The army and intelligence services [in Algeria] are still important but not as an autonomous pole of power.
Protests in Algeria are not about rule by one man but a system. One that has empowered a business class with close links to the state while progressively stifling economic and political liberties and excluding an earnest, educated youth.
Refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, have long been run by the Polisario movement, which seeks an independent state in Western Sahara, also claimed by Morocco. But a new generation of Sahrawi refugees is growing fractious as aid dwindles and diplomatic efforts fail to deliver a settlement.
Originally published in Slate Afrique