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.
Govt took steps to initiate dialogue with civil society and prepare for presidential elections as weekly protests demanding radical political change carried on and military continued to pursue high-profile critics in courts. In capital Algiers and other cities, thousands of protesters continued to gather for weekly demonstrations, demanding departure of Interim President Ben Salah and PM Bedoui and end to de facto rule of army chief of staff Gaïd Salah. Following Ben Salah’s late July appointment of panel led by former parliament speaker Karim Younes to organise dialogue between govt and civil society, Younes proposed measures to ease tensions, including freeing prisoners and allowing demonstrators free access to Algiers. Gaïd Salah late July refused to allow measures. In response Younes 1 Aug tendered resignation from panel, but withdrew it same day. Younes 4 Aug announced creation of several commissions to focus on different issues and 17 Aug appointed “committee of wise men” to prepare national dialogue that should lay groundwork for presidential elections, despite some opposition groups’ preference for electing constituent assembly. Secular and Islamist opposition figures 3 Aug refused to participate in panel discussions, accusing govt of attempting to circumvent popular demands. Student protesters stormed panel’s press conference 18 Aug, demanding Ben Salah’s resignation. Military court 6 Aug issued international arrest warrant for former army chief of staff and defence minister Khaled Nezzar who had criticised Gaïd Salah on grounds of “conspiracy and breach against public order”. Authorities stepped up repression: Committee to Protect Journalists 14 Aug reported that authorities had blocked five local news websites. Authorities 19 Aug detained and deported senior staff member of NGO Human Rights Watch Ahmed Benchemsi, accusing him of “serving foreign agendas aiming at infiltrating popular protests”.
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