Algeria, between Arab uprisings and destabilization in the Sahel

Algeria, between Arab uprisings and destabilization in the Sahel

Omar Benderra, April 2012

The question frequently asked since the beginning of what the media calls the Arab spring: why this movement seemed to bypass Algeria? All the conditions are present for a mass expression of popular discontent. All indicators from Algeria converge towards a deep and continuous degradation of the social situation: soaring unemployment and the increasing economic distress of much of the population. Socio-economic conditions of large numbers of Algerians are even more unacceptable now that Algeria has enjoyed several years of booming oil prices after the near collapse of the 1980s and 1990s. An impressive financial opulence evidenced by record levels of foreign exchange reserves: close to two hundred billion dollars.

In a climate of corruption and racketeering, the strategy implemented by the government since the early 2000s, essentially government spending to promote growth in the non-hydrocarbon sectors, has proved ineffective. Real growth, between 2% and 3.5% per year between 2006 and 2010, is well below the minimum required to develop a productive economy and reduce unemployment. Astronomical cost overruns on gigantic but unfinished projects and the steady growth of imports, including food, evidence a failed economic policy that is dangerously crippling public accounts. Imbalances induced by such massive yet unproductive expenditures are unsustainable. Thus, the government’s radical illegitimacy is compounded by its inability to execute a development program, despite the colossal financial resources expended. Faced with complete mismanagement and stratospheric corruption, the government was forced to substantially reduce its $150 billion investment program for the 2009-2013 period.

Financial opulence, poverty and neglect

In a country where virtually no public service is working properly, Algerians are unemployed, poorly housed, poorly cared for and live with no hope of rapid improvement in their conditions. The economic and social statistics are notoriously unreliable: the official unemployment figures, which miraculously declined from 29% in 2000 to 15.3% in 2005 and 10.2% in late 2009, complaisantly relayed by the World Bank, would be mildly amusing if they did not mask a brutal reality. Despite this statistical black hole, experts estimate that the level of extreme poverty is high – over 15% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day – and income disparities are very large. Whole categories of people are simply abandoned, and the plight of cancer patients unable to find drugs for their treatment is emblematic of the criminal capture of large parts healthcare. Despite colossal financial resources, the educational system from primary school to universities is devastated.

Algeria is ranked 104 of 182 countries in the Human Development Index of the UN, a reflection of the poor governance. In fact, people are left to the negligence of a government far removed from people’s concerns and whose principal characteristics are its capacity to harm its citizens and its corruption. Not only is the “business climate” suffocating, in the words of World Bank, but there an atmosphere of constant tension fueled by living conditions which are too often humiliating. The absence of the State encourages widespread outbreaks of violence and social ills. Outside the protected areas inhabited by the privileged, the ubiquitous police fail to prevent widespread insecurity and proliferation widespread banditry. Faced with this situation, the only recourse available to “le pouvoir” to try to stem the discontent is to distribute periodically, in a regal and erratic fashion, part of the economic rent to those who reclaim it most loudly.

Repression and corruption

The ruling bureaucracy – a military-financial comprador bourgeoisie – formed around the heads of military intelligence, is based on two instruments: police surveillance and corruption. The security apparatus forms the invisible backbone of this system which, ignoring the law, empties institutions of any substance and very considerably weakens the State. Police supervision is carried out using a very tight territorial security net and police control of all institutions and organizations, whether administrative, media, economic, cultural, religious, whether or not they are nominally part of civil society. The institutional Algeria is a Potemkin village, the reality of the dictatorship hides behind a “legal” facade. The real power is outside the institutions.

The very tight police surveillance is accompanied by a strategy of fragmentation of social struggles and anesthesia by corruption. A rentier economy based on exploitation of fossil resources can indeed award grants and stipends to its clients and minimally respond to social demands by increasing the salaries in the public sector and distributing credit to unemployed youth; officially for business creation or to “youth employment”, but which are primarily used for the purchase of automobiles and other consumer goods. The orientation of a part of the rent to clients and “dangerous” social categories allows the creation of wealth and levels of conspicuous consumption unrelated to economic activity, but cannot calm massive expectations of the populace. The despair of Algerians results in the phenomenon of illegal immigration – harragas – and the multiplication of localized riots has become an almost daily eruption of spontaneous popular anger, but which is without leadership or political structures.

Political vacuum

The period of the 1990s civil war, which caused 200,000 deaths, nearly 20,000 “disappeared” and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, allowed the regime to break all representative political structures. The military junta that decided to stop the electoral process in January 1992 naturally carries the primary responsibility of a terrible bloodbath and a succession of unheard of atrocities, but some Islamist leaders certainly share the guilt in having advocated armed struggle against the coup leaders and their allies. The “dirty war” and the climate of terror that was created, allowed the dismantling of the public sector and the application of a structural adjustment program in 1994 under the aegis of the IMF, which resulted in the orientation of the economy that presently prevails.

The anti-subversive war and the procession of emergency laws that have accompanied mainly allowed the lockdown of the political process and the creation of a trompe-l’oeil political scene under police supervision. This shadow play between an opposition constituted of “cartoons characters” in as is said by Egyptian activists, and the party of “government” has no links with political realities and is simply a screen for the interest groups that effectively run the country. The war against terror, with its “legal” provisions and administration, was a way to silence any critical expression, to block any form of peaceful organization of society and to prohibit the right of demonstration and assembly.

The lifting of the state of emergency in February 2011, introduced in February 1992, is a purely formal concession following the Arab revolts and did not alter the repressive management in place since the coup of January 1992. The new laws on information and on associations confirm the restrictions on freedom of expression and repress more than in the past, the freedom of association.

Parties and associations outside the control of military intelligence before the coup of January 1992 were brought under control and their leadership co-opted. With the exception of FFS chaired by Ait-Ahmed, the political parties that are most frequently cited by a compliant press are mere extensions of the system, including those calling for a boycott of the legislative elections. Organizations of “civil society”, with the notable exception of some autonomous unions and some human rights NGOs (LADDH and SOS-missing in particular), are empty shells used to maintain the illusion to the outside world that there is a real political space in Algeria.

Algerians, not fooled in the least by the manipulations of the system, are in their vast majority oblivious to the official propaganda and have no confidence whatsoever in either the actors or institutions of the political system. Saturated by violence, Algerian society is truly anomic.

Geostrategic Fractures

It is in this extremely fragile internal situation the regime now faces changes in its immediate geostrategic environment. Social movements that have swept the Tunisian regime, presented as a model of “enlightened” authoritarian rule, and the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, have been perceived as a direct threat by the senior “deciders” of Algeria. But what has obviously baffled and stunned the generals in the intelligence service is the Western intervention in Libya. The new imperialist order gives the flavor of the days of gunboat diplomacy, while at the same time realigning its relations with the conservative and obscurantist wing of political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood under the Saudi-Qatari umbrella is no longer demonized by the West, who now see them as effective partners in the preservation of its interests in the Arab-Muslim world. Faced with the disastrous failure of “Republicans” dictatorships, the old colonialism, draping themselves new clothes of the “right to protect” can present itself as the liberator of the Arab peoples. The NATO intervention in Libya and games of influence around the Syrian crisis, the updating of relations with Islam under Wahhabi influence in Tunisia and Egypt, are all indicators for concern for “le pouvoir”. Although it always given all the guarantees the West requested, the Algerian regime is aware that the full support enjoyed so far from France and the United States could be jeopardized if the strategic calculations of these powers were to change. The Syrian situation, a “brother” regime par excellence, shows that one can be courted one day and shunned the next. Long standing alliances, including with a client regime that is cut off from its people, can be rapidly altered due to the extent of the fractures in the geostrategic region.

The hypothesis, still distant, is nevertheless reinforced by the disintegration of the Malian government and the proclamation of independence of Azawad by the Tuareg rebellion in March 2012. The evolution of the Sahelian crisis weakens the position of Algiers, charged mezzo voce by many quasi-official observers to play an assertive if ambiguous role in the Sahel. The abduction of hostages in the Sahara by terrorist organizations known to be manipulated by the Algerian secret police are all elements that fuel the suspicions about the real intentions of Algeria’s rulers vis-à-vis a very complex problem in the Sahel. In this vast hinterland transnational criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking and smuggling operate alongside jihadists of all stripes (and widely infiltrated by various secret services, regional and Western) and “normal” banditry on a background of abject poverty and marginalization of the Tuareg population. The region, immense and very difficult to control, however, is coveted for its still untapped mineral and hydrocarbon potential. The creation of the military command for Africa (Africom) in 2006, in the wake of the U.S. Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), launched in 2004, is a clear indicator of the interest of the United States in a region where the Françafrique networks with their economic interests determine the direction of very vulnerable postcolonial states.

The crisis in Mali, more than the Libyan convulsions, could have a direct impact on southern Algeria, where the temptation of autonomy, still embryonic, is fueled by the frustration of local people. The frustration of Saharan populations, including the conditions of abandonment is even greater than in the north of the country is fueled by the fact that they do not benefit from the hydrocarbon resources that are extracted from the Sahara.

Elections to prevent revolt

The structural instability of Algeria, the country’s inept governance and “excessive” corruption of its leaders are the levers that Westerners, especially Americans, use to pressure the Algerian regime and bring it to “modernize” its management of the country. The activism of the American ambassador is a case in point, by his traveling around the country lauding the parliamentary system and calling for participation in the legislative elections. The United States adapts perfectly to the fully aligned Algerian system in spite of the “nationalist” rhetoric as it lacks substance. Whether in the field of global war against terrorism or in oil, Algiers responds essentially imperial expectations. Washington understands, however, a collapse of the Algerian State and an uncontrollable social explosion could have unpredictable regional repercussions. So there is pressure to give some popular legitimacy to the electoral system that could have a more acceptable appearance for the West and prepares as much as possible, an orderly transition – or rather a facelift – towards a system that is a little more presentable and better accepted by the population.

It is under the triple constraints of endemic social discontent, winds of protest coming from the East and Western pressure, that the regime holds parliamentary elections. This time, it assures, will be free of the usual fraud. And it is quite possible that this is indeed technically the case. Politics and media are almost completely locked, annoying personalities prohibited from speaking, almost all of the authorized parties – primarily Islamic – under police control. So it is no longer necessary manipulate the polls except to exaggerate the participation of the electorate. The main obstacle lies in the very low mobilization of citizens, who know the results were always decided in advance and that the election results are those that the regime decides. The current parliamentary representation was “elected” in May 2007 with less than 15% participation (the official figure was 35.7%) and it is not at all sure that this rate will be exceeded during the legislative elections scheduled for 10 May 2012. The level of turnout is the only concern of the regime.

Can these elections change the nature of a regime whose decision center is extremely concentrated and be the start of a transition to a democratic and representative system? The answer is unequivocal: nothing will change apart from the forms. It is very likely indeed that the so-called “nationalists” parties are superseded by those who claim to political Islam. The winners and losers will both only apparatuses managed by elements selected by the political police. The Islamization of society, in its reactionary form, combining profiteering and obscurantist moralizing, does not interfere with those who hold power .This shows, once again, that the Algerian crisis cannot be summed up as an ideological confrontation between “secular modernists” and “Islamic fanatics”.
Can the constitution of a democratic facade according to formal standards of the West that satisfies the U.S. and French sponsors of the Algerian regime be enough to prevent an explosion that all feel is inevitable? In this hypothesis, does the army, whose elite and mechanized troops are first and foremost designed to maintain domestic order, keep its cohesion under the direction of the political police who supervise and manage its promotions?


The Algerian people will celebrate, the 5th of July, the fiftieth anniversary of a hard-won independence. The official Algeria will commemorate in the utmost discretion this highly symbolic anniversary. It is true that the results of half a century of almost uninterrupted dictatorship are terrible: the social and democratic republic envisioned by the revolutionaries of the 1st November 1954 has not emerged. On the contrary, the colonial order was followed by a draconian system that was both arbitrary and sterile. The story is disturbing, because it holds a very cruel mirror to those who, by diverting the Algerian revolution from its democratic course, led the country into a bloody stalemate. The divorce between the Algerian people and the system of oppression that crushes the country has long been consummated. Maintaining this direction, bearing in mind the limited Algerian resources of hydrocarbons and absolute dependence to imports, poses a serious threat to the future of the Algerian people. Algeria, exhausted by blood and violence, is a country where historic cycles are long, but the era of dictatorships inevitably draws to a close. The Algerian spring, long overdue, will eventually come.

Omar Benderra
Paris, April 2012