Politically Adrift, Algeria Clings to Its Old Ways

Politically Adrift, Algeria Clings to Its Old Ways

Carlotta Gall, The New York Times, November 8, 2013

The 76-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 14 years into his tenure, has not addressed the nation in more than a year and is chair-bound since suffering a stroke in April. Since then, he has held just three meetings with foreign dignitaries. Outside a tight circle, no one is even sure if he still speaks. Still, the ruling National Liberation Front, clinging to stability in a chaotic region, is backing Mr. Bouteflika for a fourth term in presidential elections set for April.

Before a postponement was announced because of the Iran nuclear negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to visit here on Sunday, but it was not clear that he would have met the president. Mr. Kerry’s mission to persuade this critical strategic partner — with vast oil wealth, a powerful army and intelligence service, and experience in fighting Islamic terrorism — to take a more assertive role in the region will be no easy task.

“Algeria should be a big actor in this part of the world, but it is not playing its role,” Ihsane el-Kadi of Maghreb Emergent, an online business publication, said in an interview. “It is still a closed country.”

Indeed, critics and other observers say the generation of leaders who won Algeria’s independence from France in 1962 and still run the country half a century later will continue to resist any change. A civil war against Islamic extremists in the 1990s — at the cost of about 200,000 lives — has left the population wary of change, too. The result has been that a variety of problems, like a prostrate economy and declining levels of education, have been left to fester and now threaten to undermine the country’s future and even eventual stability.

The government’s paralysis is among the most apparent symptoms of the nation’s malaise and of the leadership’s wariness of political transition. Just how the country is run, and by whom, is so opaque that diplomats and journalists say they are reduced to an Algerian version of Kremlin watching.

A clutch of army generals, intelligence officials and aides, including Saïd Bouteflika, the president’s brother, surrounds the president, and only loyalists are promoted. Algerians, generally, do not talk of government in this still largely Francophone country, but rather refer simply to it as “le pouvoir” — or the power.

Since January, when Algeria experienced firsthand the lawlessness spreading anew from neighboring Libya when Islamists seized hostages at the gas plant at In Amenas in the south, the government has stepped up security along its borders and American interest in security cooperation to combat Al Qaeda’s spread across North Africa has increased.

“We took the decision to strengthen our borders,” said Amara Benyounes, the minister of industrial development and investment. “It is costing us a lot, but is important. We are condemned to be very vigilant.”

But some here warn that, on the domestic front at least, the government has shown a surfeit of vigilance against political and economic opening as social tensions and sporadic rioting keep building. Despite Algeria’s oil wealth, residents complain of inflation, rising crime and a lack of opportunity. Economists bemoan economic stagnation and stifling bureaucracy that make Algeria one of the most difficult places to do business.

There are frequent strikes, and localized riots flare up constantly all over the country. Unemployment, officially 10 percent, is in reality closer to 30 percent, according to Rachid Tlemcani, professor in international politics and regional security at the University of Algiers. The police recorded 11,000 riots or outbreaks of public unrest of some kind in 2011, he said. Since then the trend has grown uglier. “In the past these riots were more or less under control, but it is reaching the point where no one is controlling them,” Professor Tlemcani said.

Ahmed Benbitour, a former prime minister and presidential contender, warns of trouble among the middle classes, too. “We have 1.5 million students at university,” he said. “Each year 300,000 graduates come on to the jobs market. Can we create 300,000 jobs?”

He said the country was “heading toward an explosion.”

Government ministers insist that Algerians — still traumatized from a civil war that was in many ways a harbinger of the chaos that has roiled the country’s neighbors since the Arab Spring — do not want experiments. And most Algeria watchers say that with or without Mr. Bouteflika, the system of power will not be derailed.

“The country is not run by one man, it is a group of people,” a Western diplomat said, speaking on the usual diplomatic condition of anonymity. But how long the leadership can continue to buy social peace without political change may be the most pressing question facing the country.

Demonstrations are not permitted in the capital, and police enforcement is strong. The government commonly answers the rioting — over electricity, jobs and other services usually in outlying suburbs or other cities — through payouts to public sector workers, subsidies, and programs to support entrepreneurs and small businesses. When the unemployed recently began organizing in the south, the government offered some of the angry young men jobs with the police.

The government similarly manages the news media and political scene — allowing multiparty politics but manipulating the opposition, co-opting some and undermining others. The main Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, which swept the 1992 elections, remains outlawed. Other Islamists have been offered inducements to participate in legislative and local elections that few believe are free or fair.

Sensing the mood, some opposition figures are cautiously preparing to challenge Mr. Bouteflika at the polls. Political parties must harness the glaring sense of injustice or see chaos take hold anew, they say.

The old-line rulers have nothing in common with the younger generation, whose members are often better educated and have traveled abroad, said Soufiane Djalil, who last year registered a new political party, Jil Jadid, or New Generation. “People of 20, 30 and 40 do not have the same vision,” he said in an interview. “There is a whole new generation that still does not know its strength but it has an extraordinary power.”

Like everyone, it will await the political succession and word from Mr. Bouteflika, who has not been heard to speak since a two-month hospitalization in France. “Since he went to Paris in April,” Professor Tlemcani said, “no one has heard his voice.”