Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Algeria’s Dying Dictatorship

ALGIERS – Despite his failing health, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika won a fourth term last month, with 81% of the vote – or so the regime claimed. In fact, far from signaling growing political stability, the 77-year-old incumbent’s sham victory underscores just how few options Algerians have to effect change from within the system.

Under Bouteflika’s leadership, Algeria’s government has failed to address the country’s most pressing economic and social challenges. And there is no reason to expect this to change. Since suffering a stroke last year, Bouteflika has barely appeared in public, whether to campaign ahead of the vote or to acknowledge his victory after it.

As a result, the regime is finding it increasingly difficult to claim, as it has for the last 15 years, that Bouteflika’s leadership represents civilian control over the military. So it has devised a new strategy, aimed at creating a sense of transition: the constitution will be revised to designate a vice president as the president’s legitimate successor. Of course, the move’s true purpose will be to allow the army to rally around the next compliant “civilian leader.”

The regime will also propose a “national contract,” supposedly to initiate a dialogue with the opposition. But, in the wake of Bouteflika’s bogus victory, the opposition can no longer accept a sham role in the regime’s reform plans.

In fact, the announcement that Bouteflika planned to run was enough to unite Islamists and leftists – even parties that had previously been co-opted by the regime – and spur them to stage a boycott of the vote. When the election results were announced, they swiftly rejected the new government as illegitimate.

But, to gain credibility, the opposition parties will have to extend their criticism beyond Bouteflika to the system as a whole. This has become crucial to their survival, as younger opponents are seeking new ways to bring about political change outside state-controlled politics.

One important development is the growing influence of non-partisan voices of dissent. Non-violent movements have formed to protest not only Bouteflika’s continued leadership, but also the pervasive role of the army and intelligence services in civil society. Such movements, like the much-publicized Barakat (“Enough”), have encouraged a shift among Algerians from resentful abstention to active boycott.

Underground unions – which mount demonstrations and strikes to protect workers’ rights, while refusing to cooperate with the regime’s official unions – have also criticized the election. Moreover, young people have assumed a prominent role in opposition efforts, such as by disrupting Bouteflika’s campaign rallies. Demonstrations by unemployed young people in southern Algeria, the center of the oil industry, drew a direct link between high unemployment and the military’s control of the country’s natural resources.

By organizing peaceful protests to demand accountability for public spending, these movements are raising issues that were not addressed during the election campaign. More immediately, they are also challenging the government’s ban on street demonstrations – a vestige of the state of emergency that lasted from 1992 until 2011. With the civil war of the 1990’s long over, security officials cannot explain why Algerians are being arrested for demanding jobs.

Of course, repression continues to intimidate many Algerians. But it is becoming increasingly easy to rouse their sympathy for their fellow citizens through Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. By stimulating daily public debate about local human-rights violations, they spread the message of discontent more efficiently than traditional parties ever have.

By demanding better state services, rather than an “Arab Spring,” Algerians have walked a fine line, highlighting the regime’s inability to deliver security and economic prosperity, despite its efforts to stifle all debate. Thus, even without explicitly talking about politics, ordinary Algerians are mobilizing in growing numbers against the government.

The majority of street protests have occurred in the most deprived and neglected areas, and the primary demands have been economic: better jobs, housing, health-care services, and infrastructure. For some, the right to make a living through the informal market would be sufficient.

And demonstrators have gone to great – sometimes destructive – lengths to be heard, blocking roads, occupying factories and government buildings, and sabotaging water and electricity infrastructure. More than 150 Algerians have even set themselves on fire since 2011, usually in front of public services buildings.

In this context, the failure of the government’s half-baked attempts to buy off protesters is unsurprising. In 2011, the government, fearing contagion from Tunisia and Egypt, where long-established dictatorships had just been toppled, responded to the spread of protests by public-sector workers by raising their salaries by 100% – retroactively to 2008. But the plan backfired; protests intensified, with other workers demonstrating for similar benefits and railing against the inflation that the move engendered.

To be sure, street protests have already had a profound impact on Algeria’s authoritarian politics, with official fears of massive uprisings affecting public budgets and political appointments. But the decision to prolong Bouteflika’s presidency will not provide the kind of strong, transformational leadership that Algeria needs to materialize the regime’s stability promises. 

The Algerian authorities face a major challenge, because rejection of pluralist institutions makes it more difficult to find negotiating partners. The more the regime tries to buy off the protesters, the more overweening it appears – and the angrier citizens become. And the enraged younger generation, in particular, is not especially fearful of losing the limited benefits offered by the status quo.

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