Spring-Loaded Algeria

ALGIERS – More than a year has passed since the Arab Spring dawned in the Maghreb, yet the promised political renaissance in the region has not materialized. Although Tunisia, the movement’s birthplace, held multi-party elections in November 2011, disillusionment runs high. And, while presidential elections are expected to be held in Egypt this month, Tahrir Square remains a theater of bloody protests against the military council that has ruled since former President Hosni Mubarak’s fall.

For Libya, where general elections will be held next month, the situation has become alarming. The National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim government, has lost control of the country. Tribal and militia leaders in oil-rich eastern Libya declared autonomy in March, and violent clashes between armed groups persist.

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Meanwhile, Algeria, often touted as the next country that would get swept up by the Arab Spring, seems to have taken a different tack, favoring a slightly modified status quo over full-blown revolution. Indeed, although protests began on December 29, 2010, and went so far as a wave of self-immolations in January 2011, the spark of revolution faded after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was wise enough not to stifle unrest with force, made concessions – including, most importantly, an end to the 19-year state of emergency.

Further concessions by Bouteflika’s party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has ruled Algeria since independence in 1962, included decreasing oil and sugar prices, pumping billions of dinars into the ailing economy in order to sustain rises in salaries, subsidies, and other income assistance to the population. Moreover, the FLN pushed much-needed political reforms through parliament.

Last week, in Algeria’s parliamentary election, the FLN maintained its grip on power, winning 220 of 462 seats, while its governing partner, the National Democratic Rally, won 68. International monitors and Western leaders have lauded the elections, which the Arab League deemed “free and transparent” and the European Commission called “a step forward in the reform process that started in April 2011.”

But looks can be deceiving – and not all Algerians are convinced. The Algerian National Front, which received nine seats, has denounced the entire process as fraudulent, and has formally requested that the elections be invalidated. Louisa Hanoue, a spokesperson for the Workers’ Party, said, “The Algerians are not such masochists as to vote massively for the FLN. There was no case of massive fraud….[I]t was much worse, a real coup de force.” The Socialist Workers’ Party leader, Mahmoud Rachedi, reinforced this view, saying that the future parliamentary assembly lacks legitimacy.

Moreover, the 57% of the Algerian population that stayed home seem to share this lack of trust in the forces of change and reform. “Why should I bother to vote when all politicians have left us to flounder in extreme poverty?” asked Ibrahim, a driver. Kamel, a municipal employee, echoed this sense of disenchantment: “I will not vote for any one of them so that they can earn 18 times my salary for doing nothing.”

Disappointed in their political leaders, Algerians’ unity stems in large part from their shared love of football. The stars of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Milan are household names. But exposure to foreign television stations also means that many disillusioned Algerians are looking towards escape to Italy, France, or Germany as their only hope of employment and a decent life.

Will the coming months bring genuine change to Algeria? Will social and economic reforms be implemented to ensure an equitable distribution of the country’s oil and gas wealth?

Only time will tell. What is certain, though, is that the longer Algeria remains politically polarized and economically stagnant, the greater the risk of rekindling the Algerian spring – and fueling a very hot summer.