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Peril and Promise in Algeria

MADRID – Five years after the start of the so-called Arab Spring, the hope that initially characterized those revolutions has largely been dashed. In many cases, the revolutions have evolved into brutal and protracted internal conflicts, with no solution in sight. Amid all of this strife, the international community has paid little attention to countries like Algeria, where the revolutionary spirit was stifled while still incipient. But Algeria’s fate is back on the world’s radar – and not a moment too soon.

On February 7, Algeria’s parliament approved a new package of constitutional reforms, which, among other things, limit presidents to two terms (President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the last surviving leader of Algeria’s war of independence against France, has been in office since 1999) and recognize some fundamental freedoms. These steps, in the making since 2011, aim to strengthen Algeria’s democratic standing; but they have been widely criticized as insufficient.

What is not in doubt is that the reforms come at a sensitive time, when Algeria is plagued by political and economic uncertainty. The “consensus” that supposedly shapes Algerian politics has, in fact, paralyzed decision-making for many years now. With the ailing Bouteflika not seen in public for more than a year, important questions have emerged about how the 2019 presidential election will play out. Efforts over the last three years to curtail the power of the security and intelligence services – in September, Mohamed Mediene, who had been chief of the intelligence services since 1990, was forced to retire – are just one source and manifestation of domestic political tension.

Significant external challenges have exacerbated Algeria’s situation. In particular, with the oil and gas industry accounting for fully 97% of Algeria’s export income, the sharp decline in oil prices since June 2014 has underscored the unsustainability of the country’s economic model.