As Protests in Algeria Continue, Where is the Country Headed?

Algerians wave flags and chant slogans during an anti-government demonstration held for the ninth straight week on April 19, 2019. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

Every week since February there have been peaceful mass gatherings calling for change in Algeria. The population wishes to see their country live up to its historic reputation for liberty and independence from colonialism. While many have interpreted the protests as a continuation of the “Arab Spring,” Algeria is the only Arab country to have attempted a democratization experiment as far back as the 1990s. The current revolt, now in its ninth week, was thus in some sense predictable given Algeria’s history, while also unprecedented, hopeful, and complicated.

The rise of protests was predictable because Algeria’s economy has stagnated and its state institutions have been rotting from within for many years. The crisis is deep and multi-layered and touches all the foundations of a state where the president has been deemed illegitimate by a large segment of the population after being in power since 1999. Among the many catalysts for discontent is Algeria’s large youth unemployment rates—approximately 39 percent of young men and 28 percent of young women are unemployed. The economy itself is teetering on collapse, as the government has used oil revenues for subsidies rather than towards diversifying the economy. Since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika recently resigned, none of the clans that have run the country for years has been able to put forward a nominee to replace him, itself an indication of the lack of functioning institutions.

Although Algeria has a history of democratization attempts, these demonstrations are unique for a few reasons. A significant difference is that for the first time since the country’s independence from France in 1962, the population has gathered en masse with a single slogan: “that the whole system buzz-off.” Also, the peaceful nature of the demonstrations has allowed policies to remain the central point of discussion, especially environmental protection, gender equality, and the separation between religion and politics. The sheer number of protesters also stands out in the country’s history. By some accounts, about 12 million citizens participated in demonstrations on March 15 and the mobilization is not weakening. A significant factor is the use of social media networks, that did not exist in the 1990s.

The demonstrations also reflect the hopes and aspirations of a young populace. Over 20 percent of Algeria’s population is under 25 years old, some 8.7 million people. Over one million of them are highly educated and are expressing their aspirations for peace and development. Many are likely traumatized by the decade long civil war from 1992 to 2002.  The lessons they learned from the failed democratization attempt between 1988 and 1992 inform the extent to which they are pushing for change, and also the recognition among demonstrators that the emergence of religious extremism must be avoided. The power dynamics since the 1990s have also played a critical role in the demonstrators continuing to call for change even after Bouteflika’s resignation.

The situation is complicated because political leaders have for years unashamedly and deliberately chosen to preserve a patrimonial state at all costs. For years the government has been managed like a private enterprise, where the overriding concern is to increase the earnings of the few at the expense of the many. Throughout his twenty years in power, President Bouteflika capitalized on his image as a peacemaker after the decade-long civil war and spared no effort to create a void around him by ruthlessly repressing any challenge to his rule. This void has complicated next steps as there is still an internal struggle between the army and the security services; each holding profoundly diverging views on the ongoing democratization process. The fight between these two institutions is particularly worrying for any effort to change the government.

In these circumstances, and in spite of the maneuvers of the ruling elite around Bouteflika, the people calling for change have remained peaceful, united, disciplined, and determined. This approach has given no reason for the state to suppress the protests and to immediately move toward another authoritarian regime and the reinstatement of the state of emergency. For the first time in the country’s history, the status quo is destabilized, as evidenced by both Bouteflika’s resignation and by the revolt of officials who refuse to endorse the roadmap proposed by the interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah. Perhaps most importantly, also for the first time, the army is officially siding with citizens.

Where is This All Heading?

Given all that has transpired, there are three possible scenarios for what is to come.

The first is that presidential elections will be held on July 4 as advocated by the current road map. Such a scenario is not viable as it is deemed illegitimate by most parties and has been rejected by a number of elected officials.

The second is that the current stand-off continues and the population continues to refuse to negotiate with existing authorities. In this case, any attempts at dialogue will fall on deaf ears on both sides. Such a stalemate is fraught with uncertainties and has historically led to the failure of post-authoritarian transitions, as was the case in countries in Southern Europe and Latin America.

And a final possible scenario is that young reform-minded officers emerge from the military who would allow for the appointment of a government of technocrats. This group could then work with the existing administration and the interim president, without belonging to any political movement, with the primary mandate to begin negotiations with representatives of the “Hirak” (popular movement) on the modalities for establishing a constituent assembly. This appears to be the most likely scenario, following recent pronouncements by the Army Chief of Staff, who is seen as the arbitrator of the transition and to have even found a reformist leader that could make it happen.

The likelihood of this scenario is also consistent with research findings that point to the leadership of reformers and the support of citizens as necessary ingredients for positive political change. Developments on the ground seem to be producing such ingredients and, if they endure, they may enable Algerians to finally lay the foundations for the inclusive economic and political governance they have been yearning for.

Dr. Hayat Larbi Caro is an Algerian political scientist and the President of Eson-Conseil, a consultancy firm for emerging businesses in Africa and the Indian Ocean region.