At 60, Algeria’s Aging Regime Shows No Sign of Letting Go

At 60, Algeria’s Aging Regime Shows No Sign of Letting Go
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaks with the press ahead of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Algiers, Algeria, March 30, 2022 (AP photo by Jacquelyn Martin).
On July 5, Algeria celebrated the 60th anniversary of its independence with a military parade in the capital city, Algiers, complete with tanks, helicopters and missile launchers, moving along roads lined with the national flag. The event was meant to celebrate a pivotal day in 1962, when the country officially bucked French colonial rule after fighting a brutal, eight-year war of liberation. But for many, the vision of military hardware parading across the capital that sunny, summer day served instead as a reminder of all that has gone wrong since independence. According to Mourad Ouchichi, a professor of political science at the University of Bejaia, the display was designed for both international and domestic consumption. “On the one hand, it aimed to portray Algeria as a regional power. But it also wanted to showcase that the army and the people are together as one, which is a fallacy,” Ouchichi said. “I think many Algerians looked at it as a joke, rather than [seeing] the seriousness and pomp that the army wanted to project.” Indeed, the military celebration comes at a time of great dissatisfaction for Algerians. Six decades after liberation, many of the expectations for what independence would bring to Algeria—freedom, prosperity and equality—have been met with disappointment. The military is still in power, running an aged autocratic system that primarily benefits a small group of political elites, at the expense of Algeria’s economic and social potential. The Hirak protest movement in 2019 presented the largest threat to this established order in decades, pushing long-ruling President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to resign. But now, the army’s grip on power looks stronger than it has in years, and restrictions on freedoms are increasingly enforced. As a result, popular discontent is mounting again across the country. Inflation has reached double digits, and a lack of investment in water infrastructure, combined with drought, has repeatedly led to water rationing in some major cities and rural areas. Unemployment has been climbing over recent years, aggravated by COVID-19’s impact on businesses and the government’s subsequent dysfunctional economic policies. And Algeria’s young people—the country’s largest demographic, with 70 percent of the population under 30—have been struggling in the country’s barren cultural and social landscape amid a lack of opportunities, without any hope for a better future. This is why many continue to risk their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. In its essence, the modern-day Algerian state is a product of what could be called the “nationalization” of colonialism. In its infancy, newly independent Algeria actually enjoyed immense political clout and influence. Its revolution was studied and emulated by independence movements across the world. As one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement—the cohort of postcolonial states that sought their own, neutral paths during the Cold War’s U.S.-Soviet rivalry—Algeria hosted revolutionaries and freedom fighters from all over the world, even running training camps for South Africans fighting against the apartheid regime. But that image masked the fact that, shortly after the French authority was kicked out, power—and eventually the management of the country’s massive hydrocarbon resources—was taken over by a domestic grouping of generals, single-party apparatchiks and secret service operatives. This politico-military elite, divided among opposing but oligarchic political clans, has enforced decades of authoritarianism and economic mismanagement. Today, Algeria’s international credibility has been bruised. Although it is Africa’s biggest country in size and a key hydrocarbons exporter to Europe, it often opts for a diplomatically distant posture and remains distrustful of excessive international cooperation. And it is still managed by a retrograde regime that constantly speaks of foreign plots in order to keep the army at the center of power. Unlike many other postcolonial nations, it has yet to experience a generational change or evolution in leadership, with the generals continuing to rule behind the thin veneer of democratic rule provided by the presidency.

While Algeria’s regime falsely claims legitimacy from the past, it has consistently failed to offer answers for the problems of the present.

And while the ruling regime falsely claims legitimacy from the past, it has consistently failed to offer answers for the problems of the present. After the Hirak movement’s initial success in pushing Bouteflika from office, the military staged an election in which nearly all the candidates had ties to Bouteflika’s rule, leading Hirak protesters to call for a boycott. The new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune—who had held several ministerial posts under Bouteflika, culminating in his appointment as prime minister in 2017—was eventually elected in December 2019 in a vote with a historically low turnout. Tebboune’s government has largely attempted to give the impression of reform, without changing much in the way the country is actually run. For instance, in 2020, the judicial system pursued politicians linked to the old guard in high-profile corruption cases. But at the same time, the government  targeted Hirak protesters for arrest and used the emerging coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to pass new laws that further restricted freedom of speech and assembly. To this day, according to Ouchichi, it isn’t possible to organize a conference or a meeting without permission. “The measures put in place to fight COVID-19 were kept for political and cultural events as a mechanism to prevent any organizing of opposition forces,” he added. As many as 266 political prisoners linked to the 2019 protest movement are still in jail, according to Amnesty International Algeria. Even as Tebboune issued presidential pardons to some political detainees earlier this month, his regime has continued to detain new activists and government critics. Some of them have been accused of “using social media for subversive ends,” while others have spent time in jail for acts as benign as “participating in gatherings.” Meanwhile, external events have also benefited the country’s entrenched political elites. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year and the subsequent spikes in energy prices have improved Algeria’s bargaining power with Europe as the latter seeks to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. Sonatrach, the state-owned energy company, projects that Algeria will earn $50 billion from exporting hydrocarbons this year, compared to $35.4 billion in 2021 and $20 billion in 2020. After years of combined fiscal and current account deficits following a historic collapse in oil prices in 2014, the Algerian regime is reaping the financial gains of higher hydrocarbons prices, somewhat assuaging the generals’ fears about their own future. However, there is little chance that any of this new money will truly improve life for most Algerians. While the government did begin distributing new unemployment benefits in March 2022, no real measures have been implemented to reduce the cost of living. This is a pattern that has been repeated in Algeria again and again. In the previous oil super-cycle until 2014, for instance, authorities used some of the surging revenues to build transportation infrastructure, while doing little to fundamentally change the nature of the economy. Although the government talks about economic diversification, the financial cushion the regime is once again building will mostly be channeled to maintain its patronage networks and tamp down public anger to keep any threats to the regime at bay. Despite the portrayal of cohesion and solidarity to mark its 60 years of independence, Algerians—increasingly burdened by the price of basic necessities and suffocating under heightened repression—are unlikely to be distracted by shiny military equipment or patriotic chants for much longer.

Francisco Serrano is a writer, journalist and analyst. His work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Outpost, Monocle, Weapons of Reason, The Towner and other outlets. His most recent book, “As Ruínas da Década,” about the decade that followed the Arab uprisings, was published in 2022.

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