After weeks of protest, Algeria’s octogenarian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika finally resigned on April 2nd. His departure from Algeria’s political landscape has opened up debates about the future trajectory the North African country ought to take while being part of a troubling neighbourhood of states.
In February, it was announced that Mr. Bouteflika would contest presidential elections for a fifth term despite his ailing health. The announcement triggered massive protests in various parts of the country, which reportedly were the largest protests to be conducted since the anti-French colonial revolt of the 1950s and 1960s. It is reportedly the first mass mobilization since the 1988 riots undertaken in response to rising prices, higher rate of unemployment and the government’s austerity drive. Despite Mr. Bouteflika’s resignation, the protests continue with protestors demanding a complete overhaul of the political system.
The public outcry against the incumbent president was triggered by a number of political and economic factors. Despite being home to the 11th largest proven gas reserves and 16th largest proven oil reserves, Algeria, Europe’s third largest gas supplier is suffering a decline in exports due to delays in several projects and a steep rise in consumption of subsidized gas among a burgeoning population. Having the third largest oil reserves in Africa, Algeria has only been able to explore less than one third of available acreage due to lack of investment. Consequently, the Algerian government is unable to temper public discontent through state spending. Although the overall unemployment rate in Algeria is 11 per cent, the unemployment rate of youth which constitutes two thirds of the population, rose to 29 per cent in the third quarter of 2018 from 26 per cent in the second quarter.
Despite being home to the 11th largest proven gas reserves and 16th largest proven oil reserves, Algeria, Europe’s third largest gas supplier is suffering a decline in exports due to delays in several projects and a steep rise in consumption of subsidized gas among a burgeoning population.
Ranked as the 7th most corrupt country of the MENA region by Transparency International, failure to diversify the Algerian economy beyond oil and gas is largely blamed on the rentier culture which in turn contributes to rampant corruption within state agencies. In order to tackle corruption, the anti-corruption agencies have proved to be ineffective. The selective bias prevalent in anti-corruption drives in the past has ensured that oligarchs remain safeguarded.
In addition to economic concerns, the most significant factor that contributed to the recent protests was the announcement of Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth presidential term. Due to health concerns, Mr. Bouteflika has been periodically hospitalized for more than a decade. Since suffering from a stroke in 2013, he rarely makes public appearances and can hardly move or communicate effectively. The announcement of Mr. Bouteflika as a presidential candidate by Le pouvoir (Algerian version of a deep state) was received by Algerians with sheer contempt. The decision was widely seen as source of national humiliation by Algerians who do not want to continue to be ruled by a leader absent from public life. The failure to collectively propose another candidate as successor to Mr. Bouteflika has garnered him continued electoral support from the powers that be.
Following his resignation, there are two possible future scenarios for post-Bouteflika Algeria. First, there is a strong chance that the political establishment that supported Mr. Bouteflika will continue to rule. Second, post-Bouteflika Algeria might replicate modern day Egypt as the military leadership moves into the driving seat. In brief, a real change emerging in the Algerian political landscape seems far-sighted for now.
In its neighbourhood, Morocco seems to be maintaining a low profile to prevent flaring up hostilities with Algeria. While the stabilization of Libya seems a far-fetched idea, a destabilized Algeria can open the gateway for international terror groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb into the country.
Great Powers like the US and Russia are keenly watching the developments in Algeria. Certain American experts are eyeing rapprochement with Algeria whereas Russia, a longtime ally, is less threatened of losing its influence in the country if military leadership assumes power in Algiers. In addition to strong defence ties, both countries are on the same page when it comes to geopolitical maneuvering in the region. Russia has refrained from declaring all out support for the Algerian establishment and continues to maintain a cautious stance on the current political situation because of apparent non-meddling from Western powers and a threat of instability beyond Algerian borders. However, some Russian experts believe that the announcement by Algeria in December last year to drawdown gas exports prompted an agenda to expedite the exit of the current Algerian leadership.
Certain American experts are eyeing rapprochement with Algeria whereas Russia, a longtime ally, is less threatened of losing its influence in the country if military leadership assumes power in Algiers.
Amidst political upheaval and deliberations on future geopolitical assessments, the role of Algerian military leadership will most likely shape the future direction of the country. As demands for an overhaul of the system persist, it is important for the protestors to formulate an action plan with clarity of purpose as pointed out by former Pakistani Ambassador to Algeria Mr. Imran Yawer. Failure to do so can either strengthen the hold of Le pouvoir or trigger a civil war-like situation much similar in nature to what has been witnessed in Libya and Syria with far-reaching regional implications.