By Karim Amellal*, Science-Po Paris
When it comes to the future of Algeria, gloom and doom scenarios are not lacking, fueled as they are by the chronic opacity surrounding the power circles in the North African country, and they have reached a peak these days with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika illness and the upcoming Presidential election of 2019. In some European countries, like France, these apocalyptic scenarios proliferate, particularly on the right and the far right of the political spectrum, with some expressing their pleasure with the “bankruptcy” of the system, and at the same time the fear of a possible “explosion” that would cause an “invasion” of Algerian migrants… But, is it possible to develop a more nuanced and less ideologized vision of what is happening in this big country, despite this dystopian vision of the future marked by old resentments mixed with real anxieties?
“Algeria is doing badly, very badly, from bad to worse. It could be on the verge of explosion.” “The Algerian bomb,” titled recently the French right-wing weekly magazine Valeurs actuelles, adding: “Massive immigration, explosion of the suburbs … What France should fear if Algeria rocks.” And one can read between the lines a nostalgia for French Algeria. The myths and fears surrounding Algeria today tumble in a vision of apocalypse: “when will Algeria explode?” Because it will explode! What will happen then? One can guess the answer: hordes of refugees will rush to the barricaded gates of Europe, on their makeshift boats, landing, like resurrected Moors, on the innocent beaches of most Christian France… Political vacuum, a sick president, economic crisis, endemic corruption, the specter of the Arab revolutions…Valeurs actuelles is not the only media that sees Algeria on the brink of catastrophe, several English-language media – and conservatives too – have also sounded the alarm and described Algeria, sometimes the entire Maghreb, as a time bomb, a stronghold of potential terrorists, a region where despair and affliction prevail.
OCTOBER 1988 REDUX?
Recently, another dark scenario has been haunting some doomsayers: the occurrence of a new “October 88” in Algeria, the first episode of the “Arab spring” that brought about the collapse of the single party system in that country, followed by an ephemeral phase of democratic transition, which led to the tragic “black decade” of the 1990s, bloodstained by the terrorism of the GIA, and other armed Islamist groups. However, such a scenario is not totally unfounded. As in 1988, Algeria is facing an economic crisis with tangible consequences for the population: a contraction of the welfare state and an increased tension on the prices of everyday consumer goods; and we know how much they played an essential role in the abrupt amplification of discontent resulting in the revolutionary process of the 1990s.
As in 1988, the political game revolves around the formal, official structures of power, the legal facade of the regime; while the real power operates in the shadows, a combination of influential groups that includes the military, intelligence services, and powerful financial interests, more or less occult … At the same time, as in 1988, the opposition is discredited and, indeed, nonexistent. The only truly national opposition party, the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), is beset by contradictions and struggling to generate any kind of leadership. The Islamist parties, on the other hand, have never really succeeded in gaining political benefit from the powerful moral conservatism that has developed among all strata of society.
As in 1988, it feels like the end of an era, which crystallizes around President Bouteflika and the innumerable rumors about his family, or his “clan”, accused of being the real rulers of the country behind the scenes, or/and even preparing his succession. As in 1988, young Algerians, a group, it should be remembered, that represents 70% of the population, has, for the most part, lost interest in politics while denouncing as much as they can the “hogra” (“contempt”) by the authorities, as well as rampant corruption, and sporadically expressing their anger and despair. In this context, the slightest spark is perceived by the proponents of this scenario as likely to boil over, provoke a revolt, and, by contagion, a revolution.
This scenario, however, is not credible for several reasons. The main one is that Algeria in 2018 is in no way comparable to that of 1988. In thirty years, despite years of terrorism and numerous crises, the country has changed profoundly; it has transformed. Using the same reading template, the same set of causes which characterized the end of the 1980s is at best anachronistic, and at worst amounts to a falsification of reality.
WHERE IS ALGERIA TODAY?
In 1988, before the riots of the month of October, Algeria was governed by a single-party system headed by the National Liberation Front (FLN), with, as in the Soviet Union, the real power being exercised by a complex aggregate of actors, dominated by senior army officers – “the generals” – and the military intelligence service. Freedom of the press did not exist, like any of the fundamental freedoms. The FLN being the only authorized party, the elections consisted of endorsing the “proposed” candidate.
Algeria of 2018 is a system in transition, certainly not a democracy yet, but not a dictatorship either. The achievements of the democratic “parenthesis” of 1988-1991 remain. Multi-partyism is effective, as is freedom of expression and of the press, even though these freedoms have been under attack since, roughly speaking, President Bouteflika stroke in 2013. Elections that take place at regular intervals, in accordance with the official electoral calendar, are now less characterized by fraud than by a growing and massive abstention, which for example has reached more than 60% in the legislative elections of 2017.
Despite its chronic opacity, its weak legitimacy, and its lack of renewal – among other stigmas – the existing political power in Algeria has also nothing to do with the one of three decades ago. If the military hierarchy and the military intelligence services still occupy prominent positions in the system, if only because of history and their roots in the country, as well as the fact that they are the guarantors of strategic interests, especially vis-à-vis foreign countries, they are no longer the only bosses aboard ship Algeria. Under Bouteflika, and thanks to him, the power in place (“le pouvoir”) in Algeria became “civilized”. Major-General Mohamed Mediene, alias Toufik, who ruled over the powerful DRS, the military intelligence services for 25 years, was indeed sacked by Bouteflika in 2015, and his services were restructured and put for the most part under the control of the Presidency.
If they still remain important and influential figures, the Algerian generals have returned to their barracks or, for the older ones, converted to business; and their political weight is out of proportion to what it was during the Black Decade, “when they actually ran the country. Since 2016, calls by some intellectuals and opposition politicians for the military to intervene and remove Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office have all been rejected. Kept very busy by the fight against terrorism, which it won, and by border surveillance – 6,343 kilometers (3941.357 miles) with seven countries-, the National People’s Army (NPA) is no longer the recourse it was some thirty years ago. If the NPA will still play a role in the succession of President Bouteflika, it’s a safe bet to state that it is not the military, and only the military, that will impose their own candidate in the upcoming presidential election.
ACHIEVEMENTS IN MATTERS OF DEVELOPMENT
Ranked 83rd in the world in 2016 in terms of development, Algeria is in the top five of African countries and remains the country with the highest Human Development Index (HDI) in the Maghreb.
It is mostly on the economic, social and demographic fronts that Algeria has profoundly transformed itself in the past thirty years. GDP increased from $ 59 billion in 1988 to $ 156 billion in 2016 (after reaching $ 213 billion in 2014). By way of comparison, that of Morocco was 101 billion and that of Tunisia 42 billion. Since independence, GDP growth has been determined by hydrocarbon prices, but this opportunity offered by higher prices has not been used to guarantee its sustainability, for example by diversifying the economy, investing in innovation, and in particular, education, but rather to try to catch up with the development gap accumulated during the “Black decade”, while buying social peace.
A large part of the oil and gas rent has been used to fund major infrastructure projects in transport and public works (railroads, airports, dams, etc.), most of them implemented by foreign companies. Chinese especially, but also Turkish and French. At the end of January 2018, the government indicated that the equivalent of 70 billion euros had been spent on these infrastructures. Two major programs illustrate this policy. In 15 years, Algeria has spent about $ 60 billion to build more than two million houses to cope with population growth and rural exodus to urban areas. If this huge endeavor has experienced many failures – illustrated by the urban disaster of the “new city” of Sidi Abdellah – and while its continuation depends on oil revenues, it has nevertheless provided decent housing to many Algerians of modest condition, and allowed to get rid of many shanty towns and precarious settlements that proliferated in the 1990s.
The other program that made it possible to redistribute part of the rent is, of course, Ansej, created in 1996 but actually launched in the early 2000s. It is a special fund designed to support the creation of businesses by young people. Although largely insufficient, this program has been an effective tool for redistributing wealth –to a certain extend, and a means to pacify young people lacking job opportunities and prospects.
One trend that illustrates the transformation of Algerian society over the past two decades is the increase in the birth rate, after a sharp collapse during the 1990s. According to figures from the Algerian National Office of Statistics (ONS), the number of births has increased since the mid-2000s, with 3.1 children per woman. A sign that the country has entered its demographic transition, a process characterized by a balance between birthrates and death rates. An increase in fertility is both good and bad news. Bad news because it supports the idea of a possible demographic shock to come, but a good one because it is a symptom of the good health of a population.
According to ONS figures, this increase in fertility rates may be due to a surge in the number of marriages, but also to the economic and social development of the country. After the trauma of the “Black Decade”, which did not really encourage getting married or having children (the number of births and the number of marriages collapsed during the 1990s), the influx of revenue from hydrocarbons allowed the government to launch its ambitious social housing program, which has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in fertility, in a country where housing shortages left little room for families. The decline in unemployment, especially for women and young people – although still at a high level – has also boosted fertility. The unemployment rate was divided by three, for men and women, between 2000 and 2011. As Zahia Ouadah-Bedidi notes: “if improvements in the economic conditions of households allowed a vigorous recovery of the birth rate, it is that the ground was propitious and the mentalities open to the idea of larger families.”
The substantial expansion of the middle class in Algeria is another important phenomenon, resulting from the continuous increase of households purchasing power in the 2000s, thanks to wage increases and massive subsidization policies aimed at many basic products, such as bread, cereals, water, milk, gasoline, etc. The World Bank estimated in 2012 that these subsidies cost $ 16 billion a year to the government of Algeria. These administered prices serve as an important social buffer, especially when when inflation occurs, but they are, as we know, the source of many economic disruptions, by impeding the proper functioning of the market, or by discouraging production. In this regard, the recent controversy around the price of the bread baguette is exemplary: in December 2017, several bakers in the country protested against the fixed price of the baguette (between 8 and 10 Algerian dinars) on the grounds that it did not allow them to cover their costs. Consequently, they decided to double the price unilaterally, but the government intervened immediately after to restore the original fixed price, and prosecuted the violators!
At the same time, inequalities in income and wealth have increased. As noted by the economist Yacine Miliani, “from 2001 to 2014, previous strong economic growth has unfortunately been accompanied by an unprecedented rise in precariousness”, with the rise of unemployment contributing to the widening of inequalities (in the distribution of income and wealth), in spite of the anti-poverty measures adopted by the Government. However, income inequality remains relatively moderate in Algeria, even if it is increasing, particularly since the recent economic slowdown driven by falling oil prices. In 2011, the Gini index, which measures inequality, was 35 (100 expressing maximum inequality), compared with 40 for Morocco, for example.
Finally, the Human Development Index (HDI) issued each year by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which provides a global picture of a country’s level of development, ranked Algeria 83 in the world in 2016. Algeria is in the top five African countries, and remains the country where the HDI is the highest in the Maghreb. This composite index, which takes into account various elements, such as life expectancy, average length of schooling, inequality and net income per capita, has increased throughout the 2000s and is by far higher than that of Tunisia (98th in the world) or Morocco (130th).
PERVASIVE STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS
The extreme dependency of the economy on the oil rent has never been really put into question, for the sake of convenience, or because of a political calculation; and is a serious problem for the economic future of the country. Thus, 96% of exports and 60% of budget revenues continue to depend on oil and gas, of which Algeria is one of the world’s largest producers (ranked 18th for oil, and 6th for gas). Fluctuations in hydrocarbon prices lead policymakers to constantly revise their policies, sometimes opening the floodgates when revenue increases, and some other times closing them suddenly when prices collapse. This is what has happened since 2014, the date of the reversal of the oil situation.
From 1999 to 2014, the Algerian state could rely on $100 oil price per barrel (or more), which allowed to launch huge equipment programs, and to save some money for the so-called Reserve Funds, but not enough to compensate for the sharp fall in oil prices in 2014-2015, when the barrel went from $109 to $54 in less than a year, compelling the government to raise taxes and interrupt some programs deemed less essential. Since 2014, Algeria has been implementing a policy of relative austerity, striving to reduce public spending without, however, cutting back on social programs, and siphoning off its accumulated reserves to plug the gaps in the budget.
The Government short-term policies, entirely dependent on oil revenue, is catastrophic in the long run. However, no decision maker has so far managed to seriously start diversifying the Algerian economy, notwithstanding innumerable declarations of intent. Sluggish, ultra-bureaucratized, the Algerian economy doesn’t leave – and it is a euphemism – room for private investments, whether domestic or, all the more so, foreign – with the exception of a handful of oligarchs who know how to take advantage of this situation.
The education system too, in spite of the very laudable efforts of the current Minister of Education, remains a juggernaut that functions, but to no real effect. Rooted in an obsolete ideology, where constricted nationalism and two-bit religiosity are intertwined, it digests every year its 9 million pupils – in primary, middle and secondary education – but fails to deliver effective and quality training programs. As to higher education, it is surely the forgotten sector of the opulent years, probably because the return on investments in education needs time –one cannot reap quick political dividends from investing in it, reforming and improving its quality. Universities in Algeria function for the largest number of people who access it massively and free of charge, but, unfortunately, they do not provide the needed qualifications, which results in an unemployment rate of 17.7% of university graduates in 2017 – compared to 7.7% for those without a university degree.
The economic difficulties, the widening of inequalities, the lack of opportunities for the youth, and the impression that the political machine runs empty, fuel discontent all over the country. This is what drives many Algerians, young and desperate for the most part, to try the adventure of illegal emigration. These “harragas”, as they are called in Algerian colloquial language, are leaving for Europe on makeshift boats defying the authorities that try to stem the tide – without much success. However, beyond these tragic departures, protest movements remain sporadic events, localized, and have never coagulated. For example, the demands of military retirees, teachers, and now resident doctors, are not coordinated, and these groups remain isolated from each other.
These are essentially social protests, which flourish amidst uncertainties related to the economic situation and the indecisions of decision-makers, rather than protests of a political nature that, in any case, no serious opposition is today able to exploit. The result is a preference for the status quo, which owes as much to the tragedy of terrorism of the 1990s present in everyone’s memory, as to the fear of what a brutal and uncontrolled change could bring. From this point of view, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions function as scarecrows: to the specter of political chaos or economic bankruptcy, many prefer a cautious wait-and-see attitude, which does not necessarily mean complete passivity. Anger rises but it remains contained, not by the Government, but primarily by the citizens.
THE VITALITY OF CIVIL SOCIETY
The intensification of social protests against a backdrop of economic austerity, demonstrates the vitality of its civil society.
If, at the social level, the former single trade union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), continues to exercise a legal monopoly in terms of labor representation, remaining the only authorized interlocutor of the government, its legitimacy and its influence have been severely damaged by the emergence of new actors: the autonomous unions. The current mobilization of resident doctors is led by one of these autonomous unions: the Camra for Autonomous Collective of Algerian Resident Doctors. The proliferation of these organizations, which are not officially recognized by the authorities, is one of many indicators of the dynamism of the Algerian society, whose modes of expression no longer use official channels or spaces, often fossilized.
The Algerian cultural scene is also changing, and this is probably what we perceive best from abroad. In cinema, literature or photography, beautiful and powerful “new waves” sweep across the country, like the movies of directors Karim Moussaoui and Hassen Ferhani, the novels of Kaouther Adimi, or Collectif 220 whose exhibition “Iqbal” has moved from the Museum of Modern Art in Algiers – the MoMA – to the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Using YouTube and radio hooks, a new generation of singers has emerged in recent years, again often using informal venues. Deprived of public support, confined to narrow spaces, suffocated by a climate of heavy puritanism, these new voices manage to escape and find an audience. Light-years away from the image of a sluggish population, of a suffocated society, they echo the hope and poetry of a youth thirsty for the future.
But the energy and creativity of Algerian society is not expressed in culture only, we should also mention the emergence of citizen movements, such as # Algerie Propre (Clean Algeria), whose campaigns for environmental education and pollution control have a growing audience. Similarly, despite the inadequacies of the Algerian higher education system, an increasing number of young graduates are successfully embarking on entrepreneurial trajectories by taking advantage of Ansej’s loans – the national system of support for business creation. If it is still too early to talk about real ecosystem of startups in Algeria, they are nonetheless beginning to emerge, as in Tunisia and Morocco, and are attracting a growing number of young people who have been struggling to find employment in other traditional sectors.
POLITICAL ISLAM REVISITED
And how about political Islam? A reenactment of 1988 in Algeria is inconceivable for the reasons provided above. Moreover, Algeria at the time of President Chadli Bendjedid was a single-party regime, faced with a severe economic crisis -in comparison to which the current one is relatively minor! The price of a crude oil barrel had fallen to 8 dollars in 1986 (about 17 dollars today), seriously depriving Algeria of revenues, which dropped dramatically while its national debt increasing in proportion. Algeria was then on the brink of an abyss, and the situation was very different of that of today. Furthermore, these were the days of the Iranian revolution with its impact worldwide, particularly on Muslim countries. And then, in these days, following its policy of arabization, the Government was bringing many Egyptian “teachers”, incorporating them into the Algerian educational system, which allowed them to spread political Islam among young people. This is not the case anymore.
Throughout the country, mosques have replaced a failing state to take care of the poor. The rise of political Islam in Algeria in the 1980s takes place in this context, with the democratic opening that followed the riots of October 1988. The institution of a multiparty system that followed with the organization of the first free elections allowed the institutionalization of political Islam, through the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won the local elections before leading the first round of the parliamentary elections in 1991, when the military stepped in and halted the electoral process in January 1992. This as we know led the Islamists to engage in an armed insurrection. These bloody years of war between the government security forces and the he Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and the defeat of the latter, have disqualified political Islam in Algeria. Algerian authorities, on the other hand, have banned all forms of religious radicalism besides the FIS. A huge mistake today would be to see in the re-Islamization of Algerian society, a prelude to the resurgence of this kind of political Islam, and the repetition of the 1988 scenario.
The re-Islamization of Muslim societies that has been at work for roughly two decades is a complex phenomenon, not far removed from the re-christianization that we observe, for example, in the United States, as the French political scientist Olivier Roy points out. The reasons for that are many, but re-Islamization does not use, as before, the political arena, which does not mean that it is depoliticized. What Roy calls “the failure of political Islam” means the emergence of a “puritanical, predicating, populist, [and] conservative neo-fundamentalism,” which no longer wants to establish an Islamic state, but rather to proceed to a re-Islamization of society from below, by the defense, for example, of traditional mores. This is illustrated by innumerable polemics that have shaken Algerian society, such as the one surrounding the renown secular writer and novelist Rachid Boudjedra, or following the recent attempts at the destruction of the female statue of the fountain of Ain El Fouara, in Setif, and the controversy over the withdrawing of the formula Bismillah Arrahman Arrahim (“In the name of God merciful and merciful”) from the front page of some textbooks. This is also illustrated by the success of tele-preachers in Algeria – as in all of North Africa – who, far from challenging the regime or the state, develop on the contrary a discourse that is politically very loyalist, while very conservative in terms of morality.
“It is clear that although Algerian society has become fervently religious, there is no sign of the adoption of a new and radical form of political Islam.”
In another dimension, this re-Islamization, which is no longer expressed through partisan-type political structures, goes beyond politics – the State, elections – to seek a mythical, transnational community of faith, disembedded from the social fabric, borders, cultural roots, and so on. It is precisely, it seems to me, what explains the fervor of many Algerians for the Palestinian cause, perceived from now on as a challenge for Muslims
It is in this context that the “moderate” and “state-sanctioned” Islamist parties have only managed to gather a very small number of followers since the end of the “dark decade”. Integrated into the political game, they have become secularized, “demonetized”, and disqualified. Their legalistic and feebly conservative discourse no longer distinguishes them really from the other parties that participate in the “system”, while the voters do not expect anything from the Islamist parties. In the last parliamentary elections of 2017, the MSP party (which claims to be part of the Muslim Brotherhood) has obtained only 330,000 votes, or 33 seats in the National Assembly.
And how about the FIS, then? For many, the real danger would be the resurgence of a radical Islamist party heir to the Islamic Salvation Front, banned since the interruption of the electoral process in 1992. The popularity of some videos issued by one of its former leaders, the charismatic Ali Belhadj, largely disseminated on the Internet, may suggest it; as well as the relative popularity enjoyed by the party founder, Abassi Madani, who now lives in Qatar. However, this should be understood more as an expression of approval by a segment of the Algerian youth for a hard, unequivocal, principled speech about corruption and dirty money, or on foreign policy, rather than an aspiration for the establishment of an Islamic state, which is not, again, on the agenda.
For the vast majority of Algerians, the haunting memory of the “black decade” during which the FIS was one of the major players, is enough to discredit any form of radicalism that would lead, in a way or another, to reproduce this episode of Algerian history. The policy of national reconciliation, implemented as soon as Bouteflika came to power in 1999, made it possible, although not without imperfections or gray areas, to turn the page on years of terrorism. On a different but not unrelated note, we should mention the very small number of Algerians (about 200) fighting in Syria when Daesh was at its peak, from 2013 to 2016, compared to the number of Moroccans (1,500) and Tunisians (3,000 and more). Moreover, in spite of the tragic assassination of French hiker Hervé Gourdel in 2014, ISIS has never really managed to settle in Algeria, whose military are very actively fighting the last remaining terrorist groups operating in the country, but whose members often come from foreign countries (see an excellent article on this topic here).
Finally, with the exception of the Ghardaia riots, which are part of a completely different story, none of the protest movements that have emerged in the last 10 years in the country have expressed extremist religious demands. Admittedly, the authorities watch over and sometimes react with a heavy hand, as when dismantling dissident religious currents, arguing that they are “sects”, as with the Ahmadis. Nevertheless, it is clear that in spite of their fervent religiosity, the Algerian people aren’t showing any sign of “tipping over” towards a new and radical form of political Islam.
As we can see, the Algeria of 2018 is in a contrasting situation, and far from being dramatic. Algerian society has undergone a profound transformation over the last twenty years, after a decade of huge trauma whose legacy remains rooted in the national fabric. Algeria is not a rich country, but not poor either, or on the verge of explosion, far from it; but a country that continues, although with serious weaknesses, to develop as best as possible in a regional environment at the least destabilizing.
This is an edited translation of the original French.
* Karim Amellal is a writer, entrepreneur, and professor at Sciences Po Paris. He is the co-founder of the SAM Network scientific video platform, and of the media on Algeria Chouf-Chouf. He has been working for more than 15 years on the issue of young people’s access to culture and education. He is the author of an essay on inequalities, as well as several novels (last published: Bleu Blanc Noir, L’Aube, 2016). @karimamellal