March 07, 2019

Across Algeria, tens of thousands of Algerians continue to protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's decision to contest the upcoming April 18 elections, aiming for a fifth term as president. President Bouteflika has been president since 1999 but has rarely appeared in public since he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013; he is currently in a hospital in Switzerland. The president's absence from the public eye and questions about his capacity to run the country have largely driven the recent demonstrations. It remains unlikely that the president will step down; further nationwide protests are highly likely to continue in the coming days and weeks. 


Reform Demands against the Ruling Establishment 

Young Algerians, who constitute most of the country's population and a large segment of protest participants, require a new generation of leaders that can meet the youth’s growing demands for employment opportunities. Young Algerians also demand reforms in various fields, including energy, education, health, and administration. Given the hold that the president's National Liberation Front (FLN) party and the military maintain on power, it is highly unlikely that the government will meet protesters' demands, even if Bouteflika steps down. 

The FLN has been in power since Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962. The possibility of fair and transparent elections in which candidates independent of the FLN and the military can run and win a national election is extremely slim. While protests have been largely peaceful to date, there is a high possibility of violence if the military deploys and forcibly disperses protesters. If the protests become prolonged and social unrest persists, the possibility of the April vote getting delayed or the declaration of a state of emergency by the military cannot be ruled out. Protesters will fail to see the election as legitimate if a member of the ruling elite wins it, as the protests are organized not only against Bouteflika but the ruling establishment that his presidency has come to represent. 


Algerian History of Social Instability 

Algeria went through a devastating civil war between 1992 and 2002, coming to be known as the "Black Decade" when over 100,000 people died. Algerians, particularly the older generation, are wary of social instability and where it could lead. In exchange for social stability and political certainty, Algerians have been reluctant to challenge the status quo. While there were protests in Algeria against the government's political and economic policies during the Arab Spring in 2011, Algeria managed to avert the social crisis by expanding subsidy programs and offering some reforms, for example by ending the years-long state of emergency. The Algerian government’s ability to respond to the protesters' demands for jobs in 2011 largely had to do with the country’s abundant hydrocarbon revenue foreign reserves. However, oil prices have significantly fallen since 2014, limiting the government's ability to respond similarly this time around. 

The Algerian army, seen as the vanguard of the country's economic interests and guarantor of stability and security in the country, enjoys widespread popularity and historical legitimacy in the eyes of Algerians, stemming from the army's role in combating militancy during and after the civil war. The military has not taken any steps in containing or responding to the protests yet; however, on March 6, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the Algerian army's chief of staff, stated he was determined to secure the country and not allow events to spiral out of control. While the military currently remains loyal to President Bouteflika, it is unclear what it will do if ordered to defuse the unrest forcibly. 


The Ruling Elite in Algeria 

It is not only a lack of opportunities and alleged systematic repression that has prompted the recent protests, but also the government failing to recognize its citizens politically. Protesters say that the political system has failed them and exists only to benefit the ruling elite, a coalition of former and current military officials, intelligence services, and Algerian business leaders, which Algerians refer to as "the pouvoir" or "the power." 

The ruling elite has entrenched and vested interests in maintaining the status quo. This ruling elite coalition has rallied behind President Bouteflika mainly due to the lack of a candidate that all stakeholders find agreeable, rather than a sense of loyalty. The recent protests transpire at a time when political opposition groups are weak and divided and have failed to rally around a strong candidate that can mount a serious challenge to President Bouteflika. Prime Minister Ali Benflis is the most popular potential candidate, but he has boycotted the elections, questioning their fairness and legitimacy. 


Promises of Reformation 

President Bouteflika has offered to make some reforms in the near future, and on March 3, a letter, supposedly from Bouteflika, stated his intention to hold new elections in which he will not participate as a contender. Although the exact time frame for the new elections is unclear, they may take place after the upcoming April vote, within one year. The letter, essentially the government’s attempt to placate protesters, has not discouraged further protests. 


Demonstrations to Continue 

At this point, demonstrations will likely continue in the coming days and weeks. It is unlikely that President Bouteflika will step down unless the military withdraws its support. Even if Bouteflika retracts his bid to seek a fifth term, a major overhaul of the government is unlikely to take place. The ruling elite will continue to maintain significant power over the country's decision-making process. To avoid further social instability, the government will likely have to undertake a series of structural reforms to diversify the economy away from its reliance on hydrocarbons and hold elections to elect a government that is accountable to the Algerian people. 

Corporations operating in the country should formulate an evacuation contingency plan in the event of a major escalation. Protests could descend into violence if security forces employ deadly force to suppress the demonstrators. While clashes between security forces and protesters have not been prevalent, the possibility remains. 


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