The Delayed Arab Spring in Algeria?

Podcast available here:

Hundreds of thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets of Algeria, demanding President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 82 year old president, who has ruled the country since 1999, to step down. To the chagrin of the public, he had announced a fifth run for the presidency. Bouteflika represents the hated political establishment (le pouvoir), which consists of the country’s military and the FLN, the socialist and Arab nationalist party that has governed Algeria without interruption since independence from France in 1962.

Bouteflika has survived the Arab Spring in 2011, when soaring food prices brought North Africans out on the street, and to quell the protests Bouteflika lifted the military state of emergency and subsidized food items (and hiked military spending from 3% of GDP in 2008 to 6% in 2018), and he was spared the troublesome fate of the North African neighbors like Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s Qaddafi and Egypt’s Mubarak. Each of them were toppled by the mass protests in 2011. Now the ailing Bouteflika may be the next leader to go, which suggests that North Africa is everything but pacified. Bouteflika has been having poor health since 2005 when he suffered from a gastric ulcer hemorrhage. By 2008, he had developed stomach cancer, and in 2013 he suffered from a debilitating stroke, which made him no longer appear in public. During his 2013 re-election campaign, he did not make a single campaign appearance.

The political void is filled by Bouteflika’s younger brother Said, who works as personal doctor and adviser to the president, and General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff. The parliamentary FLN party leader and former prime minister is Abdelmalek Sellal. The government cabinet is led by prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia, the RND leader, which grew out of an organization founded by former army general and president Liamine Zeroual (1995-9). It is not surprising that the FLN and the RND work together in a coalition government (controlling 260 of the 462 seats), making them part of the same establishment. This political establishment involving politicians, businessmen and the military leaders with its corrupt privileges tries its best to keep Bouteflika in power, and even as some government ministers are defecting from Bouteflika and siding with the sentiment of the street, the establishment wants to maintain the status quo if possible. It is questionable whether Bouteflika can survive this uprising, and his frail health will cut short his rule anyway sooner rather than later, which could result in infighting among the establishment trying to find a new figurehead.

The only meaningful opposition are a mixture of radical and moderate Islamist parties. Unlike in Iran, where the military and to some extent the middle class shifted their allegiance to the Islamists, Algeria did not experience a shift to an Islamist government largely because the military and the middle class professionals in Algeria detest sharia law and Islamist principles. The military and middle class were formed by close alignment to the Francophone traditions dating back to the colonial era.

Although the country gained independence in 1962, important institutions like higher education, newspapers and the government still use French as the lingua franca. This produced resentment in the segments of the native Arab and Berber population, who are primarily conversant in Arabic and to a smaller extent in Tamazight. But the real issue is not merely related to language and culture, and I suspect that even with Arabic being dominant (already the official language of the country) and sharia law in effect (it’s a mixed system in Algeria), there is still plenty of social discontent. The major issue is the lack of opportunities and jobs for the population of 40 million, out of which 70% are younger than age 30.

But let us dig into Algerian history to examine how they end up with the current political crisis. Algeria has been inhabited by humans as far back as 1.8 million years ago. 700,000 years ago, there are fossilized remains of the Homo erectus, an ancestor of the Homo sapiens. The Neolithic civilization flourished from 6000 to 2000BC. Phoenician traders (from today’s Lebanon) arrived in North Africa in 900 BC and established Carthage (today’s Tunisia) in 800 BC. Algeria proper developed a Berber civilization, which had agriculture, manufacturing, trade and political organizations. The Carthaginians were defeated after wars with the Roman Empire. Carthage was destroyed in 146 BC. Various independent Berber kingdoms were conquered by the Roman Empire in AD 24, but Roman rule was associated with Berber resistance.

From the 2nd century onward, Christianity spread throughout the Roman empire, and many Berber tribes converted en masse. During the 8th century, Umayyad conquests resulted in Arabic colonization in North Africa and transformed the area into the Muslim belief system. Berber tribes initially resisted Umayyad and later Abbasid rule that was centered in Damascus and Baghdad. Furthermore, there was constant internal warfare among various Berber kingdoms like Hammadid (972-1148) vs. Banu Ifran and Maghraoua (942-1068), which resulted in political instability and economic decline. When Arab Bedouins from Egypt entered Algeria, the Arabic language and culture spread to Berber territory. Today, three-fourths of the country identify as Arabs, and the remainder are Berbers. The Almohads were Islamic reformers, who captured Algiers in 1151 and completed their conquest of the Maghrib by 1160 und ruled until 1269. The Abdalwadid founded a dynasty in 1236 that ruled until 1556.

Christians reconquered Spain in 1492 and included North Africa as tributary states. Spanish conquerers conquered Algerian coastal cities in the early 1500s (where much of the population lives, as the north has a Mediterranean climate, while the center and south of the country is desert), but they held Algiers for a short period (1510-29), but for a long period in Mers El Kebi (1505-1732) and Oran (1509-1708). The Ottoman Empire (centered in today’s Turkey) ejected the Spaniards, conquered Algiers in 1515 and held it as vassal state until 1830, when the French conquerers pushed the Ottomans out. Under Ottoman rule Turkish became the administrative language and Arabs and Berbers were excluded from government posts. Maghreb cities could coerce European traders to pay tributes to them via piracy. Only when Napoleon was defeated in 1815 could the Europeans focus on defeating the pirates in North Africa, which the French could use as a pretext to conquer Algeria. The religious and military leader Abdel Kadir and his troops put up resistance, but were defeated after a decade.

The French drew the modern boundary of Algeria. They seized the land from Algerians; eliminated and coopted traditional leaders; dismantled the traditional education system; and transformed the native Muslims and Jews into French subjects. French colonization was a shock, as the French were not Muslim and their ability to create extractive economic institutions far surpassed anything the Algerians had ever experienced before. The French colons (colonists) and pieds noirs (Algerian-born French) had a tight control over the economy and owned much of the nation’s wealth. They created French language educational institutions, which trained a small group of native Algerian middle class intellectuals, who formed the backbone of resistance against French colonial rule and the demand for independence beginning in the 1930s.

Algeria fought in both world wars on the Allied side and along with France. In the interwar period in the 1930s, economic crises resulted in many acts of protest, where the Algerians blamed the French colons for the economic problems. The colons responded with restrictive laws and crackdowns. When the Nazi collaborationist Vichy took over in Algeria, the colons welcomed Vichy. When the Allies retook Algeria in 1942, the Free French commander repealed repressive Vichy laws, which came with opposition from some colons. The Algerian nationalist leader Messali Hadj was arrested in April 1945, which resulted in more Algerian demonstrations against colonial rule.

Algerians, who favored national independence, convened in the National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1954. Their philosophy was to engage in armed struggle against French authority to gain independence. The French had just been soundly defeated by the Vietnamese in Dien Bien Phu, and so the high command was very intent to hold onto Algeria for as long as possible. The FLN carried out guerrilla warfare first against French military installations and later against the civilian population to create terror. The FLN also called for labor strikes and public protest mobilization against French occupation. The French military responded with harsh crackdowns, counterinsurgency operations (where brutality against the civilian population are reminiscent of what the Americans did in the Vietnam War), curfews and torture of suspected resistance fighters. Over 350,000 Algerians died (some estimates go up to 1 million) and 2 million became internal refugees out of a population of 10 million. Despite the harsh French measures, the war-weary French pushed for a diplomatic solution beginning in 1961. A year later, Algeria became an independent nation with FLN as the leading political party.

The first prime minister of independent Algeria was Benyoucef Ben Khedda, but he was quickly challenged by the more charismatic Ahmed Ben Bella, who also became the first president of the country. Bella’s economic policy pushed for Arab socialism in the form of expanding socialist cooperative businesses and worker control.

Despite ratifying a constitution, Ben Bella concentrated substantial political power and ruled by decree, thus bypassing the Algerian parliament. The opposition leader Hocine Ait-Ahmed quit the National Assembly in 1963 and joined a clandestine resistance movement against Bella. The organization was called Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), and the army quickly moved to crush FFS. Bella was interested in co-opting the FFS, while his defense minister and general Houari Boumedienne wanted harsh crackdowns. The disagreements between the two resulted in a coup d’etat, which put Bella under house arrest in which he stayed until 1980 and Boumedienne became president in 1965.

Boumedienne’s first step as president was to disband the constitution and the parliament and transfer authority to the Council of Revolution, which was a military body staffed by the high generals. To this day, the military is perhaps the most powerful part of the Algerian establishment. The military junta continued Bella’s socialist economic policy, but turned away from the focus on worker cooperatives to embrace state collectivization of industries. In 1971, Boumedienne nationalized the oil industry, which is the main revenue generator to Algeria. Even today, 90% of the foreign exchange comes from the oil exports. Buoyed by rising oil prices, the Algerian government could subsidize economic development and import substitution industrialization. By 1976, Boumedienne decided to adopt a new constitution, which affirmed him in power. Only two years later, he passed away.

Two candidates were vying for power within the FLN: Mohammad Salah Yahiaoui, member of the communist wing, and Abdelaziz Bouteflika (current president), a pro-western liberal. But none of them gained the trust of most of the generals. The compromise candidate Chadli Bendjedid became president serving from 1979 to 1992. By the 1980s, oil prices declined substantially and with it the income to subsidize state industries. Many developing countries including Algeria suffered through financial and debt crises followed by IMF structural adjustment programs. Economic liberalization and austerity policies coupled with a surging population and the insufficiency of job creation and infrastructure to keep up with it diminished the ranks of the middle class and created substantial political discontent, which culminated in the 1988 October Riots. The military regime was forced to grant free elections in 1990 (municipality) and 1991 (national legislative elections). These elections were promptly won by the major opposition party, the Islamist militant Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). FIS local government officials passed laws that imposed the veil on female municipal employees, pressured liquor stores, video shops and un-Islamic establishment to close and segregated bathing areas by gender, which came to the chagrin of the French-educated middle class and professionals. FIS accused the FLN government for being pro-French, corrupt and selling out to France.

The first round of the elections produced a governing majority for the FIS and would have meant the first-ever defeat of the FLN. The FLN elites and the military could not let that happen. The army stepped in and cancelled the elections, and pushed the ruling president Bendjedid from power. He was succeeded by interim presidents, including Mohamed Boudiaf, who was assassinated only six months into office by his bodyguard. Liamine Zeroual, general, served the most extensive period from 1994 to 1999.

Cancelling the 1991 elections may have prevented the Islamist takeover of power, but the Islamists took up arms, went into hiding in the hills south of the coastal area, and carried out guerrilla warfare against the ruling government. The military reacted promptly by imprisoning high FIS officials like the leader Abdelkader Hachani, but the prisons became overfilled and the remaining free FIS activists became further enraged and doubled down on their war techniques. The Islamists founded the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which was waging the jihad against the secular Algerian government. A full-fledged civil war reigned from 1992 until 2002. GIA attacked civilians and the military, planted car bombs and assassinated artists and unveiled women, while the military struck back in counterinsurgency. Violence escalated until 1994, when the new president Zeroual advocated for negotiations with the FIS. Nonetheless, a 1996 referendum changed the constitution and increased presidential powers while banning Islamist parties.

In 1999, President Zeroual announced his resignation and now the army put their support behind Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bouteflika finally brought the civil war to an end by agreeing to an amnesty to banned FIS members. This step toward reconciliation did not eliminate all violence but reduced it substantially. Bouteflika also pushed for reforms in the education system, judiciary and state bureaucracy, hoping to make it more responsive to the population. The end of the civil war that killed 44,000 people gave Bouteflika a boost in legitimacy, so he was re-elected in 2004 with 85% of the national vote. The president used his second mandate to push for an economic growth plan that constructs 1 million housing units, 2 million jobs, creates a new highway, a subway project in Algiers, a new airport and other infrastructure projects.

Algeria clearly needed these development plans given the continuing expansion of the population. The diversification of the Algerian economy is a grand task given that oil production peaked in 2008 and has been declining ever since (Trading Economics, “Algeria Oil Production”), although Algeria does not seem to suffer from fiscal problems. The war-related government debts have been reduced to negligible levels. Nonetheless, declining oil prices since 2014 have been devastating to Algeria, as 90% of the foreign exchange is generated from oil. Since 2011, the Algerian government has given permits to oil companies to extract shale gas via hydraulic fracking. Algeria has the third highest shale gas reserves after Argentina and China (, so the business potential is substantial. On the other hand, fracking comes with local resistance. Even though the shale gas is in territory that is not densely populated (i.e. in the desert), the villages that are affected by fracking have their groundwater polluted, and water is an exceedingly scarce resource in Algeria. Gaining shale gas at the expense of the environment and scarce water supplies might be a very socially costly endeavor.

Another problem is the endemic corruption and the high unemployment rate, which is still 20% of the population. The nature of corruption is that most ministries and high official positions are filled with people from the same region as the president, Tlemcen, the northwestern province close to Morocco. Furthermore, government spending projects usually cost more or don’t happen because officials skim off development funds. Transparency International ranks Algeria as 105th corrupt country out of 180 (with 1st being least corrupt).

Despite corruption and unemployment, Bouteflika could secure a third and fourth term, although when he began his third term in 2013 he was so sick that he barely made any public appearances. Remarkably, as mentioned earlier, Bouteflika had survived the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, even as the leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt were each deposed, and leaders in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria were severely challenged. In Yemen, the civil war that forms a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is still ongoing, resulting in many deaths.

The reason why Bouteflika survived the Arab Spring was likely his decision to lift martial law and grant food subsidies to the discontent population. Furthermore, he could count on the support of the military and parts of the urban middle class that feared the rise of Islamism more than the secular corrupt establishment. The population also became weary of political instability given the haunting civil war experience of the 1990s. But given that most Algerians are very young, they have only faint memories of the civil war chaos, and will want to see leadership changes.

The announcement of a fifth term in office was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Bouteflika recognized the severity of the political crisis at home and issued a statement granting the legitimate sentiment of the population and his decision to step down, but only after he got re-elected. He wanted to organize an ‘orderly transition’ to a presumably chosen successor, who would also hopefully be in better physical health.

But the protracted political and economic crisis of Algeria cannot be ended with Bouteflika stepping down. Given that the military and FLN establishment have gotten used to their privileges and the power structure set up by Bouteflika, there will likely be some infighting in appointing a political successor. Regardless of who the successor is going to be, the continuous concerns of corruption, lack of economic diversification, unemployment, lack of social services, population pressure, water scarcity and extremist Islamism need addressing or else political instability will increase.

Further readings:

Mit offenen Karten (in German)

In French:

Political economy of structural adjustment in Tunisia and Algeria (1998):

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s