Algeria: Mass Protests as an Enduring Feature of Political Life

On April 12, hundreds of thousands of protesters congregated in central Algiers to call for the departure of Algeria’s interim President Abdelkader Bensalah, Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, and other long-serving members of Algeria’s governing National Liberation Front (FLN) party. This unrest triggered open clashes between protesters and the Algerian security forces, which resulted in the arrest of over 200 demonstrators.

The durability of unrest in Algeria can be explained by the unpopularity of the FLN political establishment, nicknamed Le Pouvoir, and the culmination of long-standing socio-economic grievances that are causing young Algerians to mobilize in record numbers. The protesters were antagonized by Bensalah’s appointment, as he had publicly endorsed Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s short-lived campaign for a fifth term as president. Bedoui’s public image has been similarly tarnished by his previous role as Minister of the Interior and close friendship with Nacer Bouteflika, the former president’s brother. These negative sentiments have caused protesters to view Bensalah’s pledge to hold free elections and Bedoui’s vision for an inclusive technocratic government as insincere populist rhetoric.

Antipathy towards the FLN is felt most tangibly by young Algerians, who feel that Bouteflika-era economic policies have curtailed their hopes of economic advancement. Even though government revenues in Algeria increased by 15% in 2018 due to rising oil prices, youth unemployment remained stubbornly high at 25%, as sluggish growth in Algeria’s non-oil sectors and restrictions on the free market hindered the implementation of job creation initiatives. The poorly explained reduction of Algeria’s foreign currency reserves from $179 billion to $79.8 billion since December 2014 has also fueled popular discontent about corruption. As approximately half of Algerians are under 30, the belief that a generational shift in leadership is necessary for economic growth is naturally supported by a large political constituency.

In this climate of popular discontent, Algerian army chief Ahmed Gaed Salah has retreated from the public eye, as he fears being viewed by the protesters as an agent of the status quo. The backlash against Salah’s calls for Bouteflika’s departure and a recent petition by young Algerians against a military coup suggests that the armed forces will use their political clout to advance their preferred candidate at the ballot box, without seizing power extra-legally. The persistence of unrest in Sudan, after the military overthrew President Omar al-Bashir on the contentious justification that it was upholding the popular will, could also convince Salah to refrain from instigating a coup, unless protests become violent enough to threaten Algeria’s stability as a state.

Given the state of political uncertainty in Algeria, Russia should continue to embrace its policy of non-interference in Algeria’s internal affairs. Although Russia’s diplomatic goals might be furthered by the preservation of a FLN-dominated political establishment, as Algiers has aligned with Moscow on Syria and opposed Western military interventions, public opinion in Algeria towards Moscow could sour if Russia defines itself as a status quo power. As Salah has drummed up the threat of destabilization by foreign powers to rally Algerians around his agenda, Russia should not jeopardize its positive reputation in Algeria by taking sides in a domestic crisis.

In spite of ongoing anti-government protests, Russia should continue to work with Algeria on preserving regional security, as this will showcase Moscow’s loyalty to Algiers during a time of crisis. The reheated conflict in Libya provides an opportunity for enhanced bilateral diplomatic cooperation, as both Russia and Algeria maintain close ties with Libya National Army chieftain, Khalifa Haftar, but also wish to preserve good relations with Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Russia’s policy of engaging the Algerian Foreign Ministry and armed forces on conflict resolution in Libya, will help Moscow to preserve a constructive relationship with Algiers, even in the event of a Sudan-style military coup.

Although Algeria has an opportunity to chart a new political course with the July 4 presidential elections, widespread popular angst against the FLN’s corruption and economic policies will likely ensure that mass protests remain an enduring feature of Algerian political life. In this treacherous political environment, Russia should refrain from taking sides in Algeria’s domestic political disputes and maintain a policy of constructive engagement with Algiers on preserving collective security in North Africa.

Events in Algeria: Potential Scenarios
Although Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s departure is a seminal moment in Algeria’s recent history, the Algerian military’s growing assertiveness and ongoing unrest have raised the risk of prolonged political instability in Algeria. In this uncertain climate, Russia should uphold a policy of strategic non-alignment and discourage foreign interference that could spark a cascade of violence in North Africa.
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Why Bouteflika’s “Departure” Threatens Algeria with Even Greater Shocks
On 18 April 2019, presidential elections were to be held in Algeria, which would have led to the inevitable victory of President Bouteflika, who has ruled the country since 1999 and was ready to run for a fifth term in office. His candidacy caused a wave of protests, and the president seemed to backtrack.
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Algeria: А Belated Arab Spring?
The development of Algeria’s relationship with Russia has been sufficiently constructive, writes Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club. Therefore, it is in Moscow’s interests to promote stability in Algeria, taking measures to prevent civil chaos, especially in the form of a new civil war.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.