Algeria, between the political and economic crises and the specter of Daesh

A demonstrator waves an Algerian flag during a sit-in on March 5, 2015 at Somoud Square in the Sahara desert village of In-Salah, south Algeria, to protest against the exploration of shale gas. Anti-shale gas demonstrations have increased in the cities of the Algerian Sahara since late December, when Algerian oil company Sonatrach announced it had successfully completed its first pilot drilling in the In-Salah region. Sonatrach announced in early February that its exploratory drilling for shale gas using hydraulic fracturing would continue despite mounting hostility among people living nearby. AFP PHOTO / FAROUK BATICHE        (Photo credit should read FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2013, the Arab Spring sweeps the whole of North Africa, except Algeria. After a bloody civil war, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, head of the autocratic regime since 1999, manages to find a balance between the interests of the ruling class, the military elite, and the population. The constitutional reform strengthens the democratic political system, preventing the risk that revolutionary uprisings infect Algeria’s pluralist society. In this moment, however, Algeria is going through a political and economic crisis that is making the country’s future growingly uncertain, threatened also by the jihadist extremism that has never been completely eradicated and that now risks to offer fertile ground for the spread of DAESH-affiliated groups.

In Algeria, the colonial legacy and the fight for independence have played a fundamental role in generating a strong nationalist feeling among the population, which, in turn, has favored the establishment of an authoritarian regime. In fact, after the highly sought-after independence in 1962, the sense of belonging to a national community unified the numerous political movements, guaranteeing a single-party system that only in recent times has been menaced by Islamic fundamentalist groups from within the country. Beyond and together with the nationalistic impulse, also the possess of oil and gas resources has contributed to preserve national unity and minimize the risk of internal conflicts.

Revenues deriving from the sale of these resources on the international markets have been invested in major public and infrastructure works to modernize the country and –as excellent deterrent – they minimized the risk of internal revolts granting social order by answering in part to the population’s demands.

In 1986, however, falling oil prices led to an increase of the Algerian public debt. The impossibility of calming down social unrests by resorting to the oil and gas-related economic benefits led to the exacerbation of social conflicts, which would eventually explode in a series of violent protests culminating with the concession made by the government of holding multiparty elections. After the first elections in 1991 and the unexpected victory of the Islamists of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), followed by a coup of the armed forces, the country fell into a civil war that would end only in 1999, with the election of Bouteflika as President of Algeria, today at his fourth mandate. Since the very beginning, Bouteflika’s presidency has been characterized by the introduction of some innovations within the political system – in particular, the establishment of a presidential alliance composed by the main political forces of the country, aimed at creating a general climate of consent among the different factions. Without any doubt, the increase in oil prices has also favored a better management of the general feelings of discontent among the population. Nevertheless, participation and pluralism remain weak even today. Hints to the most salient moments of the history of the country are indispensable to be able to identify the most urgent problems Algeria is facing today, starting from the recent economic crisis.

The strategies implemented in the ‘90s as to fight unemployment and the growing precariousness of jobs in the private sector proved counterproductive. The oil prices crash, together with the fall of gas production and the spike in domestic consumption, cuts to development, higher taxation, and the decision of the executive branch to draw on currency reserves accumulated between 2010 and 2015, haven’t worked in favor of the economic recovery. Paradoxically, only an increase in hydrocarbon production could restore the State budget to balance and respond to the increased domestic demand, but national oil companies are not equipped with adequate technologies in order to make this happen. Not to talk about the weight of the scandals that have been sweeping them since 2006. The exploration of fossil fuels could be an answer to the economic crisis, despite the costs and the difficulties Algeria faces in terms of  attractiveness foreign investments. The main concentration of resources lies in the Sahara, yet the necessity of having a huge quantity of water available for drillings worries local communities, who rebelled against the government who  silenced them by the use of force . The share of the population concerned by these projects fears that water resources will diminish, damaging agriculture and favoring imports. Besides, the recent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program between Tehran and the 5+1 world powers proves to be hard to accept for Algeria, who is clashing with another great rival – Saudi Arabia – with no results. Therefore, oil and gas risk to become a burden for the Algerian economy. In such scenario, corruption breaks in, together with the spike of prices of relief goods.

The population is impoverished, and discontent regarding the government’s activities is not limited to the economic sphere. Lacking social tensions, the financial crisis is without any doubt a wake-up call to analyze critically the role of political institutions. In fact, Algeria is going through a phase of paralysis of the executive branch. President Bouteflika’s health conditions and the consequent issue of the succession to power are a problem. In the latest elections, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and the Army did not manage to present a valid alternative, yet the general internal dynamics are slowed down not only by the influence of the military lobby, but also because of the distance that is felt between the central government and society. The parties no longer act as mediation means between these two poles. Besides, the hostage crisis of January 2013 in the gas plant of Amenas has woken up the specter of jihadism in a country that had spent the last year of the ’90 compressed in a war where jihadists were trying to transform Algeria into an Islamic emirate. The country has already got to know the violence of terrorism during the 1991-1999 civil war between the FIS and the nationalist FLN. In the aftermath of the 1991 presidential elections, when the government refused to acknowledge the victory of the radical exponent Abbassi Madani, the Islamic Armed Movement was founded: a terrorist group in which flowed the returnees from the Afghanistan war, trained in Pakistan’s concentration camps. The Movement joined the FIS in its fight against the Algerian nationalists and planned and carried out several attacks, until both its enemy organizations got eradicated. With Bouteflika’s election in 1999 – leader and heir of an anti-colonial, nationalist group that formed a reconciliation government by succeeding in covering a prestigious role in the whole region in a short time – Algeria succeeded in resolving and ending the conflict, and continued its fight against radical Islamism through a strong militarization of the territory. So, while neighboring countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya, has currently suffered  from the violence of kamikazes and car bombs, Algeria has at least managed to contain the threat so far. It did so also by starting a process of parliamentarization of political Islam, which has renounced the pursue of its objective of establishing an Islamic state. The fear for instability linked to the memory of the civil war makes Algeria pay serious attention to religious extremism, also because the country is not untouched by the phenomenon of foreign fighters, the recruiting and indoctrination of youth in international terrorist organizations. After the execution of the French tourist, Hervé Gourdel, kidnapped and beheaded in Algeri on September 24th, 2014 by a group affiliated to the Caliphate, the risk for Algeria has doubled. On the internal and regional level, because of the uncertainty troubling the neighboring countries, opening, as a matter of fact, scenarios that let presume the creation of new relations of power.

Algeria needs reforms and a leadership free from military logics, able to guarantee greater social cohesion starting from the recovery of the financial crisis. Youth unemployment and the current plunge of oil prices in a corrupt society do not make Algeria immune to social unrests. Unmet demands could degenerate in mass movements, which can be contained only through an efficient economic intervention directed at modernizing the country and increase and strengthen the people’s democratic participation in politics and government. Society’s discontent should not become the cause of a coming back of Islamic terrorism. The plague of terrorism seems impossible to heal, in light to what is happening in Tunisia and Libya. Yet, despite Algeria is not part of the US-led anti-DAESH coalition and no longer is a country that could defeat its own home-grown terrorism, Algeria still can and should accomplish the hard task of overhauling the country’s fate, guarantee security, and contain the terrorist threat.

Federica Fanuli

Master’s degree in Political Science, European Studies and International Relations (University of Salento)

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