Algeria: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, April Elections, and the Arab Spring

by Samuel Blackington

In the shadow of the Notre Dame d’Afrique, flags and banners fly above protesters who have flooded the city of Algiers, the Mediterranean capital of Algeria. It has been nearly fifty-seven years since Algeria broke free from the Third French Republic, but there remains much in the way of freedom for her people. For years, the non-profit watchdog Freedom House has labelled Algeria as ‘not free.’ The current President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has retained his position as head of state since 1999 and remains the longest sitting Algerian president. In recent years, he has suffered from a myriad of debilitating illnesses such as a recent stroke that The Economist said had left him “confined to a wheelchair” with his staunchest critics branding him as “the living dead.” Despite this and allegations of election fraud in the previous campaign, Bouteflika has sought a fifth term in office; but the timing is indeed rough.

While many other states in the Middle East and North Africa have been embroiled in civil war or the toppling of governments as a result of the Arab Spring, Algeria has been relatively fortunate. Despite continuing protests for years, the People’s Democratic Republic has generally prevailed in the nine years since the movement began. However, it has become apparent that this no longer might be the case. According to Al Jazeera, on March 1st “clashes erupted between police and protesters in Algiers as tens of thousands of people took to the streets.” This is the latest development in the capital since unrest began on February 22nd. Calls to action were sent through the typical route: via social media. Simultaneously, state radio stations have ordered a blackout of broadcasts. Further instigated by the growing issue of unemployment among working-age youth at nearly thirty percent, the issue has greater implications for Algerians who need change.

What does this entail for the current regime? It might be hard to say, but when compared to other states that have faced demonstrations in recent years, Algeria is in a difficult position. Unlike countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Algeria is not a rentier-state. That is to say that despite having a plethora of abundant resources, Algeria does not have a type of economy that allows them to grant monetary or economic concessions to her citizens. In both of the former states, there exists enough to be accrued from petroleum exports that they can virtually create public sector jobs with high salaries to give to their citizens as well as provide for bare necessities. According to the ‘rentier-state theory,’ as a result of these concessions the incentive and interest in democratization is at a bare minimum. Furthermore, if unrest occurs in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, further concessions can be granted at little loss to the government. Although being a rentier-state comes with its own set of massive issues, in this case it is exactly the type of state in the Middle East and North Africa that Bouteflika would wish Algeria to be, but is not.

When taking this into consideration, Bouteflika and his government are backed into the proverbial corner. With a high rate of unemployment among the next generation, the regime has little left to concede but itself. Algiers has been tense for years and now we are witnessing years of political issues come to a head in the old capital and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is being challenged by his citizens. It appears as if the ailing war hero president has been confronted with the greatest nightmare for a head of state in the Middle East and North Africa. The people are in the streets, the banners are raised, and the government has been confronted: the Arab Spring has finally reached Algeria.