Which direction will the uprising take in Algeria?

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Which direction will the uprising take in Algeria?

Basem Aly

18 Aug 2019

7min min read
  • Political stability

n 1991, Samuel Huntington, Harvard’s renowned political scientist, shared his take on why the “third-wave transitions to democracy” had occurred in multiple parts of the world during the 1970s and 1980s. Among the reasons provided were the “deepening legitimacy problems of authoritarian regimes”, “unprecedented global economic growth of the 1960s” and a “snowballing” effect. At the time, it was hard to predict that the same set of drivers would remain applicable to future waves of democratisation in other parts of the world: Huntington was speaking only about Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Eastern Europe and Central America. However, Algeria has recently proved that Huntington’s theory was long-lived and well-structured. 

From the Arab Spring to the Smile Revolution

To examine the current movement in Algeria today, we need to look at a previous pro-democracy wave that almost everyone had thought had reached its end given the economic, social and political costs involved. 

The uprisings, known worldwide as the Arab Spring, began in some Arab countries eight years ago while others were lucky enough to avoid them. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, the protest movements calling for social and political rights were eventually overtaken by locally and externally-supported armed groups and tribes, turning these countries into conflict zones with civil wars still ongoing today. In Tunisia and Egypt, despite dissimilarities in their political outcomes, it took years to achieve some level of internal stability. Repeated domestic unrest, economic downturns and the rise of insurgent and terrorist groups were part of the price that everyone paid. 

Surprisingly, the end of the story has yet to be written. In the years since the Arab Spring, economic pressures have served as a catalyst for the rise of new movements. In Morocco, protests against socio-economic conditions in the northern Rif region took place in 2016 and 2017 following the death of a local fish monger, Mouhcine Fikri. Protests against poverty were again reported in the northeastern town of Jerada in 2018. Tunisia also experienced anti-austerity protests in Tunis in 2018, while protests against a proposed income tax law and increase to the price of basic goods erupted in Jordan during the same year. 

"Surprisingly, the end of the story has yet to be written. In the years since the Arab Spring, economic pressures have served as a catalyst for the rise of new movements."

While protests undoubtedly continued in the region over this period, they nevertheless occurred on a smaller scale and with less of an impact to the political map compared to those of 2011 – until recently that is. In 2019, Algeria (and Sudan) have taken such protests to the next level: regime change.

The current Algerian Hirak movement (also known as the Smile Revolution) was inspired by effective cases of popular, non-politicised mobilisation in North African states, such as those in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. This precedent gave hope to the youth and their families that the Arab Spring was not dead yet and that momentum could still be achieved, particularly in light of poor economic conditions in the country. As one protester expressed: “There’s nothing for the young generation.” A mother of five children added, “[There’s] no jobs and no houses. They can’t get married. We want this whole system to go”. 

In this regard, the multi-year drop in the price of oil had led to a decrease in state revenues and increase in fiscal deficits in Algeria, rendering social programmes and subsidies a burden to the state. Consequentially, the unemployment rate increased from 10.5 percent in September 2016 to 11.7 percent in September 2017, while 10 percent of the population remains prone to poverty today. Moreover, according to the World Bank, those with a good education, along with the youth and women, suffer high levels of joblessness. This state of affairs gives clarity as to why these sections of the population led the initial protests.  

However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Bouteflika himself. In February 2019, the 82-year old, who remains severely ill and unable to appear in public, declared that he would run for a fifth presidential term in April. Bouteflika justified his decision by responding to an “unwavering desire to serve”, although knowing that “of course, I am no longer the same physical force as before –something that I have never hidden from the people.” After two decades under his rule, the people were inspired to mobilise and march for regime change.  

Low likelihood of a civil war

As protests continue, questions remain over the political outlook for the country. This is a test that all societies that took part in the Arab Spring had to undertake, with each writing its own answer. The good news is that Algeria has a very limited, if nonexistent, chance of sliding into a civil war. There are strong grounds for such optimism. 

Firstly, Algeria’s North African neighbours have little tolerance for overseeing a new Libya in the region given the expected and unwelcomed implications associated with such a political deterioration, such as a refugee crisis and cross-border arms smuggling. Regional and international diplomacy is expected to prevent this. Secondly, there are no ethnic or tribal divisions, as was the case in Syria and Libya, which could increase the likelihood of war over political power and resources. In Algeria, 99% of the population is Arab-Berber. Thirdly, the conditions that led to the 11-year civil war between the government and various Islamist groups during the 1990s no longer exist. Bouteflika ended the war by granting amnesty to Islamist militants, state-backed local groups and security forces in 2000 whilst the Islamist Salvation Front (FIS) remains banned today. Moreover, those militants who continue to stage attacks are confined to remote, mountainous regions of the country. 

An ongoing stalemate

Despite this, Algeria is in the midst of a political crisis between the army (who remains in charge) and the protesters. The protests have not stopped with the ousting of Bouteflika – unlike what was seen in Egypt after Mubarak’s removal in 2011 - as they have expressed dissatisfaction with the military’s rule. The military itself, however, does not seem ready to offer more than what it has put on the table. 

Admittedly, the army deserves credit for the ousting of Bouteflika in April who resigned hours after army chief and ally Ahmed Gaid Salah called for his impeachment. Under the oversight of the military, a number of well-known politicians and businessmen associated with Bouteflika have also been arrested in an attempt at overhauling the previous administration. However, the protesters have demanded that Salah, along with interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and Premier Noureddine Bedoui, leave power as well - chanting “thieves” and “rubbish” during demonstrations. 

"As witnessed recently in Sudan, it is imperative that negotiations start in Algeria even amidst complete disagreement over the roadmap, with consensus and trust to be built on a gradual basis."

In this regard, many of Algeria’s political elite today rose to power after the war of independence from France during the 1950s and 1960s, demonstrating that they have remained in power for decades. With 70 percent of the population under the age of 30 in Algeria, the people are demanding new and more relevant representation within government. 

This entails removing all affiliates of the old regime, including the military. Indeed, before any talks could be held, Karim Younes, head of the newly established national dialogue commission, requested that Bensalah dismiss the government.  

While addressing graduates from military schools - which might seem provocative for civilian, protest movements – Salah recently warned that "there is no more time to lose", and that "holding elections is the main point the dialogue should focus on." However, protesters have refused Bensalah's offer for a multi-party national dialogue that encompasses civil society groups, political parties, national figures, youth movements and political activists until their demands for an overhaul of government have been met. As such, presidential elections that were expected to be held on 4 July have been postponed indefinitely.  

Algerian protesters have likely adopted this stance after learning from their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, as the latter withdrew from the streets after Mubarak and Ben Ali stepped down. Over time, due to growing divisions between social movements and political parties, it became harder to mobilise protesters and demand further change. As such, youth protesters in Algeria want to maintain as much political influence as possible through constant demonstrations; however, creating a balance between acts of contentious politics and political representation will be key to their future. Only a channel, such as the national dialogue, could have paved the way for in-depth discussions regarding elections, campaigning details and even the transformation of the youth movement into a legal political player that could compete in legislative and presidential elections. 


This absence of a shared vision is a concerning sign for the future of Algeria, particularly as the army - unlike in Tunisia - continues to see itself as a political actor and is unwilling to give up power. While this deadlock is likely to spur long-term unrest by the protesters, it could also spur a total military takeover and cancellation of any negotiations regarding the country's new politico-constitutional arrangements. In this scenario, the army will be solely in charge of setting the electoral agenda, writing a new constitution and shaping the future of the political system. The protest leaders will accordingly have no input in the decision-making process. Amidst a political vacuum - for transitional rulers cannot stay in power forever - and a severe economic crisis, saving the country from an unknown future would serve as a strong justification by the army for such a move, and large sects of society may even come to accept it. 

As such, as witnessed recently in Sudan, it is imperative that negotiations start in Algeria even amidst complete disagreement over the roadmap, with consensus and trust to be built on a gradual basis. This lack of trust is deep-rooted, especially given the long history of authoritarianism in the country. On the one hand, the army generals are likely concerned about being taken to court should civilian power be established. On the other hand, the protest leaders cannot forget that Salah and his aides were key figures in Bouteflika's regime. Only talks can bridge this divide, particularly the holding of talks without "preconditions". Without this, the democratic future for the North African country will be in question due to the absence of political wisdom in dealing with civilian-military relationships.

(Main image: Algerian students protest against the fifth term of Abdelaziz Bouteflika - Farouk Batiche/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.