Protests continue as the generals try to retain control
A COUNTRY THAT could not get rid of its ruler for 20 years seems unable to pick a new one. By now, many Algerians thought they would have a new president. After months of protests brought down President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April, an election was set for July. That deadline came and went, though, with no replacement in sight. Demonstrators, angry about both stalled politics and a stalling economy, still take to the streets each week. The army, which holds de facto power, tolerates them. But nothing else has changed: the status quo has prevailed through a long, languid summer.
After giving Mr Bouteflika a final push, the army set out to dismantle the power base he built over the previous two decades. Wealthy businessmen like Ali Haddad, who made a fortune from state contracts, were carted off to jail. So were the president’s brother, two former spy chiefs and other powerful behind-the-scenes figures known as le pouvoir.
That was a good start. But the transition to democracy has not gone much further. The opposition feared that the election that was supposed to have happened in July would be rigged by the army. Almost no one bothered to register, save for two unknown candidates, one of them a veterinarian. A six-member panel of academics and politicians was then set up by the interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah (whose term expired in July). Tasked with writing a new transition plan, they started by asking for the release of jailed protesters, an end to police violence and greater freedom for the press and dissenters. The army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, rejected their terms.
The Arab world is littered with failed revolutions. Even where the army did side with protesters, as in Egypt, it later turned on them and violently restored autocratic rule. That has not happened yet in Algeria—a modest success, in the eyes of opposition activists. But the army is slowly ratcheting up the pressure on its critics. It continues to round them up on spurious charges. Dozens have been arrested for waving the Amazigh (or Berber) flag at demonstrations. Independent news websites often find themselves blocked. The government briefly shut down YouTube in August after a former defence minister released a video on the site urging soldiers to oust General Salah.
One of the main complaints about Mr Bouteflika’s long rule was a sluggish economy. Algeria is one of Africa’s largest oil and gas producers, but corruption and inefficient subsidies have squandered much of its wealth. Endless bureaucracy deterred foreign investment. Young people make up most of the population. One in four are jobless. Low oil prices have pinched the budget. Foreign reserves, though still a sizeable $65bn, are barely a third of what they were five years ago.
The current political turmoil is not helping. The economy, which grew by a modest 2.3% in 2018, will probably slow down this year. Rounding up Mr Bouteflika’s corrupt allies was the right thing to do, but it also brought short-term pain. Fertial, a fertiliser company linked to Mr Haddad, is struggling to pay wages. Sonatrach, a state energy giant, had been in talks with foreign oil majors to attract new investment. With the government unable to pass a necessary energy law, though, those talks are on hold.
Algeria has not seen the kind of violence that followed Sudan’s recent uprising, to say nothing of the horrors in Libya or Syria. But it looks stuck at a difficult impasse. The opposition wants a freely elected government that does not include the army. The army, which long feared that Mr Bouteflika was trying to sideline it, has power again and does not wish to relinquish it.
General Salah occasionally slips into the familiar language of autocrats, slandering the opposition as “traitors” bent on undermining the state. The latter part is true: Algerians want to tear down a repressive state that failed to govern well for decades. The general can either go along with them, or go the way of other strongmen.