Algeria: The West should keep calm and carry on not interfering
Algeria survived a similar situation to its current predicament in 2011, during the so-called “Arab Spring.” The government managed to tamp down the revolutionary passions through swift reforms and boosts to public-sector pay.
Unfortunately, Algiers did not foresee the sharp downturn in oil prices a few years later, which affected government revenues and, in turn, the funding for the generous subsidies that were key to maintaining stability. The economy is still in recovery and yet to claw its way back to the record gross domestic product of $214 billion recorded in 2014.
However, that recovery is in jeopardy as long as power struggles continue to handicap the National People’s Assembly. Even the military, which has long safeguarded Algeria’s stability, has not been spared the clouds of uncertainty in the corridors of power. Doubts and mistrust now plague the interwoven links among the elites of “le pouvoir,” or “the power,” the name given by Algerians to the “select group” that makes the major decisions. A few months ago, senior military personnel were replaced in what some viewed as a realignment to favor the incumbent just before the scheduled presidential election.
Initially, protesters gathered to oppose plans by that ailing incumbent, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, to seek a fifth term. He responded not only by withdrawing his candidacy but also by postponing the presidential election indefinitely in lieu of political, constitutional and economic reforms that he plans to oversee. This only further irked the protesters.
Bouteflika’s decision was emblematic of the core grievances of many Algerians and a reflection of just how out of touch the leadership seems to be, even at this critical juncture. As a result, the chants have changed to demands for the president to step down immediately, a proposition that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago given his powerful and influential backing and his role in the liberation of Algeria from France.
These calls have been joined by an emerging coalition of opposition figures, backed by thousands of civil societies, trade unions and professional associations. To that end, Algerians have staged the largest protests the country has seen in more than two decades and it is not likely they will dissipate until Bouteflika steps down. At this point, even the use of force to disperse protesters is likely only to spur even more people to pour on to the streets, which could lead to demands for greater changes beyond a presidential resignation.
The best thing outsiders in general can do now is stay out of Algeria and avoid repeating the disastrous mistakes of the past in Syria, Egypt and Libya.
The international community can only wait with bated breath as events unfold in Algeria and hope that no contagion spreads to other countries. The United States and Europe would prefer a return to calm because a destabilized Algeria has grievous consequences: Algeria exports more than $4 billion of crude to the United States and more than 10 percent of Europe’s natural gas.
International concerns are not limited to Algeria’s oil wealth and 20 trillion cubic meters of shale gas potential, however. For the United States and its European allies, Algeria is a major bulwark against the growth of extremist terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which have grown significantly, buoyed by instability in the Sahel region and Libya. As a result, Algeria has emerged as a major counterterrorism stronghold.
For Europe, a stable Algeria is also crucial to stemming the tide of immigrants from the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa who head north in search of “greener pastures.” The risks of a destabilized Algeria are therefore too grave for Europe, the United States and even regional partners to ignore, and much more worrying than neighboring Libya’s ongoing chaos.
Scenarios have been suggested by analysts and observers keen to map out how recent developments will conclude and what their aftermath might be, especially with regard to safeguarding foreign interests. Firstly, it is clear that even if the protests swell and demands for the president to resign become more raucous, it would be the height of folly for Bouteflika to exit office without a successor. However, one of the reasons why Algeria is in crisis is because factions within the elites cannot agree on his replacement. Naming one now would do little to assuage concerns of the successor’s legitimacy, and probably foment fresh protests. The mostly likely outcome is a military takeover but the coalition of opposition figures has warned against the military usurping the civilian government just to quell protests, as has been witnessed in other Arab countries.
Secondly, even if a successor emerged and gained the support of most of the country, Algeria’s stagnant economy could potentially trigger new unrest. The country’s hydrocarbon sector contributes 30 percent of GDP, 60 percent of government revenues and 95 percent of export earnings, making it extremely sensitive to sharp downturns in commodity prices, like the one in 2014 that left the economy reeling. This forced the government to tap into its foreign reserves, which have declined by 50 percent over the past five years. The most immediate remedy is to allow further exploration of oil and gas fields and to diversify the economy by investing heavily in agriculture, manufacturing and services industries. This would not be cheap but it would certainly be a welcome sign of “progress.”
Other potentially troubling developments include the increasing friction between the ruling elites. Such a splintering at the highest levels of power will only further complicate the delicate discussions necessary for mapping a path out of the present crisis. Meanwhile, recently retired military and security chiefs could further agitate the anti-establishment protests, especially among military and law-enforcement ranks. This will lend the protests an extra veneer of legitimacy, which would probably prolong them.
To address these concerns, the most that outsiders such as the United States and its European allies can do is urge calm and intensify their outreach efforts. Ultimately, the best thing outsiders in general can do now is stay out of Algeria and avoid repeating the disastrous mistakes of the past in Syria, Egypt and Libya.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.