Algeria's protracted end of an era

By Aidan Lewis
BBC News, Algiers

Image source, AFP

In a region shaken by Arab uprisings and Islamist militancy, Algeria has remained a beacon of relative stability. But with an ailing president and plunging oil price, can this last?

As Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was spirited away for his latest round of medical treatment in France in November, the rumours began again.

The state broadcaster remained silent, and Algerians were left to rely, not for the first time, on foreign news reports and speculation.

The condition and whereabouts of their 77-year-old leader have been shrouded in mystery for long periods. To some surprise he ran for a fourth term in April 2014, less than a year after suffering a stroke.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The president sat on stage in his wheelchair during his inauguration for a fourth term

Public speeches and even appearances at cabinet meetings have become increasingly rare. Confined to a wheelchair, he is reported to be living in a villa on the outskirts of Algiers, and wears a microphone to amplify his voice during meetings.

The head of the ruling National Liberation Front party recently said that Mr Bouteflika would continue to rule, and that his "mental faculties and cognitive abilities" were intact.

Still, the president's fading from view represents the end of an era. It has been so drawn-out that it has become a subject of mirth, inspiring a satirical song and humorous cartoons.

Ali Dilem, Algeria's best known caricaturist describes the situation as "ludicrous".

"We have a president who is very, very ill - there are rumours every week about his death. What's more we're talking about a president who is approaching 80 in a country where practically 70% of the population are under 30.

"We've almost got a president by default. The big question is what's going to happen next and we try not ask ourselves that too much, just to make the most of the current moment."

Media caption,
Ali Dilem talks about one of his cartoons of President Bouteflika

Intense guesswork about the president's health is in one sense a distraction, given that power in Algeria has long been contested by competing factions with roots in politics, the military, and more recently in a business elite that has grown rich off the back of oil profits.

"There's no centralised, uncontested power. Instead, you have little clusters where each person believes that he's the source of power," says Ahmed Benbitour, who served as a prime minister for Mr Bouteflika in 1999-2000, but campaigned against him last year.

The system, he adds, is autocratic, paternalistic, and patrimonial.

Image caption,
A pro-Bouteflika poster at Algiers airport shows the president's eyes peering through portraits of Algerians

"You have the leader who's surrounded by groups of courtesans who squabble in the wings as they try to please him and benefit from his favours, and those [favours] can be information, or an important post, or a contract."

The system rests on the promise of security, against the backdrop of a brutal conflict with Islamist insurgents in the 1990s, and a continuing regional threat frequently cited by the government. It is also underpinned by a wide range of state subsidies and handouts.

Both are funded with revenues from hydrocarbons sales, which account for 98% of the country's exports but are now threatened by a falling oil price.

In 2011, as the uprisings that eventually toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya began to sweep across the region, subsidies and public sector wages rose sharply. The budget for the armed forces has increased by 176% to more than $10bn since 2004, making Algeria easily the biggest military spender in Africa.

"There are a couple of things that people can't resist," says Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer, a reformist ex-governor of the Algerian central bank, offering his view on why the current system has endured.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Algeria quelled protests in 2011 with a combination of heavy policing and big subsidies

"On the one hand, fear - blackmail over the 1990s or the situation in Libya or Syria. Nothing stops us from thinking that it could happen in the same way [here]."

"On the other hand, you have generalised corruption. We have invented systems of credit for the whole population. You get free housing, or credit for a micro-businesses," though, he adds, "you have lots of young people who pretended to invest and went to buy cars and get married".

Hundreds of billions of dollars of public spending have brought steady economic growth, the construction of some infrastructure, and a surge in the consumption of subsidised and imported goods.

But with the political class seen as increasingly distant and corrupt, frequent localised riots and protests are used to make further demands.

"If you want to get your rights, since there is no political intermediary… no channel of transmission between the top and the bottom, the only channel is violence," says Mr Hadj Nacer.

As for formal politics, disillusionment is the norm, and conspiracy theories commonplace.

"We really don't understand what's going on in terms of politics because it's too abstract," says Saioud Slimane, a 30-year-old walking with friends in central Algiers.

"Is the country directed by foreign influence or is it ruled by the president on the electoral posters? We don't really feel that he's president because he is totally absent."

In that context of apathy exceptions stand out, such as a recent trend for cleaning up public spaces and painting staircases that started in the eastern town of Souk Ahras and spread to several other regions, including the capital.

Media caption,
Why multi-coloured staircases are cropping up across Algeria

The campaign has been described in part as a reaction to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit in which Algiers was classified as one of the 10 least "liveable" cities out of 140 surveyed.

But opposition politicians, activists and analysts say that the longer the current system remains in place, the harder a peaceful political transition and reform will become.

"It's not at all obvious that we'll manage it in the immediate future, because the balance of power remains clearly in favour of the current regime," says Abderrazak Makri, leader of the Movement for Society and Peace, a moderate Islamist opposition party.

He says that the coalition he belongs to, which was formed in the summer and unites his party with the staunchly secular RCD as well as other allies, represents different ideological traditions within the opposition.

But he warns: "If we don't move immediately in the three-four next years, to try to use the resources we have in our hands, for real economic development outside oil and gas, we fear that Algeria will be heading for collapse."

Much will hang on the oil price.

Algeria needs that to rise back above $120 per barrel to break even, according to the International Monetary Fund, though it has a built up foreign reserves of nearly $200bn and an oil savings fund of more than $50bn.

Mr Bouteflika expressed his conviction in a statement last month that Algeria would get through the oil price turbulence "without serious difficulties".

Mr Hadj Nacer's is more sceptical. "With $200bn you can carry on wasting money for three years, no problem," he says.

"The difficulty for the state is not that it hasn't got money, it's that there does come a moment when you have to make the population accept that petrol, bread and all the subsidised products are going to cost a bit more."

And, he adds, "I don't think the current regime is capable of negotiating with its citizens."

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