Is Algeria facing a year of upheaval?

A series of protests among public sector workers recently upset Algeria's delicate balance. Abdelkader Cheref assesses what is likely to happen next

Algeria's president Abdelaziz Bouteflika's public appearances have become rare since 2013. Louafi Larbi / Reuters File
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Algeria has recently been shaken by a series of labour strikes and demonstrations in both the education and health care sectors, but is the country facing a year of historic upheaval?

As Algeria's 2019 presidential election approaches and with it the prospect of a fifth term for president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 81, many in his government blame the recent social upheaval on "foreign hands".

Over the past three months, members of a handful of teaching unions went on strike over pay and working conditions. But when conciliation attempts between the unions and the government reached a dead end, the regime turned to Imam Ali Aya, a well-known religious figure, to defuse the situation. But his efforts have, so far, come to nothing.

Concurrently, nearly 13,000 workers in the public health sector have been on strike for almost three months despite the courts declaring their actions illegal. They have also held protests over salaries, poor working conditions and exemption from military service.

Making matters worse, the police forcefully dispersed a public sector workers' sit-in in Algiers where 20 protesters were injured and several arrested.

In the southern part of the country, the socio-economic situation of the Tuaregs is still marked by marginalisation, exclusion and malaise. Their leader, Ahmed Edaber, sent an ultimatum to the authorities before he “takes action,” he said. On the other side, Tahar Belabbas, the leading figure of the “Movement of the Unemployed in the South,” has asked for “genuine change”.

These protests come at a time of persistent political uncertainty. Mr Bouteflika has not directly spoken to the public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

It should be noted that since securing its independence from France in 1962, Algeria’s ruling elite has tried to maintain social harmony through public spending, which has increased considerably since Mr Bouteflika came to power in 1999. But the options are diminishing with every round of public unrest.

Annual oil and gas revenues have dramatically decreased since 2014, forcing the system to cut subsidies and secure new sources of funding to cover the budget deficit. The government also limited the import of hundreds of goods. Cost of living indicators show that food prices have risen by as much as 15 per cent.

It is in this challenging context, and to soften the blow, that Mr Bouteflika invited striking doctors and teachers to put an end to their disagreement with officials, arguing that the volatile nature of global oil markets and the shockwaves it sends through the public purse "requires that we get our economy out of dependence on oil revenues”.

This is at odds with the reality on the ground. Diversifying the economy has been a major issue in post-independence Algeria, but successive policies have failed to reduce its addiction to oil revenues.

When compared to its resource-poor neighbours, it is obvious that Algeria is falling backwards. The 2016 Panama Papers scandal appeared to reveal widespread corruption among officials such as a former minister and executives of Sonatrach, the state-owned oil company.

The University of Lyon based Algerian sociologist, Lahouari Addi, argued in a conference last week that Algeria had garnered $1 trillion in the period from 2002 to 2014. While $500 billion were netted by foreign companies for infrastructure construction, $300 billion was devoted to imported goods. However, the remaining $200 billion vanished in the form of overbilling and collection of hidden commissions on major import and export contracts.

The ruling elite appears to be reluctant to address the socioeconomic difficulties of Algeria’s 40 million people. The ongoing positioning to one day succeed Mr Bou­teflika may well prompt a series of public con­vul­sions. The impact of an Algerian state in crisis could not and should not be underestimated.

Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an independent scholar based in the United States