Algeria on the Edge

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As Algerians head to the polls for nationwide elections today, the country’s three-term president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is widely expected to win re-election. Under Bouteflika’s rule, Algeria has emerged as an important partner to the United States in the fight against al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa. However, analysts worry that if Bouteflika fails to pursue substantive economic and political reforms, then his fourth term could yield conditions in Algeria similar to those that sparked “Arab Spring” uprisings in neighboring countries three years ago.

The April 17 vote will be neither free nor fair. The Algerian government’s active suppression of independent candidates has all but ensured Bouteflika’s fourth term. Opposition candidates not only were blocked from engaging with the press, non-governmental organizations and other parts of civil society, but also were prohibited from meeting with voters in public or giving speeches.

Six opposition parties, including Islamist and secular movements, have said that they are boycotting the election. Kamal Benkoussa, a former Algerian presidential opposition candidate who dropped out when Bouteflika announced that he was running for a fourth term, said that he and other politicians faced severe hurdles just getting on the ballots. Police and other security officials not only intimidated candidates trying to obtain signatures for petitions to run for office, but also harassed citizens who signed the petitions. “This dictatorship has no right to exist in the 21st century,” Benkoussa told me in an interview.

While Algeria’s political tensions are running high ahead of the elections, they’re getting little notice in the foreign press. Protests are forbidden in the country and typically are quickly suppressed by police. Still, political groups, such as Barakat! (which means “Enough!”), have organized largely peaceful demonstrations in the capital of Algiers. In Bejaia, a city that’s 150 miles from the capital, protests have escalated, with demonstrators blocking streets and throwing stones. Some observers worry if Bouteflika’s re-election leads to large-scale protests in Algiers, government security forces may respond with heavy-handed violence. “I’m afraid that international journalists will not pay attention to Algeria until there is blood in the streets,” Benkoussa told me.

On top of political concerns, Algeria’s economy is flagging. Unemployment hovers around 30 percent. Oil and gas production has dropped from 65 billion cubic meters in 2005 to only 45 billion in 2013. This drop has had a grave impact on government revenues, as hydrocarbons amount to 97 percent of Algeria’s total exports. To help pacify domestic discontent, Bouteflika’s government has redistributed oil wealth by providing subsidies to the population. The subsidies, however, have dealt with symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself.

What Algeria needs are bold political and economic reforms — things Bouteflika has not instituted, but that his critics have urged. For example, Benkoussa developed a plan to use the country’s financial reserves to build a port infrastructure and railway lines that would run from Algeria’s Mediterranean coast to as far as south as Nigeria, Congo and Zambia. The new port and rail system would allow nations throughout the continent to export goods to Europe through Algeria, and help address hunger in Africa.

It remains to be seen whether Bouteflika will advance any reforms if he’s re-elected. What’s clear, however, is that continuing on the current path will yield more economic stagnation and political volatility. As Lachen Achy, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warns, “If left unaddressed, the social, economic, and political grievances festering beneath the surface in Algeria could rapidly escalate into popular revolts that threaten the regime’s stability.”

The dangers of a destabilized Algeria cannot be overstated. As the largest nation in Africa, Algeria borders Libya and Mali, two nations that are homes to jihadist insurgencies, and thus provides a bulwark against the spread of ideologies of violent extremism. The collapse of Algeria’s bulwark could lead to large swaths of ungoverned territory in which terror groups could find safe haven, creating an even graver threat to international security than what currently exists in neighboring countries.

The United States needs an Algeria that is not just stable, but also politically sustainable, to help combat terrorism and extremism in North Africa. During Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Algiers earlier this month, he called for a future Algeria “where citizens can enjoy the free exercise of their civil, political, and human rights, and where global companies, businesses, are confident in being able to invest for the long haul.” While Kerry’s comments offered a veiled criticism of the Algerian government’s anti-democratic moves, it’s critical that Washington do more to lean on Bouteflika, once he’s re-elected, to enact long-promised political and economic reforms.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Algeria is sitting on a political powderkeg. If Bouteflika fails to push ahead with real social and economic reforms in his fourth term, he could very well spark the fuse. The United States needs to press the Algerian government to do more to avoid that outcome.

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