Assessing the Resilience of the Algerian Regime

Year 2 of the Algerian Revolution · As Hirak celebrates its first anniversary, it’s time to take stock. In a country accustomed to demonstrations, the wave of protests that was first directed against former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the late Chief of Staff of the National People’s Army Gaïd Salah impressed by his civic-mindedness and pacifism. But if the regime has managed to ensure its survival in the short term, how much longer will it be able to postpone the structural reforms that Algeria needs?

“System, get out”, March 16, 2019 Demonstration
Fahim Moussaoui/Wikimedia Commons

For more than a year, Algeria has repeatedly experienced massive demonstrations directed against the regime incarnated by former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the now-defunct chief of staff, Gaid Salah. Having no institutional mechanisms to relay popular grievances, Algerian citizens who feel unable to influence domestic politics are compelled to create a disruptive presence to force the ruling elites to listen to their demands. However, as the momentum created by the Hirak movement is waning in intensity, one thing is clear—the Algerian regime has been able to survive a powerful protest movement without resorting to a bloody repression as was the case during the October 1988 riots.

When the Hirak movement erupted onto the national stage in early 2019, things looked dire for the regime and consequently, many analysts speculated about its short-term survival. At the beginning of the protests, the Algerian leadership not only failed to grasp the sense of anger felt among many sections of the society, but through the condescending attitude of the regime’s most prominent figures, it added fuel to the fire. Eventually, the ANP responded to people’s grievances by sacrificing Bouteflika and his crew while dismissing many members of the old guard. However, these cosmetic changes did little to quell the anger. Indeed, for many Algerians, it was clear that the new leadership’s iteration incarnated by 74-year-old president Abdelmajid Tebboune and chief of staff Said Chengriha represented more a change in continuity than an actual rupture from the old mode of governance.

Lessons from the civil war

However, despite the continuous demonstrations, the Algerian regime has been able to hold on to power by capitalizing on its strengths. In the 18th century, Voltaire famously remarked that while most States had an army, the Prussian army had a state. Similarly, in Algeria, the government and the army represent the two sides of the same coin. The People’s National Army (ANP) has historically hidden military control behind a civilian rule and all of Algeria’s heads of state have been vetted by the ANP and Algeria’s government state intelligence agency prior to taking office. As noticed by political scientist Steven A. Cook, it is not the demonstrations of early 2019 that forced Bouteflika to drop his candidacy but the ANP’s senior leadership that made the conscious choice to sacrifice the president and his crew to save the regime.

More importantly, the regime has historically demonstrated its willingness to intervene in domestic politics whenever its core interests are at stake. In 1992, a military coup prevented the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from winning the second round of the legislative elections. As such, the Algerian regime has learned a crucial lesson from the 1990s civil war as well as the 2011 Arab uprising: keep your friends close and maintain control over political developments. Along those lines, the resilience of Bachar Al Assad’s regime in Syria should serve as a powerful reminder that brutal autocratic regimes can outlive violent uprisings by resorting to scorched-earth policies. Although the bloodshed is over, many Algerians are still haunted by the spectre of the 1990s civil war. Residual forms of terrorist activities persist in the northern part of the country while Jihadi groups remain very active in the southern regions. Even if many Algerians hold heavy grievances against the regime, the memory of beheaded corps and slaughtered newborns is vivid enough to deter many people from seeking radical change. In practice, the peaceful nature of demonstrations owns to the fact that deep inside, many Algerians are all too aware how far the regime is willing to go to stay in power.

The army involved in the economy

Algeria’s military leadership has everything to lose and not much to win to simply validate a democratic transition. If the importance and diversity of the army’s economic operations is hard to estimate, the ANP is heavily involved in the country’s economy.1 Additionally, the military-industrial complex enjoys tax exemptions, cheap government land, low-interest loans and other privileges not available to the private sector.2

Algeria is a rentier state, supported by revenues independent of domestic taxation, and thus the population. According to the World Bank, hydrocarbons represent 98% of the country’s exports while the control of Sonatrach, the national state-owned oil and gas company rests firmly in the hands of the regime. Soldiers and policemen make or break revolutions. Along those lines, even if Algeria’s financial situation has deteriorated since 2014, the cash derived from the hydrocarbons exploitation revenues is sufficient to ensure the loyalty of the security apparatus.

The Hirak movement’s inability to fragment the regime’s repressive apparatus is resulting in a situation where the Algerian leadership is confident in its ability to outlive the protests. Additionally, the Hirak movement is falling victim to its leaderless nature. Rejecting the regime is one thing, having a vision about how to bring effective change is another one. A year removed from the beginning of the mass demonstrations, supporters of the movement are now increasingly divided between those ready to negotiate with the regime and hardcore protesters unwilling to compromise. Among the initial protesters, many believe that the Hirak fulfilled its mission by removing Bouteflika and his entourage from power.

Status quo, but until when?

By waging a war of attrition, the regime may have succeeded in wearing down the movement. However, the Algerian leadership’s obsession about fending off immediate threats is undermining its long-term survival. More importantly, the wide gap between rulers and ruled makes it virtually impossible to implement the structural reforms Algeria desperately needs. John F. Kennedy famously said, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Half of Algeria’s population is under 30 and the country’s youth is pushing for a generational shift. People born in the 1990s have no memories of the civil war. Coming of age in the late 2000s and early 2010s, they feel excluded from an economic model that is struggling to cope with the continuous entry of many young people on a lethargic job market. The situation is further compounded by economic hurdles—inflation remains high and life is becoming more difficult by the day. Due to a lack of investments, Algeria’s oil and gas output have diminished while the remaining foreign currency reserves only cover two years of import. Therefore, many analysts warn of a bleak future for the country and its population.

The regime is in survival mode but as the country’s economy remains stagnant, Algeria’s immediate future will be characterized by a slow but inevitable decay. In its modern history, Algeria has witnessed many upheavals, perhaps more than many of its neighbours in North Africa. While the largest African country might not be on the verge of an immediate revolution, how long can the regime last is anyone’s guess.

1Bellin, Eva. 2004. “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective” Comparative Politics 36 (2): 143.

2Garçon José and Affuzi Pierre. 1998. L’Armée algérienne: Le Pouvoir de l’ombre, Paris, Seuil.