Why Algeria's Grievances Don't Spark a Rebellion

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Farouk Batiche / AFP / Getty Images

People listen to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (on poster) on May 8, 2012 during a commemoration ceremony of the May 8, 1945 massacre in Setif when French authorities open fire against local demonstrators.

Earlier this month, a policeman offering no explanation simply confiscated the cigarettes that Rachak Hamza, 25, had been vending in a desperate effort to make ends meet. Local papers in the easter Algerian port city of Jijel, say Hamza erupted in a "fit of rage," returning to the scene with a tank of gas which he used to drench his body before lighting a match. But unlike the similar act of outrage by vegetable vendor Mohammed Bouazizi that triggered last year's revolution in neighboring Tunisia, Hamza's story was quickly forgotten. Indeed, it was just one of at least 50 acts of self-immolation as protest reported across Algeria since January last year, according to local health authorities. None of them has, thus far, inspired a revolt.

Closer to the capital, the words "we want freedom" are spray-painted in Arabic alongside mobile homes in the suburb of Ain Taya. Down the road, in French, the words "On Vuet Vivre" — we want to live — decorate another building.

Algeria's ruling party took nearly half the seats in parliamentary elections last week, a stunning deviation from previous votes that saw significant opposition victories, particularly among Islamist parties. The ruling National Liberation Front said Wednesday the vote confirmed the electorate's desire "to safeguard national stability," but opposition groups have cried fraud. If the wave of religious conservatism sweeping this North African country is any indication, Islamists are far more influential in Algeria than its election results reflect.

On the street, beleaguered citizens believe change is beyond reach. Unemployment is too high; youth activism is too low; and memories are still seared by the decade-long bloodbath that followed the military's overturning of the 1991 election that looked set to bring the Islamists to power. Corruption is rampant, draining the country of much of the wealth generated by its oil exports. "The issue here, very simple, is democracy," says Makri Abderrazak, a former member of parliament and vice president of the Movement for the Society of Peace, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which swept elections in Tunisia and Egypt. "People want jobs, people want basic rights, people want to benefit from the country's resources, but this government is not giving them the chance and this fraudulent election means things will only get worse."

To many observers, Algeria, Africa's second largest nation, has all the ingredients for a perfect storm. So why then has it been the exception to the so-called Arab Spring, even as activists take to the streets and Islamist parties increasingly garner grassroot support? Algerians offer a number of explanations.

Unlike in many Arab nations, Algeria's president of 13 years, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has earned considerable support among his citizens. Many credit him with ending the bloody civil war of the 1990s that left more than 200,000 dead. Protesters did, of course, take to Algeria's streets in January 2011, as their peers in Tunisia and Egypt were doing. But Bouteflika responded promptly, scrapping Algeria's controversial emergency law, a longtime demand of the opposition, and offering pay rises and other concessions to placate growing discontent.

Abderrazak, who also serves as campaign manager for the Islamist-coalition, the Green Alliance, argues that as the head of state Bouteflika should be held responsible for the failures of his government, but many don't agree. "Bouteflika is not Mubarak, and Algeria is not Egypt," says Walid Sid Ahmed, 28, an entrepreneur from Telemly, a section of the capital, Algiers. Human rights activist and blogger Yacine Zaid says Algeria's moment may have passed. "We already tried our revolution, and it has cost more than 200,000 lives, and thousands more missing," he says. "The biggest problem in Algeria and it has oil which silences even the West from defending us, as long as their interests are secured."

Algeria, an OPEC member, has the third-largest proven oil reserves in Africa behind Libya and Nigeria. The U.S. buys about 30 percent of Algeria's crude-oil exports, accounting for 3.6 percent of its petroleum imports in 2010. About 60 percent of Algeria's income comes from oil production.

"Algeria is still a possible Arab Spring country," says Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert at National Defense University in Washington. "The economic and social trends point that way." But to many in this former French colony, the lingering trauma of war is still far too vivid to contemplate a revolt, and the potential for Islamist victories trigger fears of an even bloodier war. The civil war began in 1992 after Algeria's military staged a coup d'état blocking the country's leading Islamic movement, the Islamic Salvation Front, from a potentially crushing victory in the second round of what would have been Algeria's first democratic election. Guerilla war ensued sparking massacres that destroyed villages . The war ended in 2005 with the signing of the controversial Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation proposed by Bouteflika, which offered an amnesty for most violence committed in the civil war. "They were very dark days for us," recalls Kamal Adnan, 58, a taxi driver. "It is a miracle to be alive."

Sullivan adds: "Many may be looking at Syria, a country which has a powerful military that is tight with the leadership, just like Algeria. Algers' pouvoir is mostly made up of retired generals and they don't want any trouble."

Politically, the country has come a long way since then, but economically, it is at a stalemate, which raises the risk of social instability. Government spending is on the rise, particularly with recent increases on subsidizing basic consumer commodities such as wheat, sugar, and milk, as well as an increase of civil servant wages, creation of new public jobs and funding public housing projects for the middle class and poor. Most significantly, 70 percent of Algeria's population is under 25 years of age and unemployment is over 10 percent. They are growing increasingly disenfranchised with shrinking opportunities and lack of political inspiration among the country's leadership. "The young people are lost, and there is no reliable opposition movement that is strong enough to lead them," said Zaid. "They are living spirits, shouldering a lot of misery, expecting change to happen anywhere but Algeria."