Algeria on the Brink?

Five Years After the Arab Spring

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attends the opening session of the first Gas Exporting Countries Forum summit in Doha, November, 2011. Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters

Amid the political turmoil that has shaped the Middle East and North Africa since 2011, the Algerian regime has proved resilient. Over the past five decades, the country has undergone periods of instability and crisis. After a brutal war that brought Algeria its liberation in 1962, French rule was replaced by a single-party state, military authoritarianism, and an oligarchy that still dominates the country 54 years later. As the Algerian lawyer and human rights activist Ali Yahia Abdennour once said, “We liberated the land, but not the people.” Even now, Algeria remains ruled by an opaque combination of military and security personnel and political elites. Yet Algeria’s regime remains standing, even as signs of decay pervade the country’s hollowed-out political system.

In February, I arrived in Algiers a day after parliament approved a new constitution. An atmosphere of discontent lingered in the streets. There was talk of crisis—oil prices had slumped and the dinar had depreciated—but Algerians have long grown used to such talk. Indeed, the country’s recent history has been filled with constant tension.

Today, however, Algeria’s apparently unchangeable status quo faces a combination of internal and external challenges that could plunge the country into disorder. The collapse in global oil prices has ramped up the pressure on the country’s economy, leading to rising unemployment. Frustration at corruption and an overbearing state bureaucracy have strengthened protest movements across the country.

The pressure comes at a bad time for Algeria’s ruling elites, who are struggling to work out what will happen when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule comes to an end. Now 78, Bouteflika has ruled the country since 1999. But after suffering a stroke in 2013, he has rarely been seen in public, leading many to wonder what role he actually plays in managing daily affairs. When he does appear, wheelchair-bound and frail, he is the embodiment of the regime he represents: aged and aloof, part of a generation of 70-year-olds presiding over a country in which roughly

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