The median age of the Algerian population is 27 years, and 46 percent of the population is under the age of 24. But its president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is 76 years old, and is now set to take another five-year term that will have him in office at age 80. And Mr. Bouteflika is already suffering from poor health that has led him to spend months on end in France for medical treatment.
So another term for him would be odd but acceptable if he were the free choice of the Algerian people. But he isn’t; opposition to his re-election is being crushed by the authorities, the infamous and secretive “Pouvoir” (French for “power”) that runs the country (and is usually thought to consist mainly of the Army and especially the military intelligence services).
As an article in the Financial Times put it, no opponent has a real chance:
But just in case, the president’s allies have so stacked the decks in his favour that most credible opposition parties say they will not field candidates and called instead for a boycott. Several issued a statement on Monday calling the April 17 elections a “farce whose outcome is already known in the absence of the conditions of fairness and neutrality”.
After deciding to run, financial consultant Kamal Benkoussa found long-scheduled meetings with civil society groups were suddenly cancelled. He says they were threatened at the last-minute with the loss of state funding if they met him. Newspapers suddenly refused to publish stories after long interviews or reversed course on letters of his they had agreed to print. Algerian broadcast channels have all but blacklisted him, though he is welcomed on foreign pan-Arab channels.
Mr. Benkoussa, whom I’ve met in Washington, is 41, and talks a great deal about Algeria’s terrible problem of youth unemployment. His main goal is to get the economy moving, but of course he can’t get his message out when the regime imposes a media blackout.
Algeria is a rich country with a poor population. Youth unemployment is high, and so is poverty, while hydrocarbon exports mean there are sizable financial reserves and almost no foreign debt. The problem is the heavy hand of the state, as the CIA World Factbook summarizes:
Algeria’s economy remains dominated by the state, a legacy of the country’s socialist post-independence development model. In recent years the Algerian Government has halted the privatization of state-owned industries and imposed restrictions on imports and foreign involvement in its economy….Algeria has the 10th-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and is the sixth-largest gas exporter. It ranks 16th in oil reserves. Strong revenues from hydrocarbon exports have brought Algeria relative macroeconomic stability, with foreign currency reserves approaching $200 billion and a large budget stabilization fund available for tapping. In addition, Algeria’s external debt is extremely low at about 2% of GDP. However, Algeria has struggled to develop non-hydrocarbon industries because of heavy regulation and an emphasis on state-driven growth.
Of course that heavy hand extends beyond the economy; the regime refuses to allow free elections or a free debate over Algeria’s future. And by tapping Bouteflika for yet another term (his fourth) at age 76 and despite his illness, Algeria’s rulers are making it clear that change will not be permitted.
Can it last? The disorder in Libya, Egypt, and Syria as well as the violence in Algeria’s own history will surely make any Algerian prize calm. But the refusal to allow reform and the insistence on shutting up those who seek moderate change put the country’s future at risk.