Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 9 April 2020

In Algeria, some painful reminders of years gone by

Abdelkader Cheref takes stock of the economic situation in Algeria
Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Louafi Larbi / Reuters
Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Louafi Larbi / Reuters

Last month the Algerian government released its economic plan for the next three years.

The government stated that food imports have reached nearly $2 billion annually. The recent oil price drop and subsequent decrease in export earnings have placed a critical strain on the treasury.

The authorities intend to reduce subsidies on food and the increase in price of staples such as bread and milk may prompt social tensions to rise still further.

The current socio-economic and political situation bears a striking resemblance with 1988, when the country was consumed by October riots. The present situation is also marked by a high unemployment rate, which independent organisations say is close to 25 per cent.

Salima Ghezali, a leading Algerian commentator and human rights activist, says that “the current political situation is grim” and hardly a week goes by without protests breaking out.

For the time being, football stadiums are the only places where people openly voice their frustrations about economic inequalities, political disenfranchisement and hogra (injustice on the part of the powerful). Football games are seen as a catalyst for and barometer of dissent.

The week long riots of October 1988 were the most serious in the years after Algeria gained independence from French colonial rule in 1962.

The riots involved thousands of frustrated youths who targeted symbols of the state, such as official vehicles and buildings, which were set on fire.

The government declared a state of emergency and began using live ammunition to quell protesters.

I monitored the riots at the time as an academic and an observer.

By the end of the week, when an uneasy calm had been restored, unofficial estimates were that as many as 500 people had been killed and more than 3,500 had been jailed. 

The riots eventually led to the fall of the National Liberation Front – the country’s one-party system which had been in power since independence, and ushered in a brief period of multi party democracy, and the first free elections in Algeria. But the 1992 civil war changed all that.

There is still plenty to be mad about in Algeria. It is clear that it is caught in the classic rentier economy trap.

With its huge petrochemical reserves, Algeria has enjoyed a period of incomparable fiscal affluence for the past 15 years.

The bounty has helped buy social peace and harmony, but the government has not invested significantly enough in Algeria’s future.

Many significant industrial projects have come to a grinding halt. The public health sector has taken a turn for the worse and schools and universities have seen far better days.

With a range of demographic and social pressures combined with president Abdelaziz Bouteflika being in poor health and a government programme unable to rescue the ailing economy, protests are looming on the horizon.

So far, some apparatchiks are trying to put the blame on “foreign hands” and external forces being responsible for Algeria’s social woes. They hope to buy time to work through internal divisions and remain in power. But without reform, the next unrest will be much harder for the government to contain. 

Dr Abdelkader Cheref is a professor at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah

Updated: November 16, 2016 04:00 AM