Algeria: When Frustration Turns To Fury


March 4, 2020: There is a new president and so far he has been doing things protestors have demanded for over a year. Most Algerians opposed the recently replaced interim military government and its decision to hold presidential elections on December 12th. This was not an instant disaster because the candidate elected, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister, formed his new government by appointing new government ministers that most protesters approved of, or could not criticize. None of the new ministers had opposed the weekly protests. Tebboune has also met with protest leaders and simultaneously organized an effort to create a new constitution that would make it more difficult for him or any future president, to again become a corrupt “president-for-life”. The new president, as a former senior official himself, knows that there are many senior people in the government, military and business community who oppose such changes. Such opposition has to be expressed quietly but it is still there, and it will be a year or more before it will be clear if a new, dictator-proof, constitution is possible or not.

Most Algerians felt that rushing elections favored the election of another corrupt politician who would act like all the previous ones. In other words there would be a few token prosecutions for corruption but the majority of the corrupt bureaucrats and business owners would return to their outlaw ways. That does not appear to be happening and one reason or that is that 70 percent of the Algerian unemployed are job-seekers in their late teens and 20s. Many have never been able to get a job. The unemployment rate is about 15 percent, up from the 12 percent is was stuck at for several years. The weekly nationwide protests have been going on for a year now and it is clear that Algerians could turn to violence if they feel they have exhausted peaceful options. Military leaders point out that many of the young troops identify with their many unemployed contemporaries. So far there have not been any shift to violence and so far the new president is keeping the peace but eventually, frustration turns to fury and the situation gets nasty.

The opposition to the presidential race was active but not violent. There were five candidates and all of them encountered lackluster crowds (including hecklers) or no people at all when a candidate would normally expect some supporters to show up. Campaign headquarters were sometimes attacked but not in a violent way. Usually just pelted with eggs or defaced with anti-election slogans and posters. Three of the candidates (including the winner) had close ties to the disgraced FLN party that was led by deposed president-for-life Bouteflika. A fourth candidate (Abdelaziz Belaid ) was a known reformer who was willing to work with the FLN/Bouteflika government to achieve change. The fifth candidate was the head of an Islamic party that has cooperated with FLN in the past. The electoral commission disallowed 17 other candidates for various reasons. None of the five candidates had a lot of popular support and the three associated most with the FLN were thought to have the least of all. Most Algerians feared that the interim military government would declare the candidate with the most votes, no matter how few were cast, as the winner and new president. That could have required a second round of voting if none of the five candidates got a majority of the first round vote. That would mean a new president with little popular support and facing continued weekly protests or worse. It did not work out that way. One of the former FLN loyalists did have a lot of support among those who did turn out to vote and is now the new president. His initial moves were popular and apparently effective. One reason why the weekly demonstrations continue is to remind the new government that the people are watching and paying attention.

Continued protests are also prompted by chronic problems felt by the majority of Algerians. Corruption and mismanagement the former government was responsible for are seen as a major reason for the high unemployment, especially among the younger Algerians. The majority of voters wanted a new president who would make a serious effort to deal with corruption and mismanagement. The newly elected president appears to be doing just that. Another incitement was how the interim government used its control over mass media to criticize the protestors at every opportunity and block any criticism of the interim government. A small but growing number of journalists were arrested for reporting what is seen and heard in the streets. This offended younger Algerians most of all because they are the most media savvy. They may be poor but most have cellphones and now how the media works. The new president quickly released most of the arrested journalists and prominent critics from jail. Further arrests have not occurred. So far so good but it will take a year or so to know for sure if the new government is the real deal or the corrupt old one repackaged to appear less threatening.

There are other threats that have remained out of sight during the election crises. This includes Islamic terrorists, who continue to regard Algeria as unsafe for them and stay away or out of sight in the country. That means more of these Islamic terrorists move north via Libya. That is still a problem for Algeria, especially because the Libyan civil war, which seemed almost over has now been extended with the intervention of Turkey to support the weaker side that relied on Islamic radical and Islamic conservative groups for its support. All this is not an immediate problem for Algeria, but will be eventually.

Economic Threat

In addition to the unsettled political climate, Algeria is still suffering from the collapse of oil prices in 2013. The old government was replaced a year ago in part because it was not successful enough in dealing with the resulting economic crises. The most visible sign of that failure is the growth of government debt from 26 percent of GDP in 2018 to 45 percent now, and still growing. The oil price is still low and government plans to increase oil and gas production and diversify the economy are still underway. The government does not have spare cash for any new undertakings.

March 3, 2020: Algeria, like most nations, has found itself with some cases of the new covid19 virus. So far only seven people are known to be infected, all from the same family, plus an Italian man. There is no panic or cancellations of public events or shutting schools and businesses temporarily.

March 2, 2020: The government is still trying to obtain international cooperation in organizing a ceasefire and political settlement in neighboring Libya. There two rival governments are at war over who shall rule. Algeria has taken the lead in this “peace” effort and has arranged for a “Libya Committee” of the AU (African Union) to meet on the 12th to try and agree on a common approach to obtaining a peace settlement in Libya. The other committee members are Chad, Mauritania, Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa and Niger.

Currently, the big problem in Libya is Turkey, which intervened in late 2019 on the side of the weaker (but UN backed) Libyan government and has brought in more and more weapons and troops. The Turks are seen as an unwelcome interloper taking advantage of the Libya chaos to serve its own goals. Algeria has consistently opposed any foreign military intervention in Libya, something Egypt agrees with. These two nations are neighbors of Libya and have devoted substantial military resources to guarding their Libyan borders to keep themselves safe from the Islamic terrorist groups that flourished in Libya after the dictatorship was overthrown in 2011. Despite, or because of, this “no armed intervention” policy it has taken nine years for one faction to pacify most of the country. But then the Turks showed up. Algeria, Libya and Egypt were all once (until the 19th century) provinces of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and do not remember that experience fondly. But now, as back then, it is difficult to get the Turks to leave.

February 9, 2020: In Ethiopia the leaders of Algeria and Egypt met, while attending an African Summit, to discuss their mutual concerns with Islamic terrorism and the continued fighting in Libya. It was agreed that the two nations would share more intelligence on terrorism but there no agreement on how to deal with the Turkish military intervention in Libya. Algeria is on good terms with the Turks, Egypt is not.

February 8, 2020: In the southwest (Adrar Province, 1.420 kilometers from the capital) near the Mali border, a suicide truck bomber tried to drive into a small army camp occupied by troops patrolling part of the border. The vehicle was stopped at the fortified checkpoint guarding the camp entrance. Unable to drive further the bomber detonated the explosives, killing one soldier. Mali based ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara) took credit. This group has been active since 2018, mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger . Border violence like this is rare and the last such attack was in mid-2019 on the Libyan border. The last ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) violence in Algeria was a 2016 attack on the Tunisian border. ISIL tried for years to establish itself in Libya but after years of failure gave up. There are still some ISIL supporters in Algeria but none that see any point in trying to form an active ISIL faction. Other nations offer better opportunities that’s where Algerian ISIL fans go to find some action.

After the border explosion, a follow-up attack by gunmen did not materialize and troops were soon searching the surrounding area for any accomplices. None were found. Attacks like this on the Mali border are rare and the reason for this one is probably that Mali based ISGS is an ISIL faction led by Abu Walid el Sahrawi, a Moroccan who was born and raised in an Algerian refugee camp. Sahrawi has spent most of his adult life in Mali and Niger working with al Qaeda related groups. He started his career in Algeria and Morocco as a member of Polisario. Algeria has been, since the late 1990s, too hostile for Islamic terrorists of any type.

Over the last decade the military presence on the Mali and Libyan borders have increased. That has apparently discouraged Islamic terrorists and most of the action on the border is from smugglers. Troops more often find batches of weapons and ammunition hidden by smugglers before someone comes and moves the stuff into Mali or further north into populated areas of Algeria. During the last two years the flow largely been into Mali. The major obstacle the smugglers face is increased Algerian patrols along the southern borders and increased surveillance by French led counter-terror forces in northern Mali.

February 7, 2020: For the 52nd week, one year, there were mass protests demanding a new constitution and government that would not seek to perpetuate itself and the many corrupt practices that still exist. The crowds are noticeably smaller a year later and there are several good reasons for that. President Tebboune, newly elected at the end of 2019, acted quickly on many of the items that had kept the protests going for over a year. There is a new, lower profile, head of the military. The most prominent members of the Bouteflika faction, that had run the nation for over a decade, were being prosecuted for corruption. But many of the government policies and practices that have crippled the economy and much else in Algeria, are still there and not easy to eliminate and replace. That includes a lot of expensive economic subsidies that are themselves a source of much waste and corruption. State control of major portions of the economy is another source, and victim of, corruption. Change isn’t easy, even when most people very much want it.

January 26, 2020: In the UAE (United Arab Emirates), the head of the Algerian military met with his UAE counterpart to discuss matters of mutual interest, including UAE support for the LNA (Libyan National Army) faction in Libya. The LNA controls most of Libya and is now battling Turkish troops in what could be the final battle of the civil war, for control Libyan capital Tripoli. Algeria and the UAE share a hostility towards Turkish interference in Arab affairs.

January 19, 2020: In Germany, an international conference assembled to deal with the stalemate in Libya. Those invited included the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Italy, the EU, UN, AU (African Union), Arab League, Republic of Congo, Algeria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. Representatives from the two major Libyan factions (GNA and HoR/LNA) also showed up but would not meet with each other. GNA and HoR representatives did agree to discuss a peace deal, which is supposed to include the dissolution of the militias in Tripoli and Misrata that are the remaining obstacle to peace in the country. The LNA has suppressed Islamic terrorists and tribal rebels in most of the country and has been trying to take Tripoli since April 2019.




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