Natasha Turak

Source: Algeria was silent during the Arab Spring. Now its streets are erupting in protest

  • One thing Algerians don’t want, protesters say, is to be compared to the Arab Spring or share the fate of so many of their neighbors.
  • Economic stagnation and unemployment has long beset the country of 41 million, 70 percent of whom are younger than 30. Regional analysts warn of further financial woes triggered by the new uncertainty.

Algerians are taking to the streets in droves as groups from across society demand their longtime president end his time in power.

Cities across Africa’s largest country have been flooded for the past two weeks with protesters opposing their ageing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s fifth re-election bid after 20 years in power. The demonstrations, which on March 1 by some estimates numbered more than a million, have sent shockwaves through the oil and gas-rich country — OPEC’s ninth largest crude producer.

For the security-heavy state that went largely untouched by the Arab Spring, the strength and audacity of the protests are a complete surprise, says Farah Soumes, a local freelance writer who’s been taking part in the demonstrations.

“When I went out into the streets, I was expected to be arrested, not to see solidarity. It’s amazing what is happening,” Soumes told CNBC via phone.

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Soumes and others involved in the protests described participation by a broad array of Algerian society.

“There were intellectuals, former government and opposition party members, students, teachers, lawyers, women, men and the working class — you had a mix of conservative Algerians, Islamists, and as well as girls wearing jeans and makeup,” described Jihane Boudiaf, an Algerian analyst for IHS Markit, who was in the capital Algiers for the demonstrations.

“There is an incredible feeling of fraternity happening,” Boudiaf told CNBC. “Old and young people, united over one cause. But it’s not just about Bouteflika staying in power, it’s also about wanting a genuine change. A change in the system — they want more openness, transparency, opportunity.”

An absent president

The 82-year-old Bouteflika, who took power in 1999 and ended Algeria’s bloody decade-long civil war, has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. He is currently in a hospital in Switzerland undergoing medical treatment. He was not physically present to submit his own candidacy or address protesters.

Earlier this week, through a representative, the president offered to hold new elections after a year and a referendum on the constitution if re-elected during the country’s next contest on April 18. But that failed to satisfy activists, who have called for new and bigger protests on Friday. They say they hope to bring 20 million people out to the streets — half of Algeria’s population.

Peaceful protests and painful memories

Algerian state media played images of protesters fighting with police, something the demonstrators contacted by CNBC say is misleading. Videos posted to social media and witness reports describe overwhelmingly peaceful protests, with young people even cleaning up before heading home.

“Most people wouldn’t say ‘are you going to the protests?’ — they would say ‘are you going to the selmiyya?” Boudiaf said. Selmiyya means “the peaceful” in Arabic.

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This, she said, was likely because of the negative connotations linked to popular uprisings that remain in a country still healing from the wounds of its brutal civil war. The conflict, which went on from 1991 to 2002 and pitted Islamists against government forces, saw more than 150,000 people killed.

‘Not the Arab Spring’

One thing Algerians don’t want, protesters say, is to be compared to the Arab Spring or share the fate of so many of their neighbors.

“People don’t want the same thing to happen that happened in other Arab Spring countries like Libya, Syria,” Boudiaf said. “Algeria lived the Arab Spring much earlier, so people are afraid of the past.”

“A lot of Algerians are also worried about the danger of the Islamists taking over the social movement,” she added, “because that is what happened in 1988 and the election of 1992,” when the seeds of the civil war were planted.

President threatens ‘chaos’ and ‘infiltration’

On Thursday, a letter published by Algeria’s state news agency quoted Bouteflika warning of “chaos” and infiltration of the protests by “domestic and foreign forces.”

For Algeria’s young people, that language is a sign of politicians playing the conspiracy card rather than addressing the demands at hand.

But the president also praised demonstrators for “peacefully expressing their opinions.”

Economic stagnation and unemployment has long beset the country of 41 million, 70 percent of whom are younger than 30. Regional analysts warn of further financial woes triggered by the new uncertainty.

“Algeria is arguably in a much worse starting position than the likes of Egypt and Tunisia were in 2011 and, as a result, the economic fallout could be more severe,” said Jason Tuvey, a senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, in a research note. The International Monetary Fund estimates the country’s current account deficit at 9 percent of its gross domestic product, a worse figure than that of the Arab Spring countries in 2010.

Still, the unrest is unlikely to impact the country’s liquefied natural gas and oil exports, which account for 85 percent of national exports and about 20 percent of GDP, according to OPEC statistics. The protests are not currently targeted at production facilities, whose security is very high. Algeria currently produces 1.05 million barrels of oil per day.

Could the situation escalate?

“Without iron-clad concessions from le pouvoir, protests will persist if not grow and intensify in the run-up to the vote on 18 April,” said Anthony Skinner, director of MENA research at Verisk Maplecroft. “Le Pouvoir” is the name attributed to Algeria’s ruling elite, which means “the power” in French.

“Cracking down hard on protests and having Bouteflika re-elected would be a risky approach for le pouvoir not just because it could trigger conflict, but also because it would further undermine the already limited legitimacy enjoyed by the ruling elite.”

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Eight years after the Arab Spring, observers hope that Bouteflika does not repeat the mistakes of his Arab counterparts who triggered war and displacement by responding heavy-handedly.

But if the political leadership feels its back is against the wall, “it may resort to more extreme measures,” Skinner warned.

Furthermore, he said, “while most protesters reject violence, a heavy crackdown by the police could adversely change the dynamic and potentially encourage hard-core elements to emerge and confront the security apparatus.”

“People are not afraid anymore,” Soumes said, but added: “Algeria is very unpredictable. Whoever tells you they know what is going to happen, they are clueless. I myself don’t know what is going to happen … A lot is happening very fast and in every direction.”