January 13, 2017 | Policy Brief
Will the next Arab revolt be in Algeria?
A remarkable series of scarcely noticed counter-terrorism operations, labor strikes, and social protests in Algeria last week show the North African country may face a year of upheaval. Six years after the ouster of leaders in its fellow North African states Tunisia and Egypt, simmering instability in Algeria could even lead to its own longtime president being deposed.
First, on January 7, the Algerian military junta imposed a state of emergency on its northeastern border with Tunisia due to the return of 800 Tunisian jihadists from fighting with jihadi groups, including the Islamic State.
Second, labor unrest and riots hit cities in northwest Algeria and in the coastal province of Bejaia for several days over the last week. At the start of 2017, the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – 79 years old and largely incapacitated by a stroke – implemented a robust austerity plan, slashing spending by 14 percent and boosting taxes on consumer products. In response to the protests, Algeria’s security forces arrested roughly 100 people last week – half of them under 25.
The wave of political and labor disorder has prompted the regime to call on imams to rein in dissent. The Ministry of Religious Affairs even issued directives to imams last week to promote the maintenance of national stability as a religious duty in their Friday sermons.
Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal similarly warned that the regime would block any attempt aiming at “destabilizing” the country, and ominously warned that the protests “are not related to the Arab Spring.”
Writing in the February 2016 issue of The Weekly Standard, John Schindler and I noted: “Together with the struggling Algerian economy, the fight to succeed Bouteflika may very well produce a series of increasingly public convulsions within Algeria’s formidable security and intelligence establishments, who are the country’s real rulers.”
Our analysis has not changed since. Indeed, we believe that case is even stronger now, as the price of oil and natural gas — the linchpins of Algeria’s economy — has not recovered enough to satisfy the demands of the country’s 40 million people.
Between 1991 and 2002, at least 150,000 Algerians died in a decade-long civil war that pitted Islamists against the military state. Citizens who lived through the atrocities of the Dirty War have little appetite for another civil war.
And yet youth employment hovers at 32 percent, and the young generation’s readiness to bring about change in stagnant Algeria could usher in a new revolt. The dangerous mix of economic instability, radical Islamism, and growing unrest among young Algerians might very well be the perfect recipe for a new Arab revolt in North Africa.
Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal