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Is Bouteflika set for a hollow victory in Algeria election?
Reuters has interviewed Benjamin Stora, Professor of Maghreb history at Paris IX University and one of the world’s leading authorities on Algeria. Stora predicts a hollow victory for Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April’s presidential election and says it will take a new generation of leaders to bring change to a country where social problems are profound and there is 70 percent unemployment among young adults (according to official figures).
Below is a partial text of the interview.
Q – What is the significance of Algeria changing its constitution to allow Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a third term?
A – Algeria is an Arab-Muslim country with a strong revolutionary tradition marked by abrupt changes, reversals, overthrows and coups. It’s true there has never been a long continuity at presidential level. Presidents had been imprisoned (Ben Bella), or died (Boumediene), or been deposed (Chadli) or assassinated (Boudiaf), or given up politics (Zeroual). This is the first time we see this sort of continuity at the state level.
This is disorientating for many Algerians and has provoked a torrent of commentary in Algeria about a Tunisian-style continuity. The widespread suspicion is that the current president wants to be president-for-life. This comes not just from his political opponents but also from intellectuals inside Algeria and in exile and from journalists. Algerians reject this notion as counter to their revolutionary tradition.
Q – But how much power does Bouteflika really have? For all the past change of leaders, haven’t the same people kept power?
A – In Algeria, there is this very strong feeling that things happen behind the scenes, that the people who are at the front of the stage aren’t really those who hold power. This feeling has been particularly strong since Boudiaf was assassinated. But it’s not entirely true in the case of
Bouteflika. Of course, there are still decision-makers in the security services but Bouteflika has imposed his authority in particular on the top ranks of the army. He is surrounded by security services and a faction of the army, and a lot of new business people who have gotten rich very quickly. Some of these new rich are former Islamists. Even some former FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) officials have become wealthy. That was one of the results of Bouteflika’s national reconciliation.
Q – So what are the main threats and challenges that Bouteflika faces?
A – The first problem is the young. We see it in explosions of violence in soccer stadiums, in urban violence and harragas, the boat-people trying desperately to reach France. Several thousand young people try to escape to France by sea. These young people see no future, no solution. The unemployment level is very high, and enormous among young people.
The second big problem is the collapse of the oil price, which has fallen from $140 to $40 in 9 months. The Algerian economy is going to be hit severely because the gas price is indexed to oil. Algeria is 90 percent dependent on hydrocarbons. So welfare redistribution, social security, health care, education are facing terrible budget cuts.
Beyond that, the big challenge is the modernisation of society. Each president has represented a period in the history of Algerian independence. Ben Bella stood for revolutionary Third World enthusiasm; Boumediene stood for the stabilisation of a strong, authoritarian state; Chadli represented a sort of Gorbachevian transition, the end of the one-party state; the presidents of the 1990s were consumed by the civil war.
Q – Is there a risk of a social explosion?
A – One cannot rule out a social explosion, but it would be without danger for the regime if it doesn’t find a political expression. The state just pulls back and lets the situation degenerate. There are riots, everything is trashed, but there are no political consequences.
The regime has very strong international support from everyone — Europe, the United States, the Arab world, Russia, China, Iran. Their diplomatic strength is having united all these extremes, from Raoul Castro to Hu Jintao to Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Europeans are more dependent on Russian gas than on Algerian. But there is a quest for stability. It’s the biggest Mediterranean country and no one has an interest in seeing instability spread from Israel/Palestine.