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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.
Two Algerians were detained by Egyptian authorities recently while trying to obtain a work visa from the Israeli embassy in Cairo, a local newspaper has reported, despite the fact that Algeria and Israel are still officially at war.
A survey, published by an Algerian newspaper, showed that up to half of Algeria’s young men are tempted by the idea of fleeing to Europe as illegal migrants to escape misery at home.
Why do so many people from a country – renowned by many in the Arab world for sacrificing up to one million people in a war to end 130 years of French rule – want to escape to Europe?
Algeria is a rich nation but its people are poor. It is the world’s fourth largest gas exporter and the tenth of oil. Foreign currency reserves have soared to $138 billion at the end of Nov. 2008 from $41 billion at the end of 2004.
Yet, the UNDP’s human development index, which measures quality of life, puts Algeria in 104th place, behind countries such as Cape Verde and Belize.
High unemployment, estimated at 70 percent among people under 30 – though official statistics give far lower figures – is driving many Algerians to desperate measures.
Earlier this year, police in the town of Chlef fought angry youths who had burned shops and buildings in the latest in a series of protests against lack of housing and jobs and what critics call an unresponsive political elite.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has led his North African Arab country out of a brutal civil war by combining military force with an amnesty for militants, but getting Algerians out of poverty appears to be proving more difficult.
He looks well placed to stay in office after his allies pushed through a law that allows him to seek a third term in office when his second term ends next year.
High oil prices over the past few years have helped the country of 33 million launch a $140 billion five-year national economic development plan and repay a large part of its foreign debt.
The Algerian government has promised a $100-150 billion national development drive from next year. But many Algerians ponder how to cope until such a plan takes off.
“We are desperate,” said Mohamed Tegar, a 32-year-old resident of Chelf. “We are six men living in a very small flat and all of us are unemployed. We don’t understand the local authorities’ reaction.”
After the Algerian parliament changed the constitution to lift presidential term limits, north Africans are asking whether Algeria now has a president for life.
In making the change, Algeria has followed a route taken in recent years by other African countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Uganda, all of which removed the limit of two presidential terms.
However, the militants have proved themselves to be resilient. Bombings and ambushes over the past week have caused at least 65 deaths, making it the bloodiest in years, and the toll so far for August stands at more than 80. That is the worst month in a long time.