For the past three weeks, a growing wave of mostly peaceful protests has spread throughout the North African nation of Algeria. The popular protests are based largely in the capital city of Algiers but in recent days they have spread to other major cities within the country.
At the end of last week, the crowds were so large people said they could barely move in the streets where the protesters have gathered with one another. One police officer estimated there were more than half a million protesters marching in Algiers last week.
Eighty-one-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika has operated as President of Algeria since winning his first election in 1999. His fourth term is nearing completion, but he has been largely absent since his reelection in 2014. In 2013 suffered a stroke. He remains incapacitated to an extent he could not even announce his own candidacy for reelection in 2019. He has not addressed the country publicly for 7 years.
In fact, he is represented at public rallies and events frequently by a simple framed portrait that the public has come to identify as “The Frame.”
Algeria has experienced widespread protests before. This time is different. Originally cell phone and social media networks were shut down to limit communication among the protesters; however, in recent days signals of support are being read from among the nation’s establishment.
- More than a dozen political parties and unions have signaled their support for the protesters.
- This past weekend several deputies resigned from the National Liberation Front to join the protesters.
- According to a report from the New York Times ruling party members and business leaders have begun siding with them.
- The magazine of Algeria’s army printed an editorial last Friday suggesting the military might back the protesters.
Algeria’s economy has undergone a significant downturn since the drop in oil prices in 2014. A major energy supplier for Europe, the country provides one-third of Europe’s natural gas, and up to half of Spain’s natural gas supply.
Oil and gas accounted for 97 percent of total exports, two-thirds of state revenues and one-third of gross domestic product in 2014. This energy wealth has built up an elite class who has ruled the country insulated from the crisis experienced among many Algerians.
In 2011 as Arab Spring threatened Algeria much of the oil wealth was utilized to appease the people. The downturn in oil prices since then means that option is not available to the government this time around.
When it was announced that the absent Bouteflika would seek a fifth term, which he is expected to easily win, this was more than the people could handle. The average Algerian recognizes their future offers little prospects no matter how educated they might be. In fact, many are approaching the current protests as if they have nothing to lose.
Most of the Algerians who are protesting today have never known a time when Bouteflika was not their President. That is not the same for the older generation. Prior to the Bouteflika era, Algeria underwent enormous crises. The collapse in oil prices in the mid-1980s led economic chaos and a collapse of the government. Algeria was wracked by civil war in the 1990s and a time that became known as the Black Decade. As many as 200,000 Algerians died during the Black Decade.
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