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Algeria has been one of the most stable countries in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab uprisings of 2011. That has widely been attributed to fear of descending again into violence, after the vicious civil war of the 1990s. The relatively affluent government also bought stability by raising public spending.

With the fall in oil prices around 2014, that strategy looked shaky. Sharp cuts to public spending in 2017 brought more people onto the streets than in 2011, as younger Algerians grew increasingly frustrated with squeezed living standards and massive youth unemployment.

Protesters took aim at what they saw was unrepresentative government, corruption and an economy that served the interests of those in power; they were no longer impressed by the ruling generation’s rule in the independence struggle against France, which ended in 1962.

In 2019, the protests that had begun in 2017 surged, with thousands taking to the streets in cities all over Algeria. By March 2019, tens of thousands were marching in Algiers, the capital.

The authorities responded by cancelling Bouteflika’s election run and standing him down on health grounds. Fresh elections were set for 4 July but, as the demonstrations had not stopped, further steps were taken, with the Chief of Staff General Salah increasingly emerging as the most powerful figure.

In April, there was a dramatic purge, with some of Algeria’s richest and most powerful men arrested or sacked from their positions, as the military tried to assuage the protesters’ demands.

In the region

The demonstrations have persuaded some commentators that the “Arab street” has become more vocal again. The fall of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, similarly after prolonged massive demonstrations, also strengthened the impression of resurging demands for change. In Morocco there have been big demonstrations against the government in the capital, Rabat, and in the northern city of al-Hoceima.

The power struggles have attracted the attention of powerful outside forces: Saudi Arabia and its allies the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain) are concerned about developments in Algeria – and particularly whether it heralds a new “Arab Spring”. The Saudi group is also concerned about Sudan continuing a drift towards their rivals, Qatar and Turkey.

Outlook

The outlook for Algeria is uncertain – demonstrations continue, despite concessions from the authorities. The military appears to be trying hard to end the demonstrations without violence, but that attempt might not last indefinitely.

If the stand-off in Algeria ends with bloody suppression, that might signal that any reborn reform movement, such as the one that rocked the region in 2011, had been strangled at birth.

In any case, the situation has changed since 2011. After Libyan, Egyptian and Syrian uprisings ended in chaos and violence, external supporters of reform are more reluctant and the internal proponents of security and stability are strengthened.

People in many countries of the region, however, still suffer from the problems that originally drove the uprisings of 2011: unrepresentative government, corruption, lack of economic opportunities, particularly for the young, and poverty.

The present unrest underlines that those problems are far from being resolved. They may indeed be getting worse.


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