Algerians are yet to be free

The Algerian population is a young one, with 70% under the age of 35.  These youths will end up, sooner or later, rejecting the notion that their future is mortgaged – and bitter memories of the violence of the 1990s will not be enough to hold them at bay.

Kamal Benkoussa
26 July 2012

Earlier this month Algerians celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their independence, after a long struggle against French colonial rule.  A blank cheque was written to our elders that day, but what figures can be headlined fifty years on? 

The hundreds of economic migrants who drown each year?  The thousands of youth suicides?  The hundreds of thousands killed during the civil war of the 1990s?  The millions of young people who cannot find work despite billions of dollars a year in oil revenues?  The important milestone of our independence compels us to question whether, given these indicators, we are truly free.

The relative quiet in Algeria, as the Arab Awakening engulfs its neighbours, should not be taken as a testament to Algeria’s progress, but rather as a marker of its multidimensional crisis.  Our social fabric has been destroyed, on account of a ten-year civil war which claimed 200,000 lives, and which itself was the product of the illegitimacy of our state institutions and their inability to guarantee any social contract.

At the root of Algeria’s social impasse has been a failed economic paradigm involving a poorly managed centralization model which has bequeathed a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy, as well as an overwhelming dependence on oil rent.  The more obvious the failures of this paradigm, the less inclined our leaders have been to abandon it, precisely because it is the basis of massive levels of corruption and predation that have enabled them to continue to govern without consent.

In recent years, the crisis has only deepened.  Despite an abundance of capital, the twenty-first century for us has been synonymous with unemployment, a high cost of living, chronic housing shortages, a mushrooming black market, social instability, strikes and riots, and we have been powerless to influence the conditions under which we live. 

Indeed, Algeria’s political destiny has fallen in the yawning chasm between formal and substantive democracy.  Ostensibly we have regular elections, political parties and a degree of freedom of expression, but these elections are neither free nor fair, political parties have been co-opted by the ruling regime so that they merely serve as power satellites, and we are blocked at every turn from shaping our own lives. 

In the meantime, the regime continues on a collision course with its own people. 

The Algerian population is a young one, with 70% under the age of 35.  These youths will end up, sooner or later, rejecting the notion that their future is mortgaged – and bitter memories of the violence of the 1990s will not be enough to hold them at bay.  In the absence of the means and a forum for peaceful expression, they will have no choice but to use force to demand that which in fact is rightfully theirs.

Having credibility in the global war on terrorism cannot substitute for legitimacy, which is why Algeria must urgently move towards meaningful democracy.  The regime has long peddled a false choice between its survival and a social explosion.  But each day with this regime unreformed and in place makes more likely an eruption of uncontrollable violence, which will not be contained by any social forces, given the regime’s destruction of civil society, and which will inevitably destabilize a fragile region.  

Accordingly, the Algerian government must rethink its losing strategy of maintaining the status quo through superficial renovations at the edges while entrenching the core.  In advance of presidential elections in 2014, it must concede enough ground for Algerians to reassert our political existence and imagine together a future which better meets the ideals for which our parents and grandparents fought and died.

In addition to expanding the political sphere, this peaceful transition requires rebuilding the rule of law, fostering more positive relationships with our neighbours, and breaking with rentierism so that we can finally achieve our economic independence. 

Nobody should feel threatened by the necessary turn that Algeria must make because it is only through a process inclusive of all circles – political, civic and military – that we can force a break with our tragic past and avert a disastrous future.  

As the international community shapes new norms and conditions of engagement with post-revolutionary governments in the region, we believe that Algerians are equally deserving of a positive relationship which aims at fostering human development and embedding (genuine) democracy.  Friends of the Algerian people must incentivize best practices on the part of our government, which would culminate with free and fair presidential elections in 2014.            

Algerians know all too well the limitations of violent revolution.  However, millions continue to live in despair.  The regime must give way now, and open the space for us to peacefully recapture our dignity and dreams.   In response to our brethren elsewhere in the region, but simultaneously in assertion of our own uniqueness, we say today to our leaders what our fathers said fifty years ago: Algeria is our country.

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