A common answer to the question of why there has not been an “Algerian Spring” to date, is that most Algerians - still coming to terms with the traumatic legacy of a decade of brutal infighting - had little appetite for another round of instability and a further potentially tragic leap into the unknown.
And yet, although this answer carries conviction, one would do well to pay closer attention to the assumptions behind the question itself. Although Algeria has seen little in the way of large-scale street demonstrations or dramatic resignation announcements, there has nonetheless been a seismic shift in the national consciousness as a result of the events in Sidi Bouzid, Cairo and beyond.
In particular, away from the traditional circles of power, a new force has been working its way up to the surface of the Algerian political landscape: that of organised youth activism. Long dismissed as an irrelevant, albeit relatively harmless nuisance by the political and media class, a new generation of young organisers, trade unionists and campaigners - galvanised by the infectious energies of their comrades across the region - have been issuing increasingly audacious challenges to the country’s complacent rulers, and they are, at last, being taken seriously. Indeed, for most Algerians the defining story of 2013 might well turn out to be not the French Mali intervention or the In Amenas terrorist attack, which both received intensive coverage in the western media, but the unprecedented wave of protests that has been taking place across the Algerian South over the past four weeks, and which have gone largely ignored beyond the country’s borders.
The initial spark occurred on March 14, when The National Committee for the Rights of the Unemployed (Comité national pour la défense des droits des chômeurs, CNDDC) issued a call for a mass peaceful protest in the city of Ouargla, 600 kilometres south of the capital Algiers. Against expectations, thousands of protesters turned out, demanding a dignified future and a fairer sharing-out of the country’s wealth. This was a powerfully resonant call for millions of disaffected youth, especially those living in the South, the site of the country’s oil and gas wealth, where poverty and under-development are endemic.
Soon, further protests mushroomed across other southern cities, such as Laghouat and El-Oued. The protests were a remarkable success, not just because they actually went ahead (itself an achievement in a culture where, for decades, public dissidence has been seen as a highly hazardous gambit) but because they secured unprecedently widespread, and overwhelmingly positive, coverage in the national press as well as across social media networks. Even the official public TV channels felt compelled to report them, a sure sign of the degree of alarm this nascent movement has raised among decision-makers.
Emboldened by these early successes, further protests have been spreading northwards, a sign that this is not an ephemeral surge but a real, unmistakable shift in the collective mindset. As one activist told me last week, too many now feel they have literally nothing left to lose to care about any possible repercussions.
For now, it seems the authorities remain paralysed with confusion over how to respond to this challenge. Last week, all of the 96 Algerian activists heading for the World Social Forum – held in Tunis from March 26 – 30 – were stopped at various border crossings and denied exit, mostly under spurious pretexts to do with having invalid travel documents, a move condemned by civil society groups at home and international human rights organisations abroad.
For many, such a hamfisted measure might prove to be a stupendous and unnecessary own goal, and possibly a costly one too. The authorities are right to worry, of course: a new generation has become increasingly assertive in its determination to make itself heard and is losing the fear that had dependably kept earlier generations quiet. Furthermore, although strikes, sit-ins and marches have been a regular feature of Algerian public life for years, we are seeing for the first time a level of organisation and effectiveness that is impressive and which in turn has generated enthusiasm and apprehension in equal measure.
In particular, the movement has been alert to the political and economic realities of the moment, and its sustained and dogged scrutiny of official policy and actors. Take, for instance, the new Hydrocarbons law, which came into effect on March 9, and is the first to officially authorise shale gas drilling, a highly controversial move yet one which has received very little attention in the national media, let alone been subjected to the requisite levels of public scrutiny and debate.
Activists have since raised the alarm over the serious economic, environmental and political consequences of allowing the move to go unchallenged. In addition to producing research briefings and coordinating media campaigns, they have also aimed at widening their actions overseas. Many will be protesting in London on Monday, April 15, outside HSBC offices where Youcef Yousfi, Algeria’s energy minister, will be holding meetings. Such dogged determination to hold the government to account is tremendously encouraging.
Unsurprisingly, this rising tide of political dissent is evolving beyond the reach of traditional party politics. And no wonder: since the early 1990s, political parties in Algeria have been largely seen as an irrelevance; toothless actors sustaining an artificial political circus utterly disconnected from the everyday concerns and voices of the population.
With next year’s presidential elections fast approaching, creaking party machines are already clicking into gear, preparing to rehearse the same routine, and seemingly oblivious to the tectonic shifts underneath. Instead, the predictable rounds of intrigue and skulduggery among the political elites have intensified - its latest victim, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, was recently dethroned from his position as General Secretary of the ruling party, the FLN, with many more heads predicted to roll over the months ahead as factions fight to protect their share of the pie.
For now, 2014 looms as a forbiddingly ominous deadline. While President Bouteflika’s quest for a 4th presidential term has polarised the political class, there is a growing realisation that the election will not be about the survival of a particular candidate at the helm of the system, but the survival of the system itself.
Time is running out, fast, however, and Algeria’s youth are getting better organised, more vocal and less patient than ever. Whether the old guard can muster enough political dexterity, moral courage and margin of manoeuvre to push through a genuinely reformist agenda before it’s too late will determine whether this decade will be one of healing transition or turbulent, cataclysmic rupture.