North Africa, West Asia

Why these Algerian elections are essential

Caught between the dynamic of the Arab Springs and that of the destabilization of the Sahel, the Algerian trajectory remains profoundly uncertain. Since its stability is essential for Europe, the stakes of the April presidential elections are high. 

Sidi-Mohammed Nehad Mehdi Lazar
17 April 2014

Since the partitioning of the Sudan, Algeria is the largest African country and a primary regional power in the Mediterranean region. The condition of this North African pivot-state is essential for Europe: Algiers is the third largest energy supplier to the EU, while its population of 38 million inhabitants, its anti-terrorism security expertise and the size of its armed forces (130,000 men) make their security capabilities necessary to the stability of the Sahel zone.

Moreover, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of 208 million dollars in 2013, Algeria remains the largest regional economy. Algeria was the least affected by the wave of the Arab Spring despite negative societal indicators. This situation contrasts with that of Tunisia or Egypt, notably due to the political impact of the major redistribution of wealth gained from oil revenues, but also due to the people’s fear of a return to a decade of stagnation.

However, rapidly dwindling exchange reserves since 2011 and the lack of vision with regard to energy policy over several years is enough to make anyone fear a return to the gas and oil circumstances that landed Algeria in its period of greatest national trauma.

The relative calm in this country during the last three years cannot be taken for granted. The trajectory of this powerful regional presence is uncertain for at least two reasons. First, the country’s socio-economic dynamic. Second, the deteriorating security dynamic now that various Jihadist groups have found new resources. In the context of a tense regional framework, the Algerian situation is critical.

Few major reforms have been enacted in the last twenty years in order to diversify the economy, which remains grossly dependent upon hydrocarbons. The country is suffering from pronounced deindustrialization and endemic corruption. In the event of the non-exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbon resources, the growing population and increased demand for gas will become increasingly incompatible with the obligatory exports of hydrocarbons from the country. This situation is mainly due to the short-term management of gas resources during recent years.

Additionally, gridlock is experienced by Algerian youth (70% of the country), among whom the unemployment rate approaching 21% has triggered more frequent riots —most notably in outlying regions. This must suggest that the 25% increase in public expenditure since the beginning of the Arab revolutions has not resolved the profound causes of a crisis that has actually been ongoing since the October 1988 riots.

The role of Algeria in the context of North African security is therefore of great concern. Since 2011, the shockwave of Arab Springs has rattled many countries and has reduced the Sahel zone to chaos. In particular, the 2012 assassination of the US Libyan Ambassador Christopher Stevens, then the French intervention in Northern Mali and the spectacular attack by a branch of the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on the In Amenas oil terminals in 2013—with calamitous crisis management by the Algerian authorities—have amply demonstrated the zone’s fragility.

What’s more, the In Amenas attack illustrates the transformation of armed Islamist groups in Maghreb who have now become capable of hitting principal installations for Algerian hydrocarbon production.  Of course, in response Algeria is participating in attempts to create and improve regional security capacities, like the CRIC (which excludes Morocco due to a conflict surrounding the question of the western Sahara) but in fact Algiers is having trouble really cooperating with its neighbours—notably due to the latent “Cold War” with Morocco.

Plus, it seems that Algiers has engaged in the formation of these structures in order to dissuade any foreign intervention in North Africa. This appears to be quite insufficient in the face of a Jihadist situation that is deteriorating in the Sahel given the phenomenon of the reorganization and internationalization of armed Islamist groups.

Caught between the dynamic of the Arab Springs and that of the destabilization of the Sahel, the Algerian trajectory then remains profoundly uncertain. Since its stability is essential for Europe, the stakes of the April presidential elections are high. The three geopolitical sources of revenue that had assured Algeria an international influence and a certain stability since the early 2000s—hydrocarbon, security, and civil war—can no longer suffice to calm the people in a situation where the election of 17 April 2014 doesn’t bring the country a renewed politics - one that will enable the diversification of the economy, give hope to the youth, and improve regional cooperation. 

Unfortunately, confrontation among intermediary groups since the beginning of the campaign do not permit one to predict the outcome. For now, Algeria remains an idol with feet of clay capable of collapsing and bringing down with it the security of North Africa as well as a large part of the European energy supply.

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