The hostage crisis of In Amenas threw Algeria into the spotlight, inadvertently highlighting the unique nature of the Algerian state in comparison with many of its neighbours. As regimes fell across North Africa, Algeria’s government remained standing and unshaken, despite the presence of the same myriad of political, economic and social problems that have undermined its Middle East and North African counterparts.
The preservation of stability in Algeria can arguably be accredited to the presence of two particular attributes unique to the Algerian government.
Firstly, a considerable wealth of petroleum reserves has provided the state with a crucial leveraging tool in its quest to maintain the status quo. Though still relatively under-explored, Algeria is numbered among the largest oil and gas producing countries on the African continent, with studies citing proven oil reserves of 12.199 billion barrels at the end of 2011. Rising global energy prices have consequently assured impressive financial surpluses that translated into over $200 billion of foreign currency reserves in May 2012, providing the Algerian state with important resources needed to meet the growing tide of political, social, and economic challenges confronting its population.
Flushed state coffers have enabled a 50% increase in public spending since 2011 to pay for a number of measures designed to appease social demands, including higher subsidies for key foodstuffs, a 34% wage increase for public sector employees, and a waiver on value added tax and customs tariffs on the import of raw and white sugar and cooking oil. Funds will also be used to build two million new social housing units by 2017 to address an imminent housing shortage crisis, which, according to a 2009 World Bank report, will be intensified by rapid population growth and high rates of urbanisation, amounting to a cumulative shortage of 1,993,768 housing units by 2015. Finally, government surpluses will be harnessed to create jobs and combat rising joblessness, particularly among the youth population, which suffers from an unemployment rate of nearly 25%.
Secondly, the Algerian state can also credit its continued stability to the legacy of the country's decade long civil war and the impact of the conflict on the public perception of Islamist politics. Sparked by the banning of a prominent Islamist political party by the government, Algeria’s civil war over the 1990s and 2000s pitted Islamist militants against the ruling establishment and claimed between 100,000 and 150,000 lives, the equivalent to the loss of at least one family member for almost every Algerian family. The brutal nature of the conflict, epitomised by the massacres of entire neighbourhoods and villages by alleged government and Islamist soldiers alike, led many to associate Islamists with radicalism and violence; perceptions that have largely discredited them in the eyes of the populace. As a result, though Islamist parties continue to participate in Algerian national politics, significant portions of society do not express their political support for such parties. Moreover, Islamist parties that are permitted to participate in national elections are perceived as having been co-opted into the agenda of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), thereby tainting their legitimacy in the eyes of many Algerians. Indeed, moderate Islamist parties constitute part of the FLN’s majority and they have held four ministerial posts until the most recent parliamentary election in 2012.
Oil money and a general distaste for Islamist politics have aided Algeria in weathering the storms of the Arab Spring. However, the state’s response to the recent hostage crisis has brought to light important challenges that will have to be overcome to assure long-term political and economic stability.
The state’s tendency to rely on violence during the recent conflict underlines an important consequence of the civil war that has profound implications for the formation of a more diversified political spectrum and, consequently, the state’s ability to address societal grievances. The prolonged violence that characterised the Algerian civil war facilitated by the entrenchment of the military in politics and the establishment of formidable security forces, thereby instilling within the government a reliance on the use of force to address threats to the state.
Fundamentally, the war also validated the institutionalisation of draconian measures that severely restrict freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to assemble, and any real recourse to criticising the government, effectively suppressing any real form of political expression. A new media law that was introduced in January 2012 exemplifies this notion by effectively restricting the right of journalists to freely discuss topics such as the “Islamic faith and all religion,” “national sovereignty and unity,” “economic interests,” “requirements of public order,” and “requirements of state security and defence”, subjecting violators to fines of up to 500,000 Algerian dinars (US$6,706) and threatening publications with potential closure for slander and other offences.
Though less explicitly authoritarian than the 1990 media law it replaced, critics argue that the new media law offered only cosmetic alterations to its predecessor and arguably limits press freedom as opposed to liberalising it. Moreover, though direct censorship is not a pervasive practice of the Algerian government, indirect censorship serves as a far more effective tool of the state; a major portion of Algerian newspapers depend on state advertising revenues to stay afloat so any serious critics of the regime face almost immediate bankruptcy. In this light, the regime’s apparent intolerance of opposition has arguably stymied the formation of alternative voices within the political spectrum.
In short, while ten years of war may have largely unified the country against Islamist elements fighting for change, the legacy of the civil war has possibly inhibited the formation of a cohesive and responsive political opposition capable of vying for political, economic, and social improvements - improvements that are sorely needed in Algeria.
In the absence of a strong force pushing for political and socioeconomic rights, no unified movement has emerged to articulate the demands of society. In this context, the lack of an organised and representative opposition, whether Islamist or not, serves to disadvantage the state; it has no political gauge for contextualising the growing number of protests and thus cannot respond effectively to society's needs.
The absence of a unified opposition and the presence of substantial financial surpluses have enabled the Algerian regime to continue down its current course. Nevertheless, a number of factors could threaten this balance.
In the 1980s, Algerian state revenues suffered a precipitous decline following a downturn in the price of oil, contributing to the instability that precipitated the civil war. As with the economy of the 1980s, fluctuations in global oil prices could erode government funds, complicating the state's ability to subsidise food prices and other ventures designed to placate the demands of society. Similarly, disturbances in Algeria's ability to produce oil and gas, exemplified by the crisis at In Amenas and the more recent attack on a gas pipeline in northern Algeria, could jeopardise the country’s financial position.
Additionally, though Algeria has attracted the presence of many multinational investors and companies with its oil and gas resources, the state partially owes its popularity among foreign firms to the fact that few economies in the region are growing as strongly as the Algerian economy. Facilitated by oil money, state capital injections into multi-billion dollar construction projects have enticed major global firms to work in Algeria during a time when international business has found many of its traditional regional partners wanting.
In this light, an improvement in the economic fortunes of other countries, particularly if neighbouring Morocco is successful in discovering offshore oil reserves, may erode Algeria's popularity amongst foreign businesses. Even when one disregards the possibility of foreign capital flight from the country due to militant Islamist attacks, Algeria’s oil reserves may be fully exploited within the next twenty years, a fact which does not bode well for an economy dependent upon oil and gas revenues for an average of 43% of GDP, 75% of budget revenue, and 98% of exports over the last several years.
That is not to suggest that the Algerian regime is in danger of immediate collapse. However, if Algeria hopes to effectively combat domestic and external threats alike, notably the spectre of militant Islam emanating from a destabilised Libya and Mali, societal grievances must be tackled in a more prompt and inclusive manner. This arguably entails a relaxation of government restrictions, particularly for the liberalisation of the media; such measures are necessary in order to stimulate a more comprehensive and genuine discussion of Algeria's problems and their solutions.
The Algerian government must also recognise that a reliance on public hand-outs to appease the populace is not a sustainable method to assure social stability, especially in the absence of a process of economic diversification away from the oil and gas industry - Algeria’s economic fortunes have an expiry date. Efforts must be made to stimulate sustained economic activity in other industrial sectors, actions which can consequently help address what is arguably the country’s greatest challenge: the lack of employment opportunities for Algeria’s youth. Significant investments in the development of human capital and job creation will offer the greatest assurance of long-term political, social, and economic stability and the greatest promise for continued development.