THE drive from Ghardaia, a gateway to the Sahara, to Oran, Algeria’s second city that lies 660 kilometres (410 miles) to the north-west on the Mediterranean coast, is resplendent. The sun beats down on a rolling, pristine landscape. No factories disturb the view. To the visitor it is a beautiful sight. But to many of Algeria’s 38m people it illustrates a woeful lack of development. By some counts the country has the world’s 13th-biggest foreign-currency reserves. It has vast natural resources, mainly of oil and gas. And it has a well-educated, youthful people. But the overwhelming mood is one of frustration.
The government is spending $286 billion over five years to build new schools, roads and hospitals in an attempt to create jobs by diversifying the economy away from oil and gas, which provide the bulk of state revenues. But the effort is stumbling. The unemployment rate may be as high as 40%. Many of Algeria’s 1.5m students will fail, when they graduate, to work in the field for which they have been trained. Algeria imports almost all its basic goods. “I want to leave” is the standard reply to questions about plans for the future, from modern-minded youngsters in the chic French patisseries of the capital, Algiers, to humbler types in their simple homes in Ghardaia.
Across the country, Algerians complain about corruption. A scandal involving bribes at Sonatrach, the dominant state-owned oil company is particularly aggravating. But many cases are not properly investigated since they involve families at the top, who are assumed to make huge profits out of infrastructure projects. It was recently reported that a new motorway overran its costs by billions of dollars. “Where did all the money go?” asks Rachid Tlemçani, a prominent analyst.
The views of ordinary Algerians on such matters make little difference. The country is ruled by Le Pouvoir
(The Power), a cabal of decision-makers who fought for independence from France in 1962. They are not as harsh as some of their counterparts in the region. But they are no more willing to cede power.
While Algeria’s 76-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was in France from April until July, getting treatment after a stroke, a growing number of Algerians reckoned he was on the way out, at least from the political stage. But as soon he got back, he disabused them, promptly shuffling his government and transferring some powers from the sprawling security service to the army, whose chief of staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, was made a deputy minister for defence.
Though he has not been seen standing or carrying out any duties since his return in July, it seems that Mr Bouteflika may well run for another five-year term as president in April, adding to the 15 years he will have been at the helm. A vice-president acceptable to Le Pouvoir
with wide-ranging authority may be appointed to take over if Mr Bouteflika is unable to serve his whole term—perhaps General Salah, or the prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal.
So far only Ahmed Benbitour, a former prime minister who is deemed unlikely to prevail, has declared his candidacy. “Other parties are loth to put forward candidates, because they know that if President Bouteflika runs he will win,” says Amar Saadani, secretary-general of the ruling National Liberation Front, better known as the FLN. “We wait until the rulers have made their decisions behind closed doors and present them to us,” says Mr Tlemçani. “One thing is clear: there is no sign of political change.”
Not so fast
Despite the political awakening across the Arab world in the past three years, Algerians are wary of demanding change too noisily. The government, for its part, has sought to follow the Gulf monarchs’ example by concentrating more on increasing welfare payments and state salaries than on repressing dissidents. Salaries for the police and civil service have risen. The National Agency for Youth Employment Support, known by its French initials, ANSEJ, gives a cheap loan to anyone under 35 with a basic business proposal.
Conversations with young Algerians are peppered with references to “the black decade” of the 1990s, when the state fought a bloody war against extreme Islamists set off by the cancellation of the second round of elections in early 1992 after Islamists had won the first at the end of 1991. Algerians also cite the current civil war in Syria as another reason for not calling forcefully for change at home. Even in Algeria’s southern provinces, where young men have held protests against a lack of jobs, the aim is not to topple the government, says Hamdan Abdulsalam, who heads an association for the unemployed in Ghardaia.
Moreover, many—perhaps most—Algerians are grateful to Mr Bouteflika for restoring calm to Algeria after the black decade. Abuses such as torture by the security forces have apparently stopped. The media have become pretty free. The political space has slightly widened.
But the opposition is too weak to make much of a difference. The military and security men who have called the shots since the 1990s have made sure there are too many parties to present a coherent opposition front. The Islamists, who have done so well elsewhere in the region, are widely mistrusted. Foreign governments have little appetite for pressing Algeria to make reforms, preferring to co-operate with its rulers to tackle jihadists on the fringes of the Sahara who hail from such places as Libya, Mali, Niger and Tunisia. Algeria’s border with Morocco remains tightly shut.
For the time being most Algerians—at least those who cannot leave—seem prepared to wait patiently for the passing of the ageing generation that has run the country since independence. They presume that a new lot will eventually take over, loosen up politics and the economy, and bring in a more genuine multiparty system. A peaceful transition may depend on the price of oil staying high, so that people can continue to be bought off while politics and the economy stagnate. “Both the people and Le Pouvoir
are putting off change because of the risks,” says Mr Benbitour. “They don’t realise that it will be harder later.”
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