Springtime in Algeria?

The Arab Spring of 2011 came and went, but Algeria stayed the same. Algeria wasn’t alone in being mostly unaffected by the protests. By 2012, a somewhat tenable pattern emerged: countries that either had a lot of money or had recently experienced civil strife (or both) appeared immune to the radical exuberance that animated protests elsewhere. Iraq, exhausted by nearly a decade of war, didn’t have any significant demonstrations. Saudi Arabian royals easily bought off their subjects with a lavish increase in social benefits. Algeria, meanwhile, was flush with cash from high oil prices and had painful memories of its 1991-1999 civil war, which killed approximately 200,000 people.

That civil war came to an end the way it began: a stolen election. In 1990 and 1991, Algeria held local and parliamentary elections that one Middle East academic later characterized as the “freest and fairest elections the Arab world” experienced “in decades.” That proud achievement was immediately squashed by a military coup that started the war. Eight years later, the country’s dictator resigned and presidential elections were held. Seven major candidates entered the race, but by election day, only one remained: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military’s preferred candidate. The other six dropped out, citing fraud, intimidation, and tampering. Immediately after assuming power, Bouteflika implemented amnesty for anti-government fighters, effectively ending the civil war and cementing his own regime.

Bouteflika promised in a 2012 national address would step down at the end of his third presidential term, two years later. But, before then, Bouteflika suffered a massive stroke, which confined him to a wheelchair. Despite his ailment, Bouteflika refused to relinquish power and, in 2014, began his fourth term. He reportedly spent most of his term shuttling between European health clinics. He hasn’t given a national address since 2012 and has appeared in public only a handful of times.

On February 10, the octogenarian ruler announced he would “run” for a fifth term in April. Those Algerians with no personal memory of the civil war are now as old as 20–and they’ve had enough. Algeria’s youth (ages 16-25) unemployment rate is around 30 percent. Unemployment for those under 30 is around 25 percent. Since February 22, thousands of Algerians, the bulk of them young, have been staging regular demonstrations demanding Bouteflika step down and allow for open elections. Today, in an attempt to mitigate student-led organizing, the regime closed universities and moved up a national two-week spring break by 10 days. While there are no reports of major violence, police have used tear gas and arrested at least 195 protesters.

Bouteflika’s illegitimacy aside, it isn’t at all clear who would replace him if there were open elections. Opposition parties in Algeria are small and splintered, ranging from secular labor parties to conservative Islamist groups. The latter might be best poised to claim power. Bouteflika’s regime is similar to that of Hosni Mubarak’s in pre-Arab Spring Egypt: It’s ostensibly secular but tolerates and even foments Islamic extremism that, in turn, the regime loudly claims to oppose, which earns it fabulous amounts of military and “counter terrorism” aid from the United States.

Bouteflika’s grip on power has had its victims. Take Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. After coming just a couple votes shy in 2014 from winning France’s highest literary honor for his novel The Mersault Investigation–in which the protagonist at one point rebukes an imam–an Algerian imam issued a fatwa calling on the Algerian government to publicly execute Daoud for apostasy. Algeria’s minister of religious affairs condemned the imam, but he also blamed Daoud and characterized him as “being exploited by an international Zionist lobby hostile to Islam and Algeria.”

Those aren’t the words of a secular regime. At the very least, those are the words of a regime that clearly sees a need to appease religious extremists. All of which should give pause to Algeria watchers who see a secular democracy in the offing.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.