The 2019 Protests: An Algerian Spring?
Recent demonstrations across Algeria, representing a wide cross-section of the population, including students, lawyers, doctors, journalists and the working class, demanded change in the government and reforms within the country’s political system; suggesting a degree of political maturity.
Over the following days, the number of participants consistently increased but the demonstrations remained leaderless and mostly peaceful. The protests led to outgoing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika officially announcing that he will not run for a fifth presidential mandate and that the elections, scheduled to be held on 18th April 2019, were to be postponed.
Calls for Demonstrations
Originating in December 2018, from Bab El Oued’s neighbourhood of Algiers, demonstrations quickly spread across the country. In March 2019, three million people were said to be protesting in the streets of Algeria.
Initially, despite the ongoing demonstrations across the country, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika formally announced on 10th February 2019 that he would in fact run for a fifth electoral mandate. Sick and weakened, he has been the country’s leader for over 20 years.
As social networks were used as a platform to anonymously share information regarding the protests, a number of social and political movements began to join forces. The Movement of the Society for Peace (MSP) and the Socialist Forces Front united as they both became involved in the protest, announcing that they will boycott the upcoming elections if Bouteflika were to submit his candidacy.
A number of politicians and their supporters also decided to halt political campaigns in order to participate in the demonstrations. This highlights how corrupt the political system is as well as the strong will of protesters to show their support to the cause in fighting the entire political system.
Violence and Arrests
Although the demonstrations have largely been peaceful, some violence still occurred. Protestors began burning vehicles as well as vandalising trading shops leading to clashes between the police and young Algerians who threw stones at the security forces. Hundreds of people were arrested with hundreds of policemen also reported to have been lightly to moderately injured, although there is no indication as to the exact numbers of injured as a result of the protests.
Unpredictability and Massive Challenges
The first, yet certainly not the main or only, objective was reached. However, the question of what happens next is still uncertain. The current situation leaves, not only the Algerians, but the investors (particularly those in the oil and gas sector), in a state of unpredictability.
Protests continued this week as demonstrators interpret the compromise made by Bouteflika as solely a tactic to prolong his presidency.
Even if this move is considered a ‘victory’ for the demonstrators, giving the usual heavy-handed reactions of most Arab leaders towards protest movements during the Arab Spring in 2011, several wide-ranging reforms would still be needed on the long-term. Those include, but not limited to, a strong action against corruption and some efforts to improve the business environment.
Oil and Gas Industry
The oil and gas sector is likely to be one of the most affected Industry areas by the current protests. Many employees of national oil company, Sonatrach, took part to the demonstrations in several towns, and further strikes are anticipated.
With export earnings worth over 95% of the economy, oil and gas revenues are crucial to Algeria.
In addition, two-thirds of its territory is allegedly still unexplored, mostly because of heavy red tape, lack of transparency and a high tax on foreign companies’ profits. Algerian leaders are not likely to bring the quick and significant changes needed to boost exploration and production of offshore areas.
The protesters are very likely to continue to gather and fight for change within the government and the institutions. Those involved in the movement are unlikely to be satisfied with the lack of offers of concrete solutions to their call for inclusive government and an end to corruption.
Uncertainty remains significant as there is, so far, neither a date for the elections nor a guarantee of reforms.
Global and strategic Algerian diplomacy has never been impacted by the changes following its independence in 1962. It is very unlikely that its foreign policy and diplomatic relationships will be influenced by the current unrest. The destabilisation of the country would lead to the destabilisation of the region. But this scenario is unlikely to occur, especially since Algeria, which secured its borders, is a crucial actor in the fight against terrorism.