[Hot Issue] Fears of a New Arab Spring: The Algerian Riots in Context

(Source: tsa-algerie.com)

On January 14, Tunisians marked the sixth anniversary of their successful revolution against the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Known as the “Jasmine Revolution,” it inspired other people in the region to take to the streets, starting the so-called “Arab Spring.” Six years later, the picture looks bleaker than many hoped at that time. Though Tunisia, despite many security and economic problems, is slowly moving toward greater democracy and freedom, the other countries that experienced revolutions during the Arab Spring — Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen — all failed in advancing their democratic processes.

The advent of the Arab Spring has impacted the way in which observers interpret developments in the region. After 2011, fearing misidentifying a possible revolution, observers of the Middle East and North Africa are quick to flag every eruption of protests or violence as an indication of an imminent revolution. This recently was the case with Morocco (The Telegraph, October 31, 2016; TelQue.ma, November 1, 2016). When protests formed after the death of Mouhcine Fikri — a fisherman from the town of Hoceima, part of Morocco’s impoverished and historically turbulent Rif region — the Western media interpreted his death as having the potential to become a destabilizing symbol, comparing it to the death of Mohamed Bouazizi (Reuters, October 31, 2016; The New York Times, October 30, 2016).

This inclination on the part of observers was displayed again a few weeks later. At the beginning of January, a number of protests erupted spontaneously in several Algerian cities. Following these protests, some observers asked whether they were the signs of an upcoming Arab Spring-style revolution in Algeria (al-Sharq al-Awsaat, January 7). Although these protests are significant, as the potential for crisis in Algeria remains considerable, they must be analyzed in their distinct political and geographic context. The fact of their occurrence is not evidence in and of itself that Algeria is on the brink of a revolution.

The Riots  

On January 2, young demonstrators took the streets in the provinces of Béjaïa and Bouira. Protesters set several buildings and vehicles on fire, while they looted shops and blocked roads. On the same day, shopkeepers in the area organized a general strike to protest tax hikes. The violence also spread to other parts of Algeria, hitting some of the most impoverished suburban areas of Algiers. The authorities arrested about 100 protesters, and some of Algeria’s key leaders stressed that the government would block anyone who sought to destabilize the country. Abdelmalek Sellal, the Algerian prime minister, confirmed that Algeria was not about to experience an Arab-Spring style revolution, adding a few days later that some unknown parties sought to destabilize the country (Algerie Press Service, January 6; Tout sur l’Algerie, January 2).

The riots and the strikes were spured on by the recent austerity measures taken by the Algerian government. Protesters took to the streets to protest spending cuts and price and tax hikes sanctioned by the 2017 Finance Law, while shopkeepers called for a strike to protest tax increases and problems they face importing goods. [1] As oil prices remain weak, revenues are dwindling. Additionally, oil production is declining, as Algerians have failed to bring in more investors in the oil and gas sector, and diversification has de facto failed. Against this backdrop, the Algerian government had to adopt a number of austerity measures. The 2017 Finance Law sanctioned a 14 percent cut to public expenditure, which is based on oil prices at $50 per barrel. According to the IMF, Algeria needs the price per barrel to be $110 in order to keep its macroeconomic balance in check (The North Africa Post, November 27, 2016).

The Algerian Thorns: Its Explosive Peripheries

These protests broke out at the beginning of 2017, a crucial year for Algeria. First, 2017 marks twenty-five years since the start of the bloody civil war that engulfed Algeria through the 1990s. This period, the so-called “décennie noire” (black decade), represents a groundbreaking moment for the development of the modern Algerian identity, and its impact at the psychological and social level has been remarkable. In addition, Algeria will hold legislative elections in April 2017, a first litmus test for the evolving national political balances. While it is true that elections in Algeria are neither completely free nor particularly fair, they still say something about the development of political and power relations within the country and the emergence of new local power brokers. As such, the recent protests are relevant, although they are not necessarily the signal that a revolution is about to hit Algeria.

Protests against the so-called Hogra (the Arabic word describing injustice, deprivation and humiliation) are common in the Algerian and the broader Maghrebi socio-political landscape (Afrik.com, June 7, 2012). The recent protests are remarkable, particularly because they spread spontaneously through the country and had a strong media resonance, but they must be put in context. The provinces of Béjaïa and Bouira are part of Kabylie, historically the most restive region of Algeria. Kabylie is one of the Algerian Berber areas. Unlike other such areas, it has a history of political mobilization and its ties with Algiers are very problematic. [2] Cyclically, this region has witnessed many protests over the years. These protests were very intense in some case, as in 1980, in what was known as the Berber Spring, and the early 2000s. These problems, however, go beyond issues related to ethno-identity politics. Kabyles are generally not discriminated against, and their ethnicity, and cultural diversity, does not prevent them from accessing public offices or professional opportunities. The issues at stake are much more complex, including issues associated with social status, political frustration and economic development, particularly during the 1990s. While the recent protests did not have any apparent ethnic characterization, they are a common feature of the local social and political landscape.

Other areas of Algeria have also experienced riots and inherent instability over the past few years. In the Algerian deep south, once a rather politically quiet area and the key engine of the Algerian oil economy, recent years have witnessed the emergence of a number of local conflicts. The historic town of Ghardaia has seen recurrent clashes between Sunni Arabs and Berber Mozabites (Afrik.Com, February 7, 2014; Algerie Focus, December 7, 2016; Huffington Post Maghreb, March 17, 2014). In 2015, the town of Salah witnessed the emergence of an anti-shale and pro-environment movement, which protests against the decision of the Algerian government to allow shale explorations in the region (Afrik.com, March 1, 2015). Moreover, terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), remain active in the south, attacking oil installations (Reuters, March 18, 2016). All of these problems must also be seen in the context of greater regional issues, as Algeria is immersed in a rather volatile geopolitical environment (see Terrorism Monitor, December 1, 2016).

Managing Discontent at a Time of Transition

The fourth term of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been, from the outset, a transition (see Terrorism Monitor, May 2, 2014). The elites who will emerge at the end of this transition process will be the first truly post-colonial elites, those who did not fight in the independence war against France. As such, they will not be able to draw upon this experience, traditionally the Algerian elites’ most important tool of political legitimization. In addition, this transition is happening at a time of collapsing oil prices. It is unclear whether this change, due primarily to the shale revolution, is either structural or temporary, yet it has already had a significant impact. Although the Algerian economy will not collapse overnight, nor will it lack the resources to buy social peace in certain areas in the coming months, prolonged weak oil prices will force the government to be much more selective in its spending, thus upsetting some social groups and constituencies around the country.

Against this backdrop, the interplay of domestic volatility, economic problems and the deterioration of regional security presents a number of challenges to Algeria. That said, instability in Algeria is somewhat endemic. In recent years, the country has managed to control these sudden explosions of violence. Since the end of the civil war, Algeria has undergone a process of normalization that has not resulted in the establishment of a genuinely inclusive, properly democratic and economically sound country. President Bouteflika managed to mend the wounds of the civil war. He also managed to change the political balances within the elites, bringing civilian power back at the center of Algerian politics by marginalizing the once-powerful Algerian senior intelligence and security service, the DRS (Département du renseignement et de la sécurité). Even so, little has been done to address socio-economic disparities. These socio-economic grievances reemerge cyclically, provoking waves of localized instability. Indeed, during the months of the Arab Spring, Algerians also took to the streets, but these protests did not turn into a fully-fledged revolution.

While there are a number of reasons why the Algerian state has managed to avoid the fate of neighboring Libya, one of those reasons is particularly pertinent. The psychological impact of the civil war on the minds of Algerians is an important factor that has prevented many Algerians from moving forward in their protests. The black decade cost the lives of many Algerians, destroyed social links, public trust and traditional communities. Furthermore, it isolated the country internationally and brought mourning and desperation to almost every Algerian family. As such, those who witnessed the civil war are reluctant to embark on a revolution again. And as the revolutions of the Arab Spring turned progressively into a quagmire, the impact of the images coming from Syria, Libya and Yemen has encouraged Algerians to avoid following the same pattern.

Social memory, however, is just one of the factors that has prevented Algeria, so far, from experiencing another revolution. Over the past twenty years, the so-called pouvoir (the power) — the informal political network centered around President Bouteflika and his clan — has managed to cope with these challenges using a carrot and stick approach, displaying a flexibility necessary to accommodate requests coming from different local stakeholders and leaders. Economic redistribution played a significant role in this context, but so also did President Bouteflika’s network’s capacity of persuasion and cooptation. In addition, Algerian security forces have learned how to deal with sudden waves of protests. They have developed a more tailored and horizontal response, adapting swiftly to the specificities of the local environments in which these protests erupted.


Algeria has thus far managed to avoid the outbreak of a new revolution, despite its internal problems and a volatile surrounding geopolitical environment. Nevertheless, the Algerian socio-economic situation remains problematic. The outbreak of these latest spontaneous protests shows that social tension remains considerably high. In the coming months, possible new protests could also be exploited by those local groups and political stakeholders who want to strengthen their political and economic positions. As the end of the Bouteflika era is approaching, many actors in Algeria are on the alert, as the transition will inevitably bring a number of changes to the delicate, informal balances of political power in Algeria.

Moreover, this dynamic will be even more relevant given the economic problems that Algeria is set to the experience in the coming years. As oil production, exports and revenues decline amid the changes in the global oil market, the competition for the control of Algeria’s oil resources — historically one of the most significant assets at stake in Algeria — will become even fiercer.

Additionally, the troubles associated with Algeria’s oil economy will eventually force the Algerian government to change the social contract it maintains with its citizens. While this is a common problem in many rentier economies of the region, for Algeria this will be particularly challenging given its internal differences and the lack of economic diversification. Part of this social contract was based on the Algerian people being largely unaware of how people live in other countries around the world. However, the spread of the Internet, social networks, urbanization and education have changed this situation. Young Algerians are now more aware of the world surrounding them than the older generations. As such, expectations are changing. The trade-off between (partial) wealth redistribution and political acquiescence is becoming increasingly obsolete, particularly when the resources to sustain it are declining.

Lastly, as the first generation born after the civil war is about to enter the job market, this is likely to increase the pressure on the Algerian state to provide employment and opportunities of social mobility. Although many have heard tales of the brutality and desperation that Algerians witnessed in the 1990s, the rising generation did not experience the civil war directly. As such, citizens’ political self-restraint created by the social memory of the civil war will progressively erode. If not properly addressed, these problems promise to pose a number of challenges to the Algerian government in the months and years to come.



[1] Direction Générale des Impôts, Ministere des Finances, République Algérienne Démocratique et Populaire, January 2017

[2] The others are: the Shawiyya of the Sud-Constantinois, the Mozabites of the Mzab Valley in the northern Sahara, followers of the Ibadi School, and the Tuareg of the Saharian south.