“The task of men of culture and faith,” said Albert Camus in Algiers in 1956, “is not to desert historical struggles nor to serve the cruel and inhuman elements in those struggles. It is rather to remain what they are, to help man against what is oppressing him, to favour freedom against the fatalities that close in upon it.” This speech was given in order to save the lives of countless civilians, Arabs and French alike. For Camus, the main idea was to hold tight to the moral compass, resisting oppression while resisting one’s own tendency to oppress. Camus proposed that the FLN (National Liberation Front) and French authorities agree to a “civilian truce”.
Despite the fact that Camus’ old neighbourhood of Belcourt is today a former Salafist enclave and Algeria is no more a guiding light for revolutionaries around the world, the passion for change and freedom is still alive among the Algerian youth. It is true that the popular uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 had no immediate effect on Algeria. Today, the story is different. Algerians and analysts of Algeria talk about a “Second Arab Spring”, challenging the traditional ideas of power in Algerian society and developing a new idea of democracy in the Maghreb.
Unlike in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, the political power of FLN in Algeria has remained intact. Under the pressure of the Algerian youth and civil society, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been the president since 1999, is now out of the picture. Following several weeks of intense demonstrations by artists, intellectuals, students, lawyers and many other representatives of the Algerian civil society, the 82-year-old president named a new government on March 31. Surprisingly, the new government is keeping the army chief, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah, as chief of staff and vice defence minister, though he had called for the application of a provision in the Algerian constitution that could remove Bouteflika on account of his failing health since 2013.
Also, even though Bouteflika has agreed to withdraw his candidature for a new term, he has cancelled the presidential election due on April 18. Probably, after being abandoned by some members of the ruling FLN and union leaders, Bouteflika’s political entourage felt that by asking the president to leave the power, they could save the country from chaos. It goes without saying that a continuous popular revolt presents serious risks to an FLN regime’s survival. The events in Algeria arrive at a difficult moment for the country’s economy. Algeria is facing double-digit unemployment, widespread corruption and a quarter of the population is living below the poverty line. As for the political situation, the regime has restricted human rights and civil liberties since the civil war of the 1990s, in which more than 2,00,000 people died. As such, the fear of a new national tragedy is always in the air, and the Bouteflika government had been able to use the people’s desire for stability and security.
Algeria’s economic growth has been generally lower than that of the Midde East and North Africa (MENA) average and its GDP has grown at an average annual rate of 4.3 per cent, which is below Egypt. Moreover, a modest devaluation of the currency and the marginal macroeconomic adjustments between 2014 and 2017 by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal did not pacify the increasingly discontented public.
With the army ruling the state, especially after the Black Decade of violent civil war between the military and the Islamists, and Algeria’s judiciary being subject to government pressure, one can conclude that the Algerian society is plagued by many problems which cannot be solved with one or two cabinet changes in the government. But now there is a strong feeling among the Algerians that even if the state is controlled by a few individuals, they have the power to bring down the government. As a matter of fact, the Algerian government and its international allies know well that unless a structural reform strategy is initiated, a second Arab Spring could be around the corner. If this is the case, the Arab countries of the MENA region will be watching developments in Algeria with great concern. “As far as Algeria is concerned,” Camus wrote, “national independence is a formula driven by nothing other than passion”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 2, 2019, under the title ‘A New Season In Algiers’. The writer is professor and vice-dean, Jindal Global University