Waiting for change

Observations on Algeria

A decade ago, a brutal conflict in Algeria was brought to the world's attention by extraordinarily violent massacres in the suburbs of the capital, Algiers. Hundreds of men, women and children had their throats slit, or were hacked to death with axes, impaled, or shot.

This year, just as the country seemed to emerge from isolation, Algeria again hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, as the rebels embodying the tail-end of the 15-year-old Islamic insurgency regrouped under al-Qaeda's banner. Now calling themselves al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they have adopted suicide attacks, used al-Qaeda-style propaganda to lure in young recruits, and claimed roadside bombings against foreign workers as their work. The group has also attacked traditional, state targets, including police stations and the central government offices. On 6 September, a bomber apparently targeting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika killed himself and 20 others in a crowd waiting to greet the president in the eastern city of Batna. Two days later, a delivery van packed with explosives was rammed into a coastguard barracks in the town of Dellys, killing 30.

The government has tried to brush off these attacks as the final throes of an insurgency. In its view, a peace charter that offered a broad amnesty to militants last year and impunity to the security services - suspected of "disappearing" thousands of people, manipulating armed groups, and failing to protect the population - definitively resolved Algeria's crisis. But today's violence speaks of a deep, lingering malaise.

Recruits to the armed groups tend to be in their teens or early twenties, many coming from impoverished neighbourhoods known for extremism. Even the educated have little hope of advancing. "If they had the means, everyone would leave tomorrow," says Kamel Belabed, whose 25-year-old son Merouane took a boat for Italy with nine companions on 17 April and hasn't been seen since.

Yet the economy is growing and imports are booming, thanks to oil and gas piped and shipped to Europe and beyond (accounting for 98 per cent of export revenues). The government has pledged, with Soviet-style targets, to spend $144bn from 2001 to 2009 on infrastructure and a grandiose development project. A class of nouveaux riches has sprung up on the back of bank loans, property speculation and pay-offs from public works contracts, and gives an impression of wealth. But the country scarcely produces anything. Oil and gas exports account for 75 per cent of state revenues, a percentage that is rising.

The political set-up is looking fragile. President Bouteflika is not physically fit. He was hospitalised for several weeks in Paris in late 2005 and a constitutional reform that might have allowed him to run for a third, five-year term in 2009 has been indefinitely shelved. Though put into office by the army, he has since concentrated power in his own hands.

Ahmed Benbitour, prime minister from 1999-2000, resigned when he saw Bouteflika's determination to bypass parliament. "Today, we have the resources to finance reforms and the costs of reforms, but what is lacking is any vision, or the political institutions to form a vision," says Benbitour.

Meanwhile, there is a widening gap between the people and a discredited political elite that buys time with populist economic policies, concessions to Islamists, and a tired nationalist discourse. Reformists hope Bouteflika will be the last president from his generation, and that there will be a shift when he leaves. The choice of successor is more likely to be made by the small group of decision-makers than by the people. But for Algeria finally to pull out of its cycle of violence, the shift will have to be a big one.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown