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Decrepit rulers are holding back a country with enormous potential
IN MOST COUNTRIES candidates for president must prove that they are in command of their senses. In Algeria, for example, they are required to register in person. But that rule apparently does not apply to Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the ailing president, who was lying in a Swiss hospital bed when his campaign manager filed papers this month for him to run for re-election. Mr Bouteflika—or his coterie—is hoping he will win a fifth five-year term on April 18th.
He probably does not remember his fourth. The 82-year-old suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen since. Occasionally the government releases video of Mr Bouteflika looking confused, as aides fawn over him. The old man can hardly speak or walk. Yet he still ran away with the last election. The secretive cabal known as le pouvoir (the power) that really rules Algeria, and grows rich from it, is planning another stitch-up.
Algerians have had enough of this farce. Tens of thousands of them have taken to the streets in cities across the country, demanding one thing: that Mr Bouteflika not run again (see article). Algeria is in desperate need of renewal. But the ruling clique of generals, businessmen and politicians has proved incapable of reform, unable even to pick a successor to the cadaverous Mr Bouteflika. It is time it handed power to a new generation, which might unlock Algeria’s vast potential.
What critics call stagnation, le pouvoir calls stability. The last time the country held a free and fair parliamentary election, in 1991, Islamists won the first round and the generals cancelled the rest. That led to civil war, which raged for most of the 1990s and killed 200,000 people. Mr Bouteflika guided the country out of the “dark decade”. Algeria has avoided the unrest that shook many of its neighbours since 2011. Today it is one of the safest countries in the Arab world.
But the price has been high. The elite evokes the civil war, and the threat of jihadism, to justify a ruthless regime. A 19-year-old state of emergency was lifted in 2011, but political speech is still restricted, the media are muzzled and critics of the government are harassed. The authorities lock up people using vaguely worded bans on “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “insulting a government body”. State institutions, such as the parliament and judiciary, are rubber stamps.
Following the old rules, the army chief of staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, claims: “There are parties who wish to bring Algeria back to the years of violence.” Perhaps, but not the protesters. They shout “silmiya, silmiya” (peaceful, peaceful) and even clean up after themselves. Many feel disconnected from the likes of General Salah, who fought in the country’s war of independence from France. Most Algerians were born three or more decades after that conflict ended in 1962. While officials communicate by fax, protesters are organising on social media.
Le pouvoir worries that it can no longer afford to buy the public’s obedience with government jobs and subsidies. The state’s budget relies on oil and gas revenues. Since 2014, when the price of hydrocarbons tumbled, it has burned through cash. The unemployment rate hovers above 11%. Nearly a third of young people are looking for a job. Rampant corruption completes the dismal picture. Rich in natural resources, teeming with cheap labour and just across the sea from Europe, Algeria should be doing much better.
Le pouvoir does not have la solution. Mr Bouteflika, or whoever is using his pen, recently promised that, if he wins in April, he will organise an “inclusive national conference” and hold another election, which he would not contest. But playing for time will not resolve Algeria’s underlying problems.
The regime treats Mr Bouteflika like El Cid, an 11th-century Spanish nobleman whose dead body was supposedly strapped on a horse and sent into battle to inspire his troops. To most Algerians, however, he is an object of derision or pity. Algeria cannot say what will happen when the strongman dies. Far from preventing another civil war, the regime risks stoking one.
Sending Mr Bouteflika to a care home should be just the start of reform. A temporary government could then oversee a transition to a more open system, creating that national conference to come up with reforms; presidential and parliamentary elections would be held after the opposition, which is weak and divided, had been able to organise. The country’s next leader could improve things by encouraging entrepreneurs, rather than standing in their way, breaking up the government’s business empire and inviting in foreigners. Like Mr Bouteflika, Algeria has been ailing for some time. Unlike him, it can still be saved.