A Youthful Nation Tiring of Its Aging Leaders Finds a Voice

(Bloomberg) -- A five-minute film that instantly became a YouTube hit is exposing the gulf between young Algerians agitating for change and an aging cabal of politicians readying to extend its rule over the oil-rich nation at elections in less than a year.

“Rani Zaafane,” produced by Anes Bouzeghoub and dedicated to an Algiers street sleeper whose tirades turned him into a minor celebrity before he died in 2012, racked up a million views within a week of being posted.

Its themes of joblessness, corruption and inequality are still resonating from Morocco to Egypt years after Arab Spring optimism turned sour. But reaction has been especially visceral at home, where more than two thirds of the population is under 30. Long-running strikes by doctors and teachers demanding better working conditions point to deep frustration in a country where authorities are wary of change.

That anger will soon run into the buildup to next April’s presidential election, with speculation growing that 81-year-old, wheelchair-bound leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who hasn’t addressed the nation in five years, will contest for a fifth term. Algeria is an OPEC member bordering six countries so instability could reach far.

In the film’s opening scenes, Bouzeghoub, 28, targets a sense of entitlement in the offices of power: “University graduates have to sell cigarettes to survive while the illiterates strut about in parliament, issuing laws and giving orders.” Ministers have attacked the video, doing nothing to dent its appeal.

Oil Wealth

Bouteflika ended the civil war of the 1990s sparked when the army canceled elections Islamists were poised to win, and during his two decades in power has used oil wealth to fund a social safety net and staunch dissent. Parliament is dominated by the president’s National Liberation Front, while the right to protest in Algiers is circumscribed.

It was enough to prevent the 2011 Arab uprisings taking root among a population still scarred by the war. The question is whether, even with the rise in oil prices, the nation can still afford it. And will Algerians continue to buy it?

“The Algerian regime only implements change when it has to,” said Riccardo Fabiani, an analyst with research consultancy Energy Aspects who has studied the country for more than a decade. Yet, “the longer they postpone change, the harder it becomes,” he said. “What happens after presidential elections in 2019 is the real challenge.”

While Bouteflika’s illness “inspires compassion and pity, it has also caused impatience and agitation” for change, said sociologist Ahmed Rouadjia.

‘I’m Angry’

Foreign currency reserves have halved as the government maintained its policies despite a slump in crude oil prices from 2014. As oil prices climb again this year, the government is expected to raise spending ahead of voting. Leaders try to avoid borrowing overseas, seeing it as eroding sovereignty. But relying on domestic funding risks depreciating the dinar and higher prices. The International Monetary Fund has warned that unless it tightens its belt, Algeria’s economic risks will continues to mount.

In the video, Bouzeghoub is made up to look like the homeless man who inspired him. French-era boulevards and elegant villas contrast with squalor to the soundtrack of 1997’s The Titanic, a nod to what he says is a sinking state. The film’s title means “I’m angry.”

Bouzeghoub rejects accusations from some officials he’s profiting from others’ misery. “I’m used to making videos that are well watched,” he said. “But for this one, I was surprised by the huge number of positive reactions. I’m not political, my work is to show the reality of Algerian life.”

Generation Gap

Many younger Algerians have given up on elections they don’t believe can bring change, deepening the divide with a ruling generation that prizes peace above all else.

“There’s a generational gap that means decision makers don’t take into account the social realities of young people,” said Belkacem Benzenine at Oran’s National Centre of Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology.

Red tape hobbles investment and graduate unemployment is probably at least triple the official rate of 10 percent. A former government official in 2016 suggested emigration had cost the economy $165 billion over three decades.

For one Algiers graduate, who asked only to be identified as Razak, “Rani Zaafane” is a reminder of what could be. “It tells of a reality that’s bitter but real,” he said. “At the same time, there’s a message of hope.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.