Europe Has Its Fingers Crossed on Algeria

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Algerian government is bracing for more demonstrations on Friday against President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term in April’s elections. The protests, organized anonymously over social-media platforms, seemed to achieve critical mass last weekend, and have continued throughout the week, prompting authorities to increase the security presence in urban centers.

They represent the greatest challenge in years to the country’s rulers, a loose but durable coalition of interests that includes the president, the military and intelligence services.

The protests will also be watched with some alarm across the Mediterranean Sea by European leaders—especially in France, Italy and Spain—who have a great interest in Algeria’s stability, but little influence over its political class. The EU is by far Algeria’s largest trading partner, and regards it as a steady source for hydrocarbons. But arguably more important, the littoral European countries rely on Algeria as a bulwark against the twin challenges of terrorism and illegal immigration.

On immigration, the Europeans need Algerian authorities to head off potential migrants from sub-Saharan Africa before they can get on the boats. Algeria’s contribution to European counterterrorism efforts is twofold: it helps monitor and thwart groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and its intelligence services work with their counterparts to keep an eye on criminal and radical elements of the Algerian diaspora.

This is especially helpful to France, home to a huge Algerian diaspora. President Emmanuel Macron reportedly regards the situation in France’s former colony as a potentially grave foreign-policy crisis.

Like his predecessors, Macron has had to worry about unrest upon Bouteflika’s death: the Algerian leader is a very infirm 81, and has been greatly incapacitated since a stroke in 2013. Bouteflika, who has not given a speech in five years, is thought to be in a hospital in Geneva, his condition a closely guarded secret.

But the demonstrations raise the prospect of instability while the president is still alive. “If the demonstrations grow, a point will come when the government could respond with violence,” says Dalia Ghanem, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, whose research focuses on Algeria.

This weekend will be especially tense because Bouteflika’s staff have said they will file his candidacy papers on Monday, and the protesters hope to force the clique around the president—including his brother Said, and army chief of staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah—to change their mind. Ghanem believes that is possible. “At a certain point, they will sacrifice the candidate to preserve stability and power,” she says.

But other analysts are skeptical, pointing out that the clique has been unable to agree on an alternative candidate, despite Bouteflika’s long illness. Gen. Salah sounded an ominous warning, saying on TV that the protests were “pushing toward the unknown.” He described the demonstrations as “a mockery of democracy,” dismissing the protesters’ demands as “dubious.”

The demonstrations have been peaceful so far, but their persistence—and the timing, so close to the elections—will test the government’s apparent reluctance to crack down. The nature of the protests also confounds the authorities: there are no obvious leaders with whom they can negotiate, much less buy off with subsidies and handouts—the  government’s traditional response to public dissatisfaction.

Can the Europeans help? They would like to. “The EU will take its lead from France, which in turn will support the regime to stage-manage the transfer of power,” says Jonathan Hill, professor of international relations and director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. But a French government spokesman has said only that, “We want this election to take place in the best possible conditions, and for full transparency in the campaign.”

This is an acknowledgment that France’s leverage is limited. Macron earned some brownie points in Algiers last year, when he admitted to, and apologized for, French atrocities during the Algerian war of independence. But the Algerian ruling elite jealously guards its independence from outside influences, and would bristle at an offer of help to deal with internal politics.

For now, Europe’s only course is to hope the weekend passes peacefully.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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