Young men are deserting their homeland of Algeria by the thousands. Some are being drawn north across the Mediterranean, others into neighboring Libya, into the jihad. Which is why it’s slowly becoming clear to Europeans that they need to take a look at Algeria, Africa’s largest country by land mass but also among the continent’s most unobtrusive nations. And what they see in the North African country on the Mediterranean coast doesn’t bode well.
Bab el Oued, a poor man’s district in the heart of the country’s capital, Algiers, on the square of the three clocks: Today, on a sunny Thursday in January, the whole world seemingly is out and about because all the stores will be closed on holy Friday. Here and there you will meet old women with white triangular scarves covering their mouths and noses. The scarves taper to a point in front; the women look like birds while wearing the traditional aâjars.
Two men are sitting in a café. They are discussing politics. And they do so without looking to the right or the left – a characteristic precautionary measure in most nations run by dictatorships. The two laugh uninhibitedly over a joke that is making the rounds: The government has raised gas prices to prevent the unemployed from immolating themselves.
Amid the laughter, the 86-year-old Mohamed asks the German guest in a threatening voice, "Are you secretly recording our conversation?" He likes the answer: "You can search me if you want." Mohamed grins and gives the foreigner a strawberry candy from his pocket.
You can speak openly in Algeria. Daily newspapers such as El Watan go very far in their criticism of the regime. Nevertheless, according to Amnesty International’s information, journalists and human rights activists land in prison because of political statements and are tortured in the secret police’s dungeons – at least witnesses say so. No court is following up on their claims. For that reason, Algeria is not a "safe country of origin" in the sense of German constitutional law, even if Berlin would like to see it otherwise.
Old scores are being revived: Who betrayed whom, who overthrew whom?
Algeria is drifting toward a severe political crisis. That’s also bad news for Europeans because the Mediterranean country shares borders with Libya and Mali, which are a war zone of al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). The terrorists have also established themselves in the interior of the country and are recruiting fighters. They can be read about daily in the newspapers.
Every couple of weeks, the plane of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika takes off from Boufarik military airport heading toward one of the country’s other airports. He isn’t on board. The 78-year-old head of state, in office since 1999, is terminally ill. Doctors allow him to fly only in rare cases. Regardless, the Airbus A340-500, equipped with a medical station, bedroom and missile defense, must be flown every now and then so that it remains in good working order.
The men in the café in Bab el Oued laugh over another joke: Tapes of the president’s tapped telephone conversations have surfaced – three hours of silence. Mr. Bouteflika hasn’t appeared in public for months. It is generally assumed that a military-political entourage, and not he, is in charge of the government.
The entourage has become nervous. The members’ power base is oil, but its price has plunged within a year by almost 50 percent. Algeria has some of the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves and lives almost exclusively from the export of the commodities. But the income from the state energy sector has hardly been used to invest domestically. Moreover, bureaucracy, state despotism and corruption are scaring off foreign capital. As a result the economy is not keeping pace with population growth. A quarter of Algerians are unemployed; among young people with a college degree, almost half. Three-fourths of the 40 million Algerians are under the age of 30, and their reality has three coordinates: poverty, frustration and religion.
For decades, the government had diverted money to buy social peace. Cheap loans for the unemployed, wage increases, certificates of eligibility to public housing magically appeared every time demonstrations and strikes got the upper hand. But the government can’t do that anymore: The money is gone, state revenues have been cut in half. Social unrest, which continually flares up and occasionally gets out of control and turns into riots, can no longer be pacified with manna from the government.
The state has already increased the price of gasoline and diesel by 20 percent – and that in a country where almost all transportation takes place on roads. Almost weekly, the prices tags are adjusted upwards on the market in the Bab el Oued district. Increasing with the prices is anger toward those governing the country; those people are called "the power." The word "mafia" can even be heard, not only in proletarian cafés, but also in company offices and artist studios and online. Who is meant by that?
Algeria’s leadership emerged from decades of infighting among the factions within Algeria’s National Liberation Front, which fought against the French colonial power from 1954 until 1962. Today, an alliance between the presidential palace and a group of military officers is considered to be the inner circle of power, and those people also share the sinecure of a state-directed economy. In the course of Mr. Bouteflika’s fourth term in office, which began a year and a half ago after a questionable election, his clique expanded its power. But now new rivalries are flaring up. Mr. Bouteflika’s former comrades-in-arms are publicly questioning his ability to govern. Highly-decorated generals are landing in jail, and wounds from earlier decades are being opened up in the press: Who betrayed whom, who overthrew whom? The last survivors of the liberation war are attacking each other.
In other words, the regime’s historical legitimacy is crumbling, its social-political legitimacy is ruined, and a democratic one virtually doesn’t exist. Because of vote-buying, clientelism and election-rigging, Algeria’s parliament is hardly taken seriously as representing the people.