Algerian President’s Illness Could Herald Generational Shift

Abdelaziz Bouteflika might be Algeria’s last leader to have fought in the independence war.

Algeria’s prime minister admitted in remarks that were reported on Tuesday that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was seriously ill and convalescing in France, raising the prospect of a generational shift in the North African country’s secretive leadership.

Bouteflika, who has been in office since 1999 and presided over the end of an atrocious civil war in 2002, might be its last leader to have experienced Algeria’s struggle for independence from France.

Presidential elections, still scheduled for 2014, could be moved up if Bouteflika is permanently incapacitated or dies, even if elections in Algeria are a largely ceremonial affair. Bouteflika supposedly won more than 90 percent support in the last vote in 2009.

Islamist victories in the 1991 parliamentary elections prompted the army to cancel the vote, triggering Algeria’s civil war. Too many Algerians probably want to avoid a repeat of the 1990s, when tens of thousands died in the conflagration, to demand another experiment in democracy.

Algeria has largely escaped the sort of political unrest that toppled dictatorships across the Arab world in 2010 and 2011 as well as the resurgence of Islamist militancy that it so bloodily suppressed over a decade ago and recently plunged neighboring Libya and Mali into civil wars.

Generous welfare spending and tax cuts, financed by oil and natural gas exports, allow Algeria to alleviate poverty and unemployment, two of the factors that contributed to the political crises in its neighborhood. Even if Algerians share many of their fellow Arabs’ grievances, including a desire for better economic opportunities and improved political accountability, uncertainties about the regime’s survival stem mainly from an old guard handing power to a generation that did not fight in the independence war.

“Algeria is coming to a precipice,” wrote Algerian blogger The Moor Next Door earlier this month: “a whole political generation is on its way out and it is not clear how one generation will transfer power and legitimacy to the next.”

While Bouteflika’s departure might not immediately “decapitate the Algerian system as a whole,” which The Moor Next Door describes as “an organic set of highlight networked relationships that are reliant on one another even in competition and conflict,” it could well be the beginning of the end for it.

The regime has so far been able to buy off and incorporate dissenters. Future leaders might not have that luxury.

An almost instinctively statist economic policy means price ceilings and tariffs are unlikely to be abolished, especially when liberalization would expose the Algerian population to fluctuations in international fuel and food prices — a third factor in “Arab Spring” uprisings. Yet hydrocarbon revenues are slowly decreasing. The government can hardly afford to stave off reforms indefinitely which could in turn raise people’s expectations of political change as well.