Last month, Algeria celebrated the 60th anniversary of its hard-won independence from French colonial rule, achieved after decades of resistance culminating in a brutal seven-year war of liberation. In contrast to the slogan that officials proclaimed for the festivities—"A glorious history and a new era"—little about the anniversary events suggested the start of a new chapter. Rather, the commemoration reflected the continuing dominance of the small circle of military and political elites who have ruled Algeria since 1962.
A military parade in the capital, Algiers, anchored the July 5 celebration. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and the army's chief of staff, Gen. Saïd Chengriha, were joined by a handful of Arab and African dignitaries who watched from a viewing deck as soldiers goose-stepped past, trailed by cavalry and tanks. Battleships cruised through the Bay of Algiers below, as bombers and fighter jets streaked overhead.
Conspicuously absent from the festivities were ordinary Algerians. The anniversary's official logo was a purely martial affair, dominated by images of military hardware and soldiers. The procession itself featured no civilian displays of Algeria's rich cultural heritage, and few citizens were allowed to line the parade route. Instead, most Algerians had to settle for watching the celebration of their own Independence Day on television.
The Military Over the Political
Sixty years earlier, Algerians had celebrated their independence with weeks of joyous street parties—and with solemn remembrances of the countless martyrs lost. The slogan in the air at that time recognized all Algerians as participants in the victory: "A single hero: the people." But subsequent events would reshape both the structure of power in Algeria and notions of who it should serve.
During the war of independence, which began in 1954, Algerian revolutionaries had established a series of guiding principles for their struggle, including "the primacy of the political over the military." A core of political officers in the National Liberation Front, known as the FLN from its French acronym, directed the liberation movement's military and diplomatic efforts in tandem, wielding force alongside non-violent tools like mass mobilizations and press campaigns, all coordinated to undermine support for French rule and win Algeria's independence.
When exactly that hierarchy began to unravel is debated. Some historians and observers suggest Algeria's military rulers subverted it during the liberation war, while others point to later events, like the coup d'état that Houari Boumediene—a powerful former commander in the FLN's military wing—led against the country's first democratically elected president in 1965, when Boumediene was serving as defense minister. Whatever preceded it, Boumediene's ascendance sealed the demise of "the political over the military." His presidency, which lasted until his death in 1979, established a model of military rule with a civilian façade that still endures in Algeria today. It also established the basic tenets of a social contract that Algeria's rulers have sought to enforce ever since: In exchange for security and well-being, Algerians should remain obedient and ask few questions.
The gulf separating Algeria's potential from its reality is so vast that not even the country's leaders deny it. Instead, they have long fallen back on well-worn excuses to justify the status quo.
- Andrew Farrand
In some respects, the ruling authorities have held up their end of that bargain. Algeria's constitution has long guaranteed citizens' rights to education, health care, housing and work, while the country's vast oil and gas wealth—discovered shortly before independence and nationalized by Boumediene—has provided ample means to honor those promises. Over six decades, Algeria's government has reversed the high rates of illiteracy and poverty at the time of independence; built hospitals and clinics, schools and universities, and millions of subsidized housing units; and provided generous subsidies on staple foods and utilities. Through these efforts, it has succeeded in raising millions of Algerians into at least minimally comfortable lifestyles and ensuring that few fell through the cracks.
'A Young Country'
While these achievements are laudable, they have been accompanied by failures large and small. The most evident of these began in the 1980s, when collapsing oil prices obliged the state to cut subsidies, sparking mass protests. To appease the population, leaders announced a political opening. For the first time, they authorized independent newspapers, civil society groups and political parties—ending the one-party state under the FLN that had reigned since independence. Algerians rallied by the millions behind an extremist Islamist party, the National Salvation Front, or FIS, whose brand of pious austerity offered a stark contrast to the corruption of Algeria's long-ruling secular military leaders (reflecting a dynamic common across the Arab world in recent decades). In 1990, the Islamists swept elections for local and regional councils, and then in 1991, they won the first round of voting for parliament, in the first multiparty elections since independence. With the FIS all but certain to take a commanding parliamentary majority in the second round, the military intervened and annulled the entire electoral process in the name of "preserving democracy." The Islamists took up arms, the Algerian army responded brutally, and a decade of very bloody civil war followed, with average citizens often caught in the crossfire. Some 200,000 people died, and many remain missing even today.
That catastrophic experience, ultimately born of Algeria's overreliance on oil and gas wealth, made clear the need for economic diversification. But even after Algeria emerging from its "Black Decade," its economy has remained dangerously dependent on hydrocarbons and dominated by the state, depriving Algerians of the rich array of opportunities that a vibrant private sector would offer. Non-hydrocarbon exports are few; foreign investment lags behind peer countries in the Middle East and North Africa; and youth unemployment hovers around 30 percent. Startups are mired in red tape, while domestic industry and agricultural production have suffered from years of neglect, obliging Algeria to import many of its food needs and consumer goods. Isolated from foreign competition, many domestic producers have succumbed to the mediocrity and low standards that, in the absence of international exposure, have come to pervade much of Algerian public life.
The gulf separating Algeria's potential from its reality is so vast that not even the country's leaders deny it. Instead, they have long fallen back on well-worn excuses to justify the status quo. "Algeria is a young country," "Algeria is a democracy under construction," or, most audacious of all, "We must proceed carefully, because we have seen the consequences of advancing too fast."
But talk of a "young country" is a hard sell today. At 60, if Algeria were a worker in one of the few state-run factories left over from the industrial glory days of the 1970s, it would now be eligible for retirement.
And it's a particularly hard sell in a country that's so young in a different sense. For the over half of Algerians who are under the age of 25, six decades sounds like an incredibly long time to make progress. Young Algerians' dissatisfaction with their prospects was one important driver of the 2019 Hirak uprising that forced the resignation of longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and provoked a short-lived reckoning between Algerians and the regime. Although authorities managed to stifle the protest movement, the frustrations that motivated it linger on, along with the demonstrators' desire to upend the regime that has ruled Algeria continuously since independence. As one young protester famously put it, in what became the Hirak's mantra: "Get them all out."
Shooting From the Hip
Contemporary Algeria's turbulent history is largely a product of its unusual governing structure. While the country is ostensibly a semi-presidential republic, power is actually wielded by competing factions within the opaque politico-military elite—widely known among Algerians as le pouvoir, the powers that be—who vie for control of ministries and other institutions in order to secure access to energy revenues. These elites have long enriched themselves through kickbacks, nepotism and other corruption schemes—as confirmed by international investigations and media leaks—siphoning off a significant portion of the estimated $1 trillion Algeria earned from oil and gas sales in the first two decades of this century.
Algeria's oil wealth reduces ruling elites' accountability to the public, as well as the population's bargaining power vis-à-vis the state. It increases elites' incentive to perpetuate the rentier economic model and resist calls for economic diversification or political decentralization. (Leaders have paid lip service to both for decades, with little change.) Worst of all, it leaves the levers of state divided among competing factions. Because none of them can secure full control, decision-making at the top is often paralyzed, leaving Algeria's government unable to execute major strategic shifts outside the rare moments when these dueling elites reach consensus. Twice in Algeria's history—in the runup to the Black Decade, and to the Hirak protests—the inability to make necessary course corrections has plunged the state into crisis.
One way or another, dramatic transformations are on the horizon in Algeria. The question facing the country's leaders is simply whether they will empower Algerians to drive those transformations themselves.
- Andrew Farrand
While the absence of a coordinated strategy often means high-level reform comes too late, ever-shifting control of state institutions produces erratic changes to the policies affecting Algerians' daily lives. What imported products Algerians might find on the supermarket shelves, what curriculum their children might follow in school, and what tax and compliance rules their businesses might face can change from one month to the next.
As ineffective as it is unpredictable, it is this approach to policymaking that a prominent Algerian pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Nabil Mellah, dubbed "tiribarkisme"—a uniquely Algerian expression that translates to something like the English phrase "shooting from the hip."
Today, Mellah himself has become a tragic example of the failures of this approach. A dynamic young entrepreneur, he expanded his mother's pharmacy in a modest suburb of Algiers into Merinal Pharmaceuticals, Algeria's largest pharmaceutical exporter. Merinal, which supplies dozens of drugs to Algeria's state medical system, is precisely the type of business that Tebboune's administration claims to want more of: self-started, youth-led, export-oriented and high tech. Yet Mellah was arrested in May 2021 on spurious charges of money laundering and product dumping. He was held in pretrial detention for 14 months before finally seeing a judge last month, when he was sentenced to four years in prison.
Mellah's true "offense" was presumably his longtime support for a youth organization and an independent media group—neither of which present any threat to a vast and wealthy security state, and both of which are far outweighed by his value as a homegrown success story and pillar of Algeria's budding pharmaceutical sector. But the coordination problems at the summit of the Algerian state preclude leaders from making such straightforward strategic calculations. Shooting from the hip, they have once again shot themselves in the foot.
The Right Resources
Sixty years after independence, Algeria lags far behind its potential. Tebboune, who was elected in a controversial vote after Bouteflika resigned in the face of the Hirak protests, has proclaimed a "new Algeria" and initiated steps to root out corruption, encourage investment, reduce red tape, and more. But the results to date have been painfully modest, failing to stem the annual tide of thousands of Algerian migrants who risk dangerous trips across the Mediterranean in smugglers' boats to seek their fortunes in Europe. In addition, the meager reforms have been accompanied by a significant crackdown on freedom of expression. Some 250 political activists and Hirak protesters are now jailed, and hopes for a mass pardon around the independence anniversary largely failed to materialize. Algeria's regime, which still cloaks itself in the language of revolution and post-colonial liberation, now imprisons the sort of innovators and bold thinkers it has long venerated.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, the surge in global oil and gas prices has been a boon for Algeria's regime, helping to refill depleted state coffers and reinforcing leaders' conviction that oil and gas will sustain Algeria forever. Algeria has also signed new lucrative gas deals with European countries seeking to wean themselves off Russian energy. But rather than providing long-term self-sufficiency, Algeria's hydrocarbon wealth builds dependency by linking the country's fate to the whims of global energy markets. What's more, domestic consumption is rising fast, threatening to eclipse production and erase Algeria's most important income stream.
The challenges Algeria faces today pale beside those looming in the years ahead: demographic transition, global energy diversification, climate change and desertification, to name just a few. The best way for the Algerian government to surmount these challenges—and to avoid plunging the country into another period of existential crisis—is to pivot from prioritizing its energy resources to prioritizing its human resources, and from viewing its citizens as liabilities to seeing them as assets. Rather than merely using the country's energy wealth to buy a fragile social peace, Algeria's leaders should invest in building the human capital that is the country's greatest long-term source of wealth.
With a population of 45 million multilingual, multitalented problem solvers, Algeria could be a powerhouse in numerous fields. But getting there will require revamping education, vocational training, health care and employment services, taking proposals for green energy transition seriously, following through on plans to target subsidies to the needy, honestly and transparently evaluating the effects of government expenditures and adjusting spending accordingly, and providing citizens with a genuine voice in setting the policies that will determine their future—a fundamental desire behind the Hirak protests. Taking these steps could make Algeria a model for countries across the region and the wider world.
Given Algeria's past and present, such a future might sound improbable, or even naïve. But the scale of the challenges ahead leaves few alternatives. One way or another, dramatic transformations are on the horizon in Algeria. The question facing the country's leaders is simply whether they will empower Algerians to drive those transformations themselves, or continue to leave them and the entire country vulnerable to the vagaries of history.