Beyond Algeria‘s north-eastern borderlands, now covered in spring flowers after heavy winter snow, Tunisia has toppled a despised ruling family and is the model for a relatively smooth “democratic transition”.
Further east, Libya has cast aside the Gaddafis, although it is still struggling to find stability, while Egypt continues in full revolutionary turmoil. Across Algeria’s still-closed border to the west, Morocco’s King Mohammed has ceded some ground to an elected government, which for the first time in history is led by Islamists.
But as Algeria goes to the polls on Thursday to elect a new parliament, the most striking thing about North Africa‘s largest country is what hasn’t happened, rather than what has.
The 75-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, of the independence-era National Liberation Front (FLN), has been at the helm for 13 years. In 2008 he secured a third term after changing the constitution to allow it, and secured 90% of the votes in a contest with five other candidates. Opponents described the election as “a tsunami of massive fraud which reached an industrial scale”.
The true turnout figure in Thursday’s vote is likely to be extremely low, most of Algeria’s semi-free press agrees, as voters stay home in protest at an election process often seen as an insult to their intelligence.
The country is still run by a closed group of civilians and military who make decisions, including about election results, far from the glare of the media.
The composition of this inner circle, referred to as “le pouvoir“, may have changed slightly over the decades, but the principle is the same. In short, there has been no Arab spring in Algeria.
If chronically high unemployment among college leavers provided the tipping point for revolution in Tunisia, Algeria simmers with similar frustrations. The hydrocarbons revenues that help the ruling elite continue in power account for nearly 70% of the country’s tax receipts, but onshore oil and gas are hardly labour-intensive: the sector provides jobs for only around one in 100 Algerians.
The most recent IMF figures show that although unemployment overall has eased significantly in the past decade to around 10%, partly reflecting a lower birthrate, among young Algerians it is still obstinately high, at 21%.
Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in December has prompted dozens of copycat suicides and attempted suicides in Algeria.
The most recent such tragedy was Hamza Rechak, from the town of Jijel on the Mediterranean coast. He set himself alight after police asked him to take down his unlicensed street stall, and suffered for two days before finally dying from his burns on 1 May. As young men from the town took to the streets, attacking police stations and destroying the local FLN office, the police responded with teargas and Rechak’s family appealed for calm via local radio.
Elsewhere across Algeria, as in neighbouring Tunisia, each week brings new reports of impoverished rural communities mounting roadblocks to demand water, domestic gas supplies or better housing.
In such an oil-rich country, Algerians freely argue, people should not be living in shanty towns half a century after the nation secured, at great human cost, independence from France in 1962.
So why hasn’t Algeria risen up like its neighbours?
As commentators have repeatedly noted, the population is still “traumatised” by the nightmare of the 1990s, when perhaps more than 100,000 civilians died.
That internecine conflict began in 1992, when the military stepped in to block an imminent Islamist electoral win.
By 1999, the official death toll stood at 70,000, and for reasons that have never been fully explained, this was revised upwards to 150,000 and beyond after Bouteflika took office.
As a result Algerians discount any way forward towards democracy that might degenerate into violence.
This sentiment is strong among much of the population, but women with families are among the most gravely adamant on this score.
Young male football fans, meanwhile, last year produced their own satirical take on al-Jazeera’s revolutionary drumbeat: instead of the well-worn slogan calling for a regime’s fall, they chanted: “The people – want – free hashish!”
As the same potential voters explain, as well as coinciding with an end to the conflict, Bouteflika’s period in office since 1999 has seen some economic improvement.
New housing and student residences have been built, there is a better financial deal for women on divorce, and – after the Arab spring especially – a liberal sprinkling of grants for the young unemployed to set up small businesses.
Bouteflika is looking increasingly frail, and his FLN party attracts mainly the vote of the older generation. But he has also courted the football fans, and somehow manages to avoid much of the opprobrium directed at his prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia.
The ruling circles still determine the tone of much of the media, including the single, state-controlled television channel. A revision to the press law last year means that journalists no longer face prison if they stray over certain red lines in their commentary on the state of the nation, but the extremely heavy fines that have replaced the prison sentences are effective deterrents.
Media coverage has highlighted continuing tensions in Tunisia – officials refer to an “uprising” there rather than a revolution – and especially in Libya.
Al-Jazeera television crews are still excluded from Algeria, as they have been since the early days of Bouteflika’s presidency.
Ouyahia leads the RND, a conservative offspring of the FLN that no doubt echoes the hardliners within the pouvoir.
“There is no lesson in democracy that we need to learn from the Arab spring, because our spring is Algeria,” he said last weekend.
All the talk of change that some parties were deploying in their election campaigning would only cause the country to slide back to the “death and destruction” of the 1990s, and could give malevolent foreign forces an opportunity to encroach on national sovereignty as Nato had in Libya, he said.
Eileen Byrne, The Guardian