No stranger to civil conflict, Algeria is once again experiencing significant political unrest. Protests in the country are gathering steam, indicating deep and widespread discontent with the power structure that has helped Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika remain in power, even though the octogenarian suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013. The trigger for the most recent protests that erupted on Feb. 22 was the announcement that Bouteflika — who is wheelchair-bound and unable to speak — would stand for a fifth term in presidential elections on April 18. On March 11, however, he announced that he was withdrawing from the election, which authorities will delay until a national conference sets a date for a new election. In climbing down, Bouteflika is clearly hoping to defuse the current protests. But until the particulars are known, it is difficult to determine if he will succeed. The protests are not only focused on the ailing president but the powerful cabal behind him, meaning that simply removing Bouteflika from the ballot will not dissolve the resentment toward the ruling clique.
Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika helped prevent the 2011 Arab Spring from toppling his government by using his country's oil wealth to provide subsidies to the country's citizens. But after a prolonged period of low energy prices, the Algerian economy no longer has the ability to buy its way out of political unrest. Change is coming to Algeria, but it is unclear how protracted and painful the process will be. What's more, a long period of civil unrest could present an unprecedented opportunity for jihadist groups to return to the fore.
Such protests are nothing new to Algeria. Similar demonstrations wracked the country in 2011 and 2012, but Bouteflika, then in better health, succeeded in dampening the discontent by extending food subsidies and lifting a 19-year state of emergency. These stop-gap measures, however, failed to address the deep, festering issues causing the unrest. This time around, significant change appears likely in Algeria; the simple question is how.
To date, the protesters have been insistent and loud, albeit peaceful. But in the absence of a rapid and non-violent resolution, the unrest is likely to spawn profound security challenges — not only in terms of disruptions and security crackdowns, but also by providing additional space for Algeria's militant groups to recover and expand.
The Militant Threat in Algeria
Algeria has been contending with a jihadist threat since the military staged a coup in the wake of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front's electoral victory in December 1991. In the aftermath of the coup, Islamists took up arms against the military, precipitating a brutal and bloody civil war that raged until 2002. In all, upward of 150,000 people perished in the conflict, Bouteflika said himself in 2005. After his election in 1999, Bouteflika managed to coax most of the Islamist opposition back into the political fold with amnesties. But more radical Islamist factions, such as the Armed Islamic Group and a successor group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), continued their armed opposition. After receiving support from Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, organizations like the GSPC openly announced their allegiance to the transnational jihadist group in 2003.
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the GSPC formally joined the al Qaeda movement, renaming itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Marking the transition, the group traded insurgent attacks against security forces in favor of large suicide operations, including attacks on two police stations in 2006 and a twin suicide bombing in Algiers in April 2007. These large and destructive bombings, however, turned public opinion against the group, allowing the government to launch a massive crackdown on AQIM in which it arrested hundreds of militants. The group has persisted in the north of the country, especially in the mountains east of Algiers, but it currently only poses a low-level threat due to relentless pressure from Algeria's security forces.
Simply removing Bouteflika from the ballot will not dissolve the resentment toward the ruling clique.
AQIM's branches in Algeria's vast southern areas have enjoyed more room to maneuver over the past decade. But the January 2013 attack against the Tigantourine natural gas facility near Ain Amenas prompted Algerian security forces to step up their efforts in the region — forcing AQIM branches such as Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) to focus their efforts further south in the Sahel, including in northern Mali.
Algerian security forces have also worked hard to keep the Islamic State franchise in Algeria, Jund al-Khalifa, in check. In fact, Jund al-Khalifa is even weaker than AQIM. The key to containing Algerian jihadists, however, has been a massive and sustained effort from the Algerian security forces and their European and U.S. allies. If Algeria's unrest forces the security services to curtail those efforts, jihadists could rebound. Ultimately, Bouteflika has presented himself as the man who tamed the jihadist threat, leading his supporters to argue that he must remain in power, lest instability open the door to Islamist militants. Yet efforts to keep the president in power, particularly if they persist and authorities use violence to repress the demonstrations, could increase the jihadist threat in the country — the very thing Bouteflika's supporters claim they are attempting to avoid.
Shifting the Focus
While it is difficult to draw a direct comparison between the current situation in Algeria and the events in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia since the 2011 Arab Spring, I do believe that the latter three provide some important lessons.
Like Algeria, Libya's government waged a long struggle against a jihadist insurgency. Using a carrot-and-stick approach (in the form of amnesties, as well as brute force), the government of Moammar Gadhafi brought the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to heel, forcing Libyan jihadists to travel abroad to locations like Iraq and Syria to continue their fight. But once Gadhafi began to lose his grip on the country, many of these jihadists returned to Libya, where they gained a significant foothold in the east of the country —especially in Derna and Benghazi. Following Gadhafi's fall and demise, the Libyan state imploded amid civil war, opening up opportunities for a variety of Islamist and jihadist militias to thrive. The Islamic State's wilayat in the city of Sirte became the group's most powerful franchise outside Syria and Iraq, as well as the branch most closely aligned with the organization's core.
Before 2011, Egyptian jihadists had conducted a series of dramatic attacks against soft tourist targets in the Sinai Peninsula, but they were unable to gain any serious momentum or establish much of a foothold in mainland Egypt. This changed with the Tahrir Square protests, which ousted President Hosni Mubarak and diverted a great deal of the security force's attention to securing Cairo. Two years later, the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi, who was closely aligned with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, before smashing the resulting protests with force. The events not only provided the Sinai's jihadists with much-needed breathing room, but they also radicalized many Muslim Brotherhood supporters who, disenchanted with the idea of democratic change, soon perceived violence as the only means to bring true change to Egypt. The result was an explosion of jihadist activity in Egypt. In the wake of the 2013 Egyptian coup, groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Ajnad Misr formed, followed by Hasam, as well as Ansar al-Islam and Jund al-Islam.
New recruits, greater operating space and a steady flow of weapons from war-ravaged Libya supercharged the Sinai insurgents, who joined the Islamic State to become Wilayat Sinai, which is one of the strongest Islamic State franchise groups. The Egyptian military has spent years trying to blunt Wilayat Sinai's power; today, it no longer has the ability to take control of the peninsula, but it does pose a significant, continuing militant threat. And even in mainland Egypt, the country is still facing a multi-faceted militant threat.
Past examples from Libya, Egypt and Tunisia provide ample reason for businesses and organizations with interests in Algeria to pay close attention to the current political unrest.
Libya and Egypt are extreme examples, as the former has imploded, while the latter has faced a prolonged political crisis. Tunisia, by contrast, has not experienced as severe a political and security crisis in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but Islamists have nevertheless found additional space to strengthen. For one, greater democracy allowed the Islamist Ennahda political party to win elections. A group of Salafists also stormed the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September 2012, causing considerable damage to the embassy motor pool and sacking the adjacent American school. More seriously, jihadists conducted an attack on the Bardo museum in downtown Tunis in March 2015, killing 23 people, most of whom were European tourists. Three months later, a gunman attacked a tourist beach in Sousse, killing a reported 37 people, including British, German and Belgian tourists.
Learning Lessons From the Past
These past examples provide ample reason for businesses and organizations with interests in Algeria to pay close attention to the current political unrest, especially as al Qaeda has indicated that it has learned from its missteps during the Arab Spring, which caught the group off guard. This time, AQIM has already released a statement titled "Algeria and the Exit From the Dark Tunnel," noting that it is better prepared for unrest and seeking to take advantage of the situation.
While Bouteflika may have removed himself from the ballot and postponed elections, the absence of a capable successor who is acceptable to the protesters increases the likelihood of a politically messy transition — meaning the next leader could take years to consolidate power. And with instability on the way, political and militant groups alike will have an opportunity for action they haven't had for years.