Algeria Rescinds Emergency Powers–But Isn’t Bending To Popular Unrest

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Was the lifting Thursday of Algeria’s 19-year state of emergency a sign the country’s corrupt, authoritarian regime is responding to the growing public unrest that brought down the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt—and now looks set to topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi? Without any doubt. Yet it would be naïve to interpret the repealing of those draconian security measures as evidence of a humbled Algerian government bowing to protest, and preparing to make sweeping changes eventually leading full-fledged democracy. Instead, the military-backed leadership made a concession it feels it can afford, and will likely be just as selective in reacting to the demands for economic aid driving the current unrest in Algeria.

The order that came into force Thursday ended the state of emergency imposed in 1992 after an Islamist party had won national elections—and sparked a civil war of terror between the government and jihadist opponents that cost an estimated 200,000 civilian lives. In theory, it restores many suspended civil liberties and makes authorities more accountable to the public.Gone are lavishly abused extra-judicial detentions by police and security forces of up to 12 days that left political opponents, human rights activists, as well as suspected extremists shut away in prisons without any defense. Now, detainees can only be held for question a maximum of 48 hours–renewable only once, and requiring approval of justice officials. Elsewhere, the regime says it will also allow banned media operated by opposition political parties to re-open in the coming months.

Despite those changes, they don’t represent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, his government, or the wealthy ruling elite and backing security forces blinking in the face of public unrest that has arisen since January. Prohibition of large meetings and mass demonstrations in Algiers–a measure that has allowed police to repeatedly thwart attempted protest marches in the capital– will remain in place indefinitely. And while demonstration have been allowed to grow large—and, at times, violent—in several provincial cities, the regime’s determination to prevent that from occurring in Algiers has been evident in other ways. On the occasions when marches have been attempted in the capital, more than 30,000 elite security troops were deployed to break up crowds of scarcely 2,000 people. By lifting emergency powers as it has, the regime can at once nod to the power of the people being displayed abroad, grant a concession that domestic opponents have been demanding, and claim it’s all possible thanks to its success in beating back the menace of jihadist violence—all without weakening its hold on power.

Why aren’t Bouteflika and his allies worried Algerian protestors will see through the move and rise to obtain the same results Tunisian and Egyptians achieved? In part because the regime is founded on a power base much broader than those in most Arab countries. It spreads the vast riches it pilfers from Algeria’s booming oil and natural gas sector among the powerful families that make up the civil service, political class, intelligence units, and to the army and security forces. Far more people have far more to lose to revolution in Algeria than in many Arab states, which is one reason why the regime has long made it clear it will go to any extreme to remain in power—no matter how many lives that costs. Opponents know that, and therefore gauge their objectives in function of what a violence-weary Algerian public is willing to pay for progress. That explains why the main opposition umbrella group formed in January, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy has already split into two camps: a minority whose demands fully reflect those of the organization’s name; and a majority of pragmatists asking for greater civil liberties and economic relieve for average Algerians to start with—and political reform leading to democracy over time.

The regime is well aware of those contrasting ambitions, and will factor them in to how it will respond to unrest. Because they know life is so difficult for most under-employed, financially strapped Algerians, officials may calculate that if they redirect a portion of the economy’s wealth that now goes own coffers into public projects, pressure from protesters may quickly abate. Even modest government moves to subsidize escalating food prices and fund new construction of fantastically inadequate public housing would go a long way towards appeasing public anger–and without ending the ruling class’s system of corruption, or weaken the security apparatus that keeps it in power. The regime is well aware just how central money and pay-offs are to Algeria’s power equation.  Indeed, it’s not insignificant that the current unrest in Algeria broke out when the public learned that police and security forces had gotten a 50% salary raise–and responded angrily when it realized nothing like that was coming to the people those troops are paid to keep docile.