With Limited Freedoms, Many Algerians Vote with Their Feet

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Zohra Bensemra / REUTERS

An Algerian electoral worker sits beside a ballot box while waiting for people to cast their votes for the parliamentary elections at a polling station on the outskirts of Algiers on May 10, 2012

“You’re an American journalist?” says Yassin Benabdullah, a lanky 21-year-old in a baseball cap, when I introduce myself to him on a downtown street. “Take me with you! I’ll go now, this minute.”

In Algiers, a city of 3.5 million people, this is not a rare encounter. Stop any young person, and invariably the conversation turns to one preoccupation: leaving. When I meet 20-year-old Mehdi Haouchine in a café, he seems like a young man with a bright future. A marketing student at a private college in the Algerian capital, he tells me he has a shelf full of trophies for karate at home. So, I ask, What are his ambitions? “I just need the opportunity to go to a foreign country,” he says. “I don’t mind where I go. There are no prospects here.”

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At least on paper, this should not be the case. The biggest country in Africa, Algeria is nearly four times the size of Texas, and just like Texas, it has made fortunes in oil. It has Africa’s third biggest energy reserves (after Nigeria and Libya), pumping 1.16 million barrels of oil a day, with the U.S. as its biggest customer and foreign cash reserves exceeding $170 billion. Bread, cooking oil and gasoline are heavily subsidized for 35 million Algerians. Health care and education are free, and there’s even a $15 monthly book allowance for university students.

Yet that public wealth is part of the problem. Back in early 2011, when the Arab Spring exploded, first in next-door Tunisia and then in Egypt, many thought Algeria would be the next to blow. It seemed to have all the right ingredients: a powerful security force and an aging president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was installed with military approval in 1999 and showed no signs of retiring.

But the Arab Spring never arrived in Algeria. And in fact, Bouteflika, now 75, is expected to run for a fourth term in office, in an election scheduled for next year, since the government has scrapped presidential term limits.

Algerians seem fiercely opposed to any revolution, having lived through a brutal civil war in the 1990s, which killed up to 200,000 people. In addition, when young Algerians began street protests in early 2011, inspired by the Tunisian uprising, Bouteflika rushed to snuff out dissent, by pouring money at the problem. Minimum wages were increased by 20%, youths were offered interest-free loans worth tens of thousands of dollars, and officials promised to build 2.4 million new homes, addressing one of the most-bitter complaints by young Algerians who say they are stuck living in their parents’ cramped apartments, rather than getting married, since there is nowhere to move out to.

Two years on, those new houses have been slow in coming, although earlier this month, the state-run Algerian TV led the evening news showing blueprints for a new housing complex (delivery date: unknown). And while Algerians earn more money these days, many complain that it has barely kept pace with inflation, and that much government largesse has gone to police and military pay.

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Algeria’s government is aware that they are losing its bright youths. “You’re right some people want to leave the country, while others are coming back,” says Minister of Energy and Mines Youcef Yousfi during an interview in his office when I ask him why so many young people want to leave Algeria. Nonetheless, the World Bank estimates about 200,000 more people have left Algeria than have arrived over the past five years. Yousfi says that is one reason why the government is racing to create jobs by opening new industries. Then, he says, “the feeling of wanting to go outside will progressively disappear.”

But the youths’ grievances are not all economic. Underlying all the complaints is the fact that the political system has barely changed in decades — and neither have most of the faces at the top. Bouteflika appoints a portion of parliamentary seats himself, while the military and intelligence services hold key decisionmaking powers. Mosques deliver government-written sermons. Mass protests are banned. Police officers stand watch over neighborhoods carefully, looking for signs of organized dissent. “We need a change here, but it is going to take a long time,” says Amin Ouslimani, 24, a political-science student. “I can state my opinion,” he says, “and anyway, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care what I am saying.”

Indeed, the griping among the youths is so pervasive and so loud, that it’s a shock for anyone who has traveled around this region. Algeria’s government invites few foreign journalists; and in the country, I am restricted to the capital and obliged to leave Algeria after just one week. But unlike Libya or Tunisia before the Arab Spring, where people were terrified to speak to journalists, no one is at all inhibited about what they say. Public ranting about the government seems a favorite pastime among young Algerians, who look at the old men running the country as wholly disconnected from their lives.

It seems many young Algerians have simply given up waiting for change. When I ask Haouchine, the management student–karate champion, why he doesn’t wait for the old leaders to die off rather than trying his luck abroad, he shakes his head. “The leaders will die, but then there’ll be their sons,” he says. “It’s like a heritage.”

So, as true change, with a dynamic economy and open democracy, looks remote and as a revolution is ruled out, many youths focus on the option that seems to hold most promise: getting out.

In the café where I meet Haouchine, friends swap rumors about which embassies might be open to a bribe of about $7,500 in order to obtain a visa. One says it used to be France. Another says it is now Spain. Few care where they go. “I have one friend in Boston, another in Spain,” says Ouslimani, the political-science student. “But New Zealand, Norway, Vienna — they all seem like nice places to live.”

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