Algeria’s recent parliamentary elections, with the ruling party winning almost half of the seats, left some wondering if the country could elude the democratic change sweeping its neighbors. In a Q&A, Lahcen Achy explains that Islamists did not fare well in the elections, despite the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia, because the main Islamist party is still banned and Algerians are scarred by the memories of the country’s civil war.

What do the parliamentary elections tell us about the strength of the regime compared to the opposition?

It’s important before looking at the results to note that the participation rate in the election was 43 percent, but with 1.7 million voters leaving their ballots blank, it means that only 35 percent of the electorate effectively expressed its vote. This low turnout reflects, to a large extent, the mistrust by wide segments of the population—particularly the youth—in the whole political process in Algeria.

Second, because the electoral system imposes a 5 percent threshold in each electoral district to qualify for seats and in light of the extraordinary amount of new political parties approved just a few months before the elections, the National Liberation Front (FLN), the country’s governing party, got 48 percent of seats, but only 17 percent of the votes. This is equivalent to 1.32 million voters.

Taking into account the level of turnout, this means that only 6 percent of Algeria’s eligible voters opted for the FLN. The regime has won the battle of the legislative elections but it’s hard to say whether Algeria has fully escaped from trouble.

Islamist parties in Algeria fared relatively poorly, especially compared to strong showings in other Arab countries in recent elections. What does this mean for the future of Islamist parties in Algeria?

Lahcen Achy
Achy is an economist with expertise in development, institutional economics, trade, and labor and a focus on the Middle East and North Africa.
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First, one has to keep in mind that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was heading for victory in the 1992 legislative elections, has been banned since then. FIS leaders called for a boycott of the elections this year. Participating Islamist groups were ones the regime deemed moderate. The largest of these Islamist parties is Algeria’s Green Alliance, which won 10 percent of the seats (47 seats), 6.2 percent of the votes, and 2.2 percent of eligible voters.

Second, unlike Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt that were banned and their leaders exiled or jailed, moderate Islamists in the Algeria were part of the presidential majority and were in charge of four ministerial portfolios in the government just before the elections. Algerians perceived their last-minute decision to run as an “opposition” as mere political manipulation.

More generally, it is hard to see any future for the Islamist parties in Algeria after the decade of violence that followed the 1992 elections. For most Algerians, Islamists are associated with violence and radicalism. The tensions between Islamists and other political groups in Tunisia and Egypt are reinforcing that view.

Is it accurate to say that Algeria is “immune” from the Arab Spring as some have argued?

It is true that Algeria is different from its neighbors, but each country is unique. In my view, two factors protected the regime from the popular uprisings.

The first is its oil and gas resources, which gave the regime enough room to appease the public’s dissatisfaction. Public spending in Algeria has increased by more than 50 percent in the last two years. The government allocated more money for food subsidies and awarded pay increases to civil servants. It also offered young entrepreneurs interest-free loans to establish their businesses, granted tax exemptions, and reserved a quota of local public contracts for them.

The second is that the specter of the 1990s civil war, which led to between 100,000 and 150,000 deaths, is still very fresh in people’s minds. Fears of another period of violence and insecurity keep many Algerians from seeking radical change, despite their economic and social grievances. This sentiment seems to have been strengthened by the messy transition prevailing in Arab Spring countries in its neighborhood—Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—but also by the situation in Syria.

Now, if the price of oil suddenly drops, reducing the government’s ability to control the budget deficit, this could fuel popular anger and throw the country into a cycle of social unrest. And even if fuel prices stay high, Algeria’s oil and gas reserves could be depleted within twenty years. So, to me it is merely a matter of time. What we see today is an illusion of “immunity.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated Algerians on the high number of women elected. What does this increased participation mean for Algeria’s political development?

The Algerian regime played a clever game by imposing quotas in the new electoral law that ranged from 20 percent to 50 percent for female representation in party candidate lists. This provision led to women taking almost a third of the seats (145 of 462), which pleased the international community.

One has to keep in mind, however, that the Family Code in Algeria—even after its recent amendments—is far behind when compared to Tunisia and Morocco in terms of women’s rights and gender equality. Female participation rates in the Algerian labor market are also very low despite improvements in female education.

How are Algeria’s relations with the United States and European Union?

With Algeria’s geographic size (it is more than three times the size of Texas and four times the size of France), its oil and gas wealth (fourth-largest crude oil producer in Africa and the sixth-largest gas producer worldwide), and a population of 37 million, both the EU and the United States see Algeria as a key player in the region—and perhaps even as a regional leader.

Economically, Algeria is the EU’s fifth-largest energy provider. The EU is also Algeria’s largest trading partner, absorbing just under 50 percent of Algerian exports. A number of European states including Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal import a significant portion of their energy from Algeria. The United States accounts for nearly 25 percent of Algeria’s exports, mostly in the hydrocarbons sector. And Algeria is among the top three U.S. trading partners in the Middle East and North African region.

Since it was signed in September 2005, the Association Agreement has governed bilateral relations between the European Union and Algeria. It calls for a free trade area between the two parties in 2017. More recently, the United States and Algeria signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, establishing common principles on which the economic relationship is founded and forming a platform for negotiating other bilateral agreements. A number of U.S. companies are starting to explore potential economic opportunities in Algeria beyond the oil and gas sectors.

Algeria is also a key partner of the United States and the EU in the fight against terrorism. The country launched a regional counterterrorism initiative with Mali, Niger, and Mauritania in order to buttress security cooperation and tackle the root causes of instability in the Sahel. Finally, although Algeria’s primary military supplier has traditionally been Russia, and to some extent China, the United States and Algeria have recently enhanced their military relationship.

All these factors illustrate Algeria’s strategic role in bringing stability in the Maghreb, fighting against al-Qaeda in Algeria, and helping with fragile states in the Sahel. As the United States and EU can’t afford to see trouble in Algeria, both quickly endorsed the parliamentary elections as an important step toward reform despite some suspicions of fraud and vote-rigging.

How is Algeria’s economy faring? Will Algeria’s “political stability” compared with other North African countries attract additional foreign investors?

Algeria is a rich country with deep economic, social, and regional imbalances. The International Monetary Fund recently made a formal request to borrow some of Algeria’s $200 billion in foreign reserves. Yet, most Algerians suffer from declining quality in basic social services, including education and healthcare. Unemployment is high—especially among young people, where the rate is more than 20 percent, according to official figures.

Successive governments have failed to make any significant progress toward a diversified economy. The energy sector continues to account for more than one-third of GDP, two-thirds of government revenues, and nearly 98 percent of exports.

Algeria has never been able to attract significant flows of foreign investment due to administrative red tape, widespread corruption, and unstable business regulations. The World Bank has ranked Algeria at 148 (out of 183 countries) for ease in doing business, behind all the other countries in the Middle East and North Africa except Mauritania. A 2009 provision requiring 51 percent national ownership in any investment, regardless of its size or sector, is deterring potential investors from putting their money in Algeria. Over the last three years, foreign investment declined, including in oil and gas projects.