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Algerians march with national flags during a demonstration in Algiers, Friday. Image Credit: AP

Algiers: For the 31st straight week, thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Algiers on Friday, chanting defiantly in the face of a crackdown on the demonstration by the country’s powerful army chief.

The country’s long-standing leader, President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, left office in early April, but the demonstrators continue turning out in the streets calling for more political elites to step down and demanding free and fair elections.

The root of citizen anger is not about the president himself, but the failure of the country’s governing system to provide for the basic needs of Algerians.

New findings from the nonpartisan research network Arab Barometer’s nationally representative survey of 2,332 Algerian citizens on the eve of the demonstrations show why the protests continue unabated.

Combined with a political system designed to limit mechanisms to register dissent, the only option that remained for ordinary Algerians to voice their frustration was to take to the streets to demand change.

However, the survey results caution against the likelihood of democracy taking hold. Ordinary Algerians appear less concerned about specific political and institutional arrangements than they are about having a responsive government that provides for their basic needs.

Root of protests: Economic concerns

Algeria is a country with vast oil reserves but a violent history. After aborted elections won by Islamists in 1991, the opposition Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) took up arms against the military, leading to a decade-long conflict with an estimated death toll in excess of 100,000.

Algerians did not turn out in the broader Arab uprisings of 2011. But the military-backed regime still feared unrest and sought to quell discontent by increasing subsidies and authorising back pay owed to civil servants. These steps reversed an ongoing decline in economic ratings and led two-thirds of Algerians to say the economy was good in 2013.

However, with the collapse of global oil prices in 2014, the government couldn’t continue these policies - leading to a collapse in economic ratings with just 13 per cent saying the economy was good on the eve of the protests. Optimism about the future of the economy followed a similar trend, falling by 41 per centage points from 2013 to 2019.

In 2019, just 40 per cent of Algerians surveyed listed the economy as the country’s biggest challenge. By comparison, a roughly equal per centage (41 per cent) cite corruption (22 per cent) or public services (19 per cent) as the greatest concern. In other words, the entire system was under severe strain.

Citizens also increasingly blamed the government for these challenges. Just 10 per cent said the government was doing a good job limiting inflation or reducing inequality, while 11 per cent said the same about creating employment, which represents substantial declines since 2013.

Ordinary citizens got involved in politics

Before the protests, Algerian citizens were largely disengaged from the political process, with just 20 per cent stating an interest in politics. Overall, only 19 per cent of Algerians said they voted in the last parliamentary elections in 2017, including just 9 per cent of people ages 20 to 29.

This outcome reflects the fact that Algeria’s political system offered few formal avenues for citizens to register discontent. Elections offered citizens no choice as the regime intentionally made them noncompetitive.

Given no alternatives, Algerians increasing turned to other forms of political action, especially in recent years. The percentage of citizens who said they had signed a petition within the last three years increased by about 50 per cent since 2016 (20 per cent vs. 13 per cent), while the per cent who said they had taken part in a peaceful demonstration in the last three years almost quadrupled (19 per cent vs. 5 per cent) during the same period.

Algerians increasingly began to engage in small-scale protests. This increase in informal politics was probably overlooked, in part, because it was not concentrated in the capital where large-scale demonstrations had been banned since 2001.

In our survey earlier this year, Algerians living outside the capital region were four times as likely to have said they had protested peacefully in recent years than those living in and around Algiers.

What do Algerians say they want?

Protests leaders have demanded a number of changes, including calls for free and fair elections. Yet, despite these calls, on the eve of the protests, many Algerians remained circumspect about democracy.

In fact, just 41 per cent say that democracy is always preferable over other political systems, which is the lowest of any of the 12 countries surveyed by the Arab Barometer.

And many Algerians worry about potential problems associated with a democratic system, with at least 30 per cent saying democracy leads to instability, is indecisive, or is bad for the economy.

However, not only are Algerians wary of democracy, few understand it in procedural terms. When asked to choose democracy’s most essential characteristic between four options, 40 per cent say it is a government that provides security while 22 per cent say one that ensures jobs for all. By comparison, 23 per cent say it is where the media can criticize the government while just 9 per cent say it is free and fair multiparty elections.

Divided opinions about religion in Algeria’s system

Algerians are divided about the role that religion should play in their system, which was a central divide during the civil war of the 1990s. Overall, 42 per cent say that religious leaders should have say over decisions of government while 43 per cent say that religion is private and should be separate from public life. These results imply that a long-standing division among Algerians probably remains unresolved.

Looking ahead

Overall, these findings suggest it is unlikely that Algeria will experience a smooth transition to democracy even if the regime were to allow free and fair elections. Algerians are less concerned about precise institutional arrangements that govern the country compared with a government that is responsive to the needs of its people.

The ongoing divisions about the role for religion in politics would probably need to be resolved for democracy to take root, especially given the lingering shadow of the civil war. However, with the protesters remaining in the streets and calling for a change of system as opposed to a change of leader, it is also possible that the preferences of ordinary Algerians may have changed in the wake of these events, making a successful transition more likely.