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Challenges for Change in Algeria

Tunisia and Egypt are relatively centralized states, Algeria not so, neither politically, nor culturally, nor geographically. Historically, the interior has been difficult to control, and there is no guarantee that the rest of the country would rally to the protests taking place in the capital as in the case of Egypt.

The Algerian regime is wealthy and can buy off large segments of the population. It can rule more autonomously than Ben Ali or Mubarak because it is less dependent on foreign aid. It can endure a political crisis far longer. The regime has also been weathered by a far more severe political crisis in its recent history, and survived relatively unscathed a grueling civil war of more than 10 years (1992-2003).

The memory of this conflict may be a factor. As analysts have noted, the memory may act as a brake on popular political action, but by the same token, is the regime willing to contemplate political degradation that may lead to renewed conflict?

The Algerian police, security forces, and army are well integrated, but if the protestors are able to exert enough pressure for a sustained period of time, will the specter of the 1990s return to haunt the military? Can the regime stomach the possibility of renewed violence of the scale and magnitude of the 1990s?

The army has opened fire on civilian protestors before, namely in October 1988 when it gunned down about 200 youths in the streets of the capital.

Algerian society its heterogeneous and there is a strong separatist tendency in Kabylie. These factors could complicate the emergence of a unified opposition movement. Socio-economic grievances however are common and dire. The “official” unemployment rate for 2003-2008 is estimated at 21.6 percent (see table below). Many analysts beleive this figure to be low-ball: unofficial estimates place it at almost 28 percent. In a country with annual GSP of US$260billion, one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

Osama W. Abi-Mershed, a professor of history at Georgetown, is author of Apostles of Modernity: Saint-Simonians and the French Civilizing Mission in Algeria.