Algeria has many of the ingredients that produced uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world – a young population with few job prospects, ruled by an ageing authoritarian leader, and many people who are angry over what they see as corruption and squandering of the country’s wealth.
However, the insecurity that the country has faced since the 1990s has made people more fearful of political change, and more willing to put up with an autocratic government that is heavily influenced by the military and intelligence services.
The latest hostage crisis has taken place in a remote desert area, far from the capital and difficult to police. But it is an alarming indication of the capacity of Algerian militants: even during the years of civil war, fighters were not able to strike such a blow to the oil and gas industry, which is the lifeblood of the economy and the government’s main source of income.
Algeria is the world’s fourth-largest gas exporter. The sheer numbers of people involved is a step change from the sporadic kidnappings of tourists that have taken place in Algeria, Mali and other parts of northern Africa in recent years. The vast majority of the hostages were Algerian – estimated at more than 600 – though they’ve been largely absent from the Western headlines.
The Al-Qaeda group that has claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking said it was retaliating for France’s intervention against jihadi insurgents in Mali. The Algerian government reluctantly allowed French warplanes to fly through its airspace, but had argued against French intervention in Mali, fearing some sort of spillover would result. Mali’s crisis has been worsened by the fallout from the regime change in Libya in 2011. The deposed Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, used to employ thousands of fighters from northern Mali. Finding themselves out of a job after his fall, many looked for new money, ripe for recruitment by Al-Qaeda.
Algeria was firmly against the regime change in Libya. The authorities fear both hardline Islamist militants, which they saw Gaddafi as keeping in check, and more moderate opposition movements that might challenge their grip on power. They are no doubt profoundly concerned about the newfound willingness of their western allies, particularly the US, to work with the newly-elected Muslim Brotherhood parties in Tunisia and Egypt.
The rules of the political game are changing rapidly in all Algeria’s neighbours, including Morocco, where the monarchy remains firmly in power but is carrying out some political reforms. Algeria’s 75-year-old president is the oldest ruler in the Arab countries of North Africa. The government has a variety of reasons to feel insecure and may well be tempted to clamp down further on peaceful dissent.
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This article was originally published in the Scotsman on Sunday and is republished here with kind permission.