Algerian transition concerns U.S.

| Friday, May 17, 2013, 9:36 p.m.

ALGIERS — The Arab Spring may finally be en route to Algeria.

With the president in a French hospital recovering from a stroke, the generation of aging politicians and generals that has run Africa's largest country for a half-century is reaching its end. Adding to the mix, Algeria's overwhelmingly young population is increasingly vocal in its demands for jobs and housing that its oil-dependent economy isn't providing.

What comes next is of vital importance to Algeria — and the West.

Algeria has the most powerful and best-equipped military in North Africa and the Sahel and is an important bulwark against terrorist groups linked to al-Qaida. Any further instability in North Africa, where Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are already struggling, could embolden the armed militants.

So far Algeria has been buoyed by high oil prices and, with almost $200 billion in foreign reserves, it has spent lavishly to try to buy off the discontent. But critics maintain that short-term approach does not take into account the volatile energy market or of Algerians' deep-seated need for a new political vision.

Algeria has been more stable than its neighbors, but that may not last. In a country where the age of the average government official is the 70s, the biggest driver of political change has been the funerals, as one by one the grand figures of Algeria's revolutionary generation die off.

In the past year, the country's first president, Ahmed Ben Bella; Chadli Benjedid, the third president; and Ali Kafi, an interim leader after the 1992 military coup have all died. During a moment of silence for Kafi at a soccer game last month, the crowd started chanting “Bouteflika next.”

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 76, has been ill since he disappeared into a French hospital in 2005 to treat what was called a bleeding ulcer. U.S. State Department cables at the time said it could possibly be stomach cancer. Yet despite his apparent frailty and his frequent absences from public life, Bouteflika is widely believed to be aiming for a fourth presidential term in the 2014 election.

He has been in Paris since April 27 recovering from a mini-stroke.

The government has long been able to repress, coopt or buy off opposition groups. But in the midst of this leadership crisis, the state is coming under new pressure from a group organizing one of society's most volatile sectors — unemployed young people.

The National Committee for Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed is based in the south, the home of Algeria's sensitive oil and gas industry, and has mobilized young people to demonstrate for jobs in the oil industry in several southern cities. It also has ambitions to take its cause nationwide.

“We are calling for change in the regime because we believe that there is corruption throughout the government,” said the group's leader, Tahar Belabes, who takes inspiration and a nickname from South American revolutionary Che Guevara. The plan, Belabes says, is to coordinate with groups all over the country and start holding new protests everywhere.

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