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Hints of political change on horizon in Algeria

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 17 2013 9:23 a.m. MDT

Tahar Belabes, one of the few activists in Algeria that has succeeded in mobilizing the youth, during a meeting in Algiers on April 29, 2013, Belabes denies being a revolutionary "I am a simple activist demanding his rights." he said. The generation of aging politicians and generals that has run Algeria for the last half-century is reaching its end and the overwhelmingly young population is increasingly vocal in its demands for jobs and housing.

Paul Schemm, Associated Press

ALGIERS, Algeria — 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.

Chafiq Mesbah, a former member of Algeria's intelligence service and now a political analyst, said Bouteflika's mini-stroke should mean that Algerians in 2014 will finally get to truly elect a leader.

He said Bouteflika's insistence on going for another term and growing reports of corruption in his entourage have aggravated Algeria's powerful military and intelligence circles.

What happens next depends on the shadowy head of the intelligence service, Gen. Mohammed "Tewfik" Mediene, the power behind the throne since 1990.

"The head of intelligence — he was my boss, so I know him — could take the path of Andropov or Beria," Mesbah said, referring to Soviet-era KGB heads Lavrentiy Beria, who was notorious for his repressive methods, and Yuri Andropov, who began opening up the superpower in the 1980s.

But if the choice is made for rigged elections and more of the same, the results could be dire, Mesbah warned.

"If there is not real democratic transition, there will be an uprising ... we will return to the violence of the 1990s," he said.

He was referring to Algeria's so-called black decade, when a civil war raged between Islamic militants and security services after the government voided the 1992 election that Islamists were winning. Some 200,000 people died and villages were razed in the ensuring violence.

Memories of that grim time up to now have kept Algerians from pushing for real political change, analysts say. But with nearly half the population under the age of 24, the black decade is a distant memory for many.

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