- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

ALGIERS, ALGERIA (AP) - A front-page cartoon in the Algerian press seems to sum up the many challenges facing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika following his landslide re-election last week to a third term at the helm of the North African country.

The drawing, in Sunday’s edition of the El Watan daily, shows a throne balanced on a powder keg. The words “unemployment, corruption, the judiciary, poor living conditions, housing, and the cost of life” all fly around, threatening to ignite it.

Bouteflika, who won a staggering 90.24 percent of votes in Thursday’s race and has the firm support of the state apparatus, appears to be in a position of strength going into another five-year mandate.

Still, the social ills that plagued his first decade in office, including a lingering Islamist insurgency linked to al-Qaida, loom large in this vast north African nation, an important U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism and a key oil and gas exporter.

First elected in 1999 with the army’s backing and re-elected in 2004, Bouteflika is widely credited with quelling a bloody insurgency that pitted Islamist militants against secular security forces and killed up to 200,000 people during the 1990s. He also launched a huge government spending program that saw the construction of roads, dams, bridges and housing throughout the country.

Bouteflika’s election platform focused on continuity. A day after the vote, he said he would pursue his policy of national reconciliation and reconstruction.

But with an unemployment, ethnic tensions between Arabs and the Kabyle ethnic minority, and a sluggish economy outside hydrocarbons, Algeria’s social unrest remains a key test for the 72-year-old president.

Officially, unemployment is at 10 percent, but many observers believe it is three times higher. The $236 billion gross domestic product last year had a 3 percent growth rate, essentially sustained by hydrocarbons.

Easing joblessness among young people is particularly crucial. Under 30 year olds, who make up 70 percent of Algeria’s population of 34 million, appear increasingly frustrated by a lack of opportunities.

Many have left the country to work illegally in Europe; others frequently riot at home. The angriest continue to join al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, which partly explains how the group can still operate despite important losses inflicted by government forces, intelligence officials say.

Bouteflika is well aware of this.

During his campaign, he hinted at a general amnesty for insurgents, and security forces suspected of crimes, if militants finally renounce violence. He also insisted that a full and lasting peace would improve development in Algeria and promised a $150 billion investment plan to create 3 million jobs during his third term.

Energy Minister Chakib Khelil said the government can fund this plan despite low oil and gas prices.

“It’s largely feasible,” said Khelil, underscoring that Algeria, which depends on hydrocarbons for 95 percent of its exports, has more than $130 billion in cash reserves left over from the era of record-high oil prices.

“Youth unemployment does reach important levels, and we’ll focus on it,” Khelil told The Associated Press. The challenge, he said, is to make young people realize that the era of state-managed economy is ending and that they must look to entrepreneurship instead.

Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, a key government player at the head of more than 200,000 police and security forces, listed three main challenges ahead: promoting democracy, luring youths into politics and forging a more diverse economy.

Though his troops battle terrorists almost daily, Zerhouni told AP the local al-Qaida branch was “cornered,” with remaining armed groups being hard to catch because they are “taking refuge” in remote mountains.

He stressed that shifting from a near civil war to a serene, expanding economy takes time. “That is why (Bouteflika’s) third term is so important,” Zerhouni said.

Bouteflika and his ministers all hail from a single-party system that has loosened but remained in power since Algeria’s independence in 1962. Many Algerians see them as too old or secluded to relate with the public.

Nasser Djabi, a sociologist at Algiers’ University, said the system has lost traction. He said Bouteflika needs to renew and reshape Algeria’s bureaucratic public administration so it interacts better with the people.

Bouteflika must deliver on social issues, Djabi said, because “The country looks calmer, but it’s explosive.”

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