Algerians on Thursday celebrate 50 years of independence from France, but with the bitter taste of strangled democracy and an economy stifled by extreme oil dependency.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika this year launched political reforms in the wake of bloody riots one and a half years ago and a series of strikes at the time when Arab Spring swept through neighboring Tunisia and Libya.
Bouteflika last month urged more economic, scientific and technological progress and said Algeria must not “miss the train of changes taking place in the world in democratic practices, individual freedoms and human rights.”
But a half-century after winning independence in a bloody conflict with France, who had stayed for 132 years, the outlook is a dark one, particularly for those aged under 35 who make up 70 percent of the population.
“The young people... consider Algeria to be like a desert where nothing grows,” one disaffected 32-year-old, Said, told AFP.
“They are paying the price for the bad management of the leaders who have succeeded each other since 1962. Now they dream only of crossing the Mediterranean” to start new lives in Europe, he said.
Despite the glum mood, Algeria is planning grand celebrations.
Festivities, followed by seminars, conferences and book launches, will kick off Wednesday, the eve of the July 5 celebrations, when Bouteflika will attend the historical musical “The Hero” at a resort west of Algiers.
On the anniversary itself, 10,000 youth will fill the Olympic stadium for a spectacle that will retrace the struggle for independence.
But the party comes in troubled times for the north African country.
Unemployment topped 20 percent last November in the nation of 37 million people, according to the International Monetary Fund. Annual inflation reached 6.4 percent in April, according to official figures.
“After 50 years of political independence, the outlook is bitter,” said Abderrahmane Mebtoul, an academic and expert in strategic management.
“The political elite who emerged from the national liberation war is getting old, the political system is obsolete, there is an economic, social and cultural crisis, and finally, there are outside constraints that weigh more and more heavily.”
Since independence, Algeria has seen a 1965 coup against its first president Ahmed Ben Bella, ousted by his defense minister Houari Boumediene.
Then there was the forced resignation of president Chadli Bendjedid, whose more liberal policies in 1991 gave the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) victory in elections, until the second round was cancelled by the army.
Bendjedid’s successor, Mohamed Boudiaf, assassinated 20 years ago, vowed more open rule in spite of a strong military influence, while Islamists set themselves up as representatives of the Algerian opposition.
The outcome was a bloody civil war between the armed forces and Islamist groups that lasted more than 10 years and claimed 200,000 lives, leaving the Algerian people as the main victims of the power struggle.
“Five decades after independence, we are still looking for credibility based on a structured strategy,” with laws to define the workings of state and give direction in politics, former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour wrote in a column published by the Liberte newspaper.
From 1962, Algeria was governed under several forms of socialism. Then the economy was freed up in 1988 before the country plunged into warfare, which brought back a controlled economy.
But there has been one constant factor: an economy and state heavily dependent on its oil and gas revenues.
With reserves estimated to be worth $205 billion (163 billion euros) at the end of 2012, according to the IMF, Algeria looks rich on account of its main sources of foreign income.
Experts like Metboul stress that Algeria makes profits from “98 percent of its exports in hydrocarbons in crude or semi-crude state, while 70 to 75 percent of goods needed by households and companies are imported.”
Even if agriculture is steadily improving and if major efforts have been announced to boost industry, whose share of gross domestic product fell to five percent last year, there is still a long road ahead for Algeria, which is also threatened by unstable neighbors including Mali.
Relations with France have been uneven since independence in 1962, according to both countries.
But there was an improvement in economic ties under French president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012), and much is anticipated on the political front with the May election of Francois Hollande as France’s new socialist leader.