There was much expectation in early 2011, amid events in North Africa and the Middle East, that protests would bring significant change in Algeria. However, the demonstrations were contained by security forces, and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika maintained his position.
Earlier this month, the regime held Parliamentary elections in which the ruling National Liberation Front won an overwhelming majority of the seats. Opposition groups denounced the poll, but European and American governments called the ballot a step toward democracy.
Al Jazeera English's journalists, operating discreetly inside Algeria because the channel has been denied official access since 2004, investigated the current situation for an episode of People & Power (see video at top of entry).
Producer Caroline Pare writes:
In the capital Algiers at least, life seemed freer and more lively than we expected. The shops and cafes were full and, superficially at least, this did not seem to be a place on the cusp of revolution. It felt like a country coming out of something very bad and now quite determinedly making the best of a difficult situation.
But when we began meeting human rights activists, we got a much better sense of what ordinary Algerians are up against and what they really think. To start with, the military and intelligence people, the DRS, are omnipresent, so meetings had to be arranged surreptitiously. On one occasion, for example, a contact identified himself at a street corner by using pre-arranged code words. Then he asked us to follow him very discreetly and at a distance to the Metro, past the police and the surveillance cameras, onto a train and out to his tiny apartment in the suburbs. Only when safely behind closed doors did he feel able to speak freely about the repression and the many economic problems the country faces - a housing crisis, rocketing unemployment and spiralling food prices. He told us things were so bad that desperate young people were burning themselves alive.
There were around 130 self-immolations in Algeria last year. Indeed just before the election in the seaside town of Jijel, a 25-year-old man, Hamza Rechak, set himself on fire, in despair at having been prevented by police from selling cosmetics from his small stall and then at being taunted by them. His death caused outrage in the town and sparked a riot as young men attacked the police station in fury.
Other Algerians told us that theirs was actually the first country to have an 'Arab Spring'. In 1988, the people took to the streets and forced the government to hold a free and fair election. After the first round of voting it became apparent that the opposition Islamic FIS party was set to win. But it was not to be because the military intervened. The country turned in on itself and entered a 'dark decade' of bloody violence that saw an estimated 200,000 people killed. To this day it casts a fearful shadow. The chaos enabled the DRS to get a stranglehold on the country and the body politic that democracy activists say persists to this day.
So the elections that were held this month do not seem to have much credibility among voters. Indeed we heard from various political analysts before the election that they could predict the turnout - based on what the government required to make the process acceptable in international eyes - and sure enough they were pretty close to the 43 per cent officially announced. The governing party won overwhelmingly. In Algeria, we are told, everything is preordained by the powerful shadow state, the DRS. And it does not brook criticism.