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Arab Societies. Youth Bulges and State Repression in Algeria

I researched youth bulges and state repression in Algeria. Specifically, I sought to establish whether there is a correlation between youth bulges and state repression in the country and provide an analysis of the explanatory factors for this correlation in the context of the Arab world. I chose Algeria as a case study due to the nature of its politics and governance whereby one president has ruled for nearly two decades. Additionally, the recent protests around the country, which led to the removal of the long-serving president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in April 2019, offer an ideal motive for states to repress youth bulges. This paper will show that there is a positive correlation between youth bulges and state repression. Some of the questions that I seek to answer include – Does the Algerian government have reasons to repress the youth? Does the Algerian government repress the youth? If yes, how does the government achieve this objective? I will argue that the growing youth population is seen as a threat for governments and this line of thinking necessitates state repressions.

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For the last 20 years, Algeria has been under the leadership of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who assumed office in 1999 as an independent candidate supported by the military (Nabil). On February 16, 2019, the “Smile Revolution” started with millions of Algerians protesting President Bouteflika’s intention to seek a fifth presidential term (Nabil). President Bouteflika is 82 years old, and he suffered a stroke in 2013 leaving him mute and paralyzed (Nabil). As such, he has not made any public speaking for the last seven years, but he still wanted to continue leading the country. This scenario shows that President Bouteflika, like many other presidents in the Arab world, was willing to cling to power by whatever means necessary.

However, the modern-day youths are enlightened and with the proliferation of social media and the Internet revolution, people know what is happening around the world and they can tell when they are not getting the best from their governments. Consequently, for the last ten years, the Algerian government had every reason to repress youths because they are likely to cause a revolution, which ultimately happened this year. The country’s median age is 27.8 years, which means that the majority of the population is less than 35 years (Statistica); hence, it suffices to say that it is mainly made of youths.

Repressive governments are aware that any revolutionary and dissident activity mainly involves the youth, and thus this cohort is regularly tracked and repressed to avoid future protests and political revolutions. According to Nordas and Davenport, large populations present a bigger challenge of control as compared to smaller populations. However, large youth populations (commonly known as “youth bulges”) present even a bigger challenge because young people are highly likely to dissent against bad governance. The majority of Arab Spring uprisings were started by youth movements and the current survey shows that over 33 percent of young Arabs participated in small-scale protests before the revolts started (Thyen 92).

However, the most important question at this point is whether the Algerian government had a reason to repress youths in the country. DeMerrit argues that governments resort to repression and political violence as strategic tools in the pursuit of achieving certain political and military objectives (2). The most significant objective that necessitates repression is to maintain control of power. In the case of Algeria, it is clear that President Bouteflika wanted to maintain control of power. Having led the country for almost two decades, he announced his candidacy to run for the presidency for a fifth term (Nabil). The decision by President Bouteflika to cling to power even after missing from the public limelight for over 7 years meant that the youth had a reason to revolt, and thus repression was the most appropriate tool available for the state to counter this threat. DeMerrit adds that dissent incentivizes repression because it can spread and lead to revolution and the ultimate ousting of governments (2). As such, dissent represents a real and immediate threat to the political status quo, as was the case in Algeria.

In 2010 when the Arab Spring started, youth in Algeria, which at the time formed over 70 percent of the population (Statistica), led protests against the government citing unemployment, poor housing or lack of it altogether, rampant corruption in the government, poor education and healthcare infrastructure and service delivery, bad governance with power resting in the hands of few families and the military, and increased cost of living. In my research, I established that the government was aware of the disquiet among the youth for a long time, and thus it was prepared to counter any resurgence through violence (Nabil). Therefore, when protests started in Tunisia to herald the Arab Spring, youth in Algeria started rioting. In response, the government used the military and police force to quell the unrest. These findings answered my questions on whether Algeria had a reason to repress the youth. I established a positive correlation between youth bulges and state repression in Algeria.

One of the surprising things that I found during my research is that despite the mood created by the Arab Spring which ultimately led to the deposing of Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, Bouteflika somehow survived by using a mixture of strategies including the use of military force and making compromises to appease the rioters. For instance, the government increased spending to avail some services to the citizens and allowed Cevital – the largest private conglomerate in the country, to continue selling un-declared foodstuffs to the citizens (Brown). This compromise by the government appeased some of the protesters and the situation was contained before it could destabilize the government. Consequently, the Bouteflika administration remained in power, and the status quo in the country was restored.

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In the course of my research, I encountered studies that confirmed what we have learned in this class and other scholarly materials that I have read concerning the topic of youth bulges and state repression. I had read a 2017 study on the effects of demographic changes on the socio-political framework in the Middle East. In this study, the author had found out that the disproportionate share of youth in the total population in the Middle East coupled with high unemployment rates are the two most important factors that contribute to turmoil in society (Hamanaka 70). Additionally, in this class, it had been indicated that youth bulges are likely to elicit state repressions. Concerning the issue of how governments respond to revolts, Nordas and Davenport argue that if threats are seen to be large and the costs of “staying in power are substantial, then political authorities will consider it necessary to make large investments in measures to counter the threat… the more significant the threat, the more likely the state will be to apply repressive measures” (928).

In my research about the Algerian case, I confirmed what I had read in these studies. Bouteflika’s government had all the reasons to be concerned with youth bulges in the country. The incumbent wanted to remain in power and the youth were threatening this objective through revolts. Therefore, the state invested in the deployment of the military and the police force to counter the revolts, which is in line with Nordas and Davenport’s (928) arguments. Additionally, the government invested to increase public spending as a way of appeasing the rioters. These findings are important when trying to understand the peculiar nature of youth repression by the Algerian state agencies.

This research has brought up some new questions in my mind, which are yet to be answered. First, I noted with interest that despite the continued repression of youth in Algeria, it appears that dissent cannot be quieted indefinitely. While President Bouteflika avoided becoming a victim of the Arab Spring in 2010, the youth ultimately won, nine years later, when they successfully forced him to resign early this year. Therefore, my question is – What other options, apart from repression, do governments have to address the problem of youth bulges and dissent? Have these options worked elsewhere in other countries? Are the solutions applicable in the case of Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria? These questions matter because repression is not working and there is an urgent need to think of a sustainable solution to the problem of youth bulge. These emerging questions could be addressed by carrying out research to establish how other countries have handled the problem of youth bulges without using repression. Many countries around the world, both developed and developing, have managed to address this problem, and thus they would serve as case studies for my new research questions.

Works Cited

Brown, Jack. Algeria’s Midwinter Uproar, 2011. Web.

Demerrit, Jacqueline. “The Strategic Use of State Repression and Political Violence.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Politics. Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 1-21.

Hamanaka, Shingo. “Demographic Change and its Social and Political Implications in the Middle East.” Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, vol. 2, no. 1, 2017, pp. 70-86.

Nabil, Sally. “Algeria Protesters Demand end to Regime after Bouteflika’s fall.” BBC News. 2019. Web.

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Nordas, Ragnhild, and Christian Davenport. “Fight the Youth: Youth Bulges and State Repression.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 57, no. 4, 2013, pp. 926-940.

Statistica: Algeria – Average Age of the Population from 1950 to 2050 (Median Age in Years), 2019. Web.

Thyen, Kressen. “Managing Contention: Divergent Government Responses to Youth Protests in the Arab World.” Middle East Law and Governance, vol. 10, 2018, pp. 91-116.

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