The Election, a Masquerade?
Algerians—well, at least some of them—elected a new president on December 12, 2019. A former prime minister of the Bouteflika years, 74-year-old Abdelmajid Tebboune, was declared the country’s new president. Voter turnout, at a modest 40% (Official figures), was the lowest in the country’s post-colonial electoral history, mostly because of a popular boycott of the election.
The election failed to even begin to meet the aspirations of the Algerian people. Instead the country got recycled Bouteflikists.
The election failed to even begin to meet the aspirations of the Algerian people. Instead the country got recycled Bouteflikists. It was a strange election with all five “approved” candidates directly, if not intimately, connected to Algeria’s “old government”—that of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his entourage. Not a new face, nor a new idea among the lot. What a motley crew!
The election left many Algerians with an empty feeling that in no way did justice to the powerful protest movement active over the past nine months.
The election left many Algerians with an empty feeling that in no way did justice to the powerful protest movement active over the past nine months. Often in the hundred thousands, sometimes in the millions, they’ve been on the streets every Tuesday and Friday since last February in Algiers, Oran, Tizi Ouzou, Ourgla, Ghardaïa, and Tamanrasset, all calling for an end to one of the world’s most corrupt, ruthless governments.
The months of angry nationwide peaceful demonstrations by “the Hifak”—The Movement—called not just for the resignation of the Bouteflika team but for a new government and social order. Bouteflika was viewed as little more than a pushover for the Troika, the genuine power behind the scenes, with Tebboune no more than “Bouteflika lite.” His repeated offers to enter into a dialogue with the country’s demonstrators were not taken seriously.
The slogans that repeatedly appeared on the banners and posters of Hifak demonstrators reflected a remarkable public lucidity:
- Dear USA, there is no oil left, so STAY AWAY unless you want olive oil
- Algeria is kidnapped by a gang
- Voleurs, vous avez mangé le pays! (Thieves, you have eaten up the country)
- Messieurs our generals! If you dare to fire a single shot, to spill one drop of our blood, THE PEOPLE will drag you to the International Criminal Court and indict you for crimes against humanity. The blood of the people is the red line you dare not cross.
- No FLN, nor RND, nor DRS/GIA
- Those who plant misery will harvest the people’s wrath
- The government pisses on us and the media tells us that it’s raining
- When food is rotten, it’s not enough to simply change spoons
An Algerian Blogger Silenced
The day before the election, Benabdelhamid Amine, a young blogger in Oran, was sentenced to a year in prison, with nine months suspended, for having published a cartoon on his personal blog mocking the expected election results. Amine was found guilty of “insulting the president,” “violating territorial integrity,” and “disseminating publications harmful to national security,” according to news reports.
Welcome to the elite club, Algeria’s troika: the military, the security apparatus, and the country’s energy elite!
The cartoon portrays a military officer with an obvious similarity to military strongman General Ahmad Gaid Salah placing a golden slipper on someone obviously resembling Abdelmajid Tebboune. Behind General Salah, holding a red satin pillow, is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s longstanding—now disgraced—ex-president. Welcome to the elite club, Algeria’s troika: the military, the security apparatus, and the country’s energy elite!
Looking on with interest in the cartoon are four well-dressed gentlemen, all bearing striking resemblance to the other four presidential hopefuls, themselves all high-ranking members of the country’s old guard: Abdelkader Bengrina, a former Minister of Tourism; another former prime minister, Ali Benflis; a former Minister of Culture, Azzedine Mihoubi; and Abdelaziz Belaid, head of the Moustakbal Party.
Regardless of which one of the five “approved” candidates would have won, the results for the country would have been more or less the same: a government, which since independence in 1962, is controlled from behind the scenes by “the unholy trinity,” as unwilling today as in 1988 to step aside and cede power.
The cartoon suggests Algeria’s presidential election was little more than a charade, yet another backroom deal concocted by the same ruling circles clinging to power and with it the control of the country’s energy industry—and profits it produces. The cartoonist’s trial and sentencing was a warning.
The Election and the New Hydrocarbon Law
A nation divided prior to the election remained so after the vote was tallied. Understanding that in their bid to cling to power Algeria’s ruling elite would do little more than shuffle the cards, the Hifak (“Movement”) called for a boycott.
Referring to Tebboune caustically as “the army’s favorite candidate” and to the election itself as “an electoral masquerade,” “a rigged election,” angry demonstrations erupted throughout the country. In Oran, Algeria’s second largest city, things got ugly when the army and local police showed their fangs. Protesters were badly roughed up, some 400 were arrested. This time the security services employed a degree of physical violence which, since the protests began in February, they had refused to unleash.
With its crushing of dissent in Oran, the military reminded the population of the repression it unleashed during the “Dirty War” years of the 1990s.
For most of its post-independence history the Algerian government had not hesitated to use force against its population to maintain its grip on power. With its crushing of dissent in Oran, the military reminded the population of the repression it unleashed during the “Dirty War” years of the 1990s. It was also a warning that the party’s over, that its toleration for dissent had reached its limit.
But is it over? Not by a long shot; it’s not a party and it’s not over.
One issue missing from the current electoral debate is a new hydrocarbon law approved by the former Bouteflika Council of Ministers, many of the provisions of which remain secret, as is the process by which the law came into being. Critics of the government are concerned that it is little more than a major give-away: “la Grande Braderie” (big Clearance Sale) to foreign energy companies forced on the Algerian people.
The troika is counting on a government willing to implement the new hydrocarbon law, which is bound to be unpopular. One reason that the General Salah, the de facto Algerian ruler, pushed so hard for an election at this time was to provide a legal framework for the law before the opposition could seriously amend or derail it.
The indications are that with the election of Tebboune, the troika has gotten its way. The recent death of General Salah on December 23 undoubtedly complicates the Tebboune presidency.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.