‘An illegitimate straw man’: Algeria’s nervous generals push election few seem to want

Amid widespread protests, none of the candidates running in the election pose a threat to the entrenched ruling elite, say analysts

Borzou Daragahi
Marrakesh
Thursday 12 December 2019 16:03 GMT
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Men leave Algerian polling station with boxes on election day

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Arab tyrants frequently lock up dissidents to silence critical voices. But in a sign of how nervous the Algerian regime is about the controversial presidential elections it is holding on Thursday, it arrested, convicted and sentenced protest leader Kaddour Chouicha, all on the same day.

Mr Chouicha was locked up, hauled before a judge and sentenced to jail for a year on Tuesday, according to Human Rights Watch. Calls by Algeria’s grassroots opposition to boycott the election has marred an attempt by the country’s military elite to ram through the controversial vote. That is adding to months of political uncertainty in the north African oil and gas giant.

State-controlled and pro-establishment television showed the country’s elite heading to the polls even as thousands of protesters took to the streets, some crowding outside ballot stations.

Protesters have vowed to physically prevent Algerians from voting in what they consider a sham election meant to legitimise the armed forces and quell a massive anti-government movement. News agencies reported that thousands took to the streets of the capital, Algiers, chanting, “No vote! We want freedom,” eventually overpowering the black-helmeted riot police deployed to stop them.

Protesters reportedly besieged polling stations in the largely Berber eastern region of the country, bringing a halt to the vote in some areas. Videos from the city of Bejaia, in the rebellious Kabylie region, showed protesters tossing ballots from a schoolhouse and burning tyres.

Algeria, a nation of 41 million, is a regional oil, gas and military powerhouse. But it finds its economy and geopolitical influence constrained after decades of incompetence and corruption by an entrenched ruling clique rooted in the 1950s uprising against France. Foreign exchange reserves have collapsed from $200bn in 2014 to $60bn because of runaway spending and low global energy prices.

Algeria’s armed forces chief of staff Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, the country’s de facto ruler, had already delayed elections twice after a nationwide grassroots protest movement toppled longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April.

The election is ultimately a smokescreen to give the impression of political change

Anthony Skinner, analyst

With only a weak caretaker government in charge since Mr Bouteflika’s ousting, the armed forces finds itself the target of uncomfortable political attention and scrutiny during consecutive weeks of peaceful anti-government protests that have failed to dissipate.

“The chants of the first Fridays, ‘Army, people, brothers!’ have gradually been replaced by slogans hostile to the army staff,” said an article this week in the daily newspaper El Watan.

“‘Civil state, no to a military state,’ and ‘Enough of the generals.’ Algerians reject the interventionism of the military authorities in the political arena and demand that the [Algerian armed forces] returns to its constitutional prerogatives,’” it continued.

Hirak, the loose opposition coalition originally formed in February to oppose Mr Bouteflika’s plan to run for a fifth term, has demanded deep reforms and the dismantling of the security and armed forces’ domination over Algerian politics and commerce before any elections.

Algerian candidate Abdelmadjid Tebboune casts his vote during the election (AFP/Getty)
Algerian candidate Abdelmadjid Tebboune casts his vote during the election (AFP/Getty) (AFP via Getty Images)

Candidates running in the coalition include the favoured former culture minister Azzedine Mihoubi, former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine, former prime minister Ali Benflis and head of the Future Movement party Abdelaziz Belaid.

But none of the five candidates running for office are considered to represent the opposition movement, or pose any threat to the power of the ruling elite, referred to as le pouvoir by Algerians.

“What is clear is that Mihoubi, or any other candidate for that matter, is unlikely to cross red lines laid out by Gaid Salah, his generals and their allies in the bureaucracy,” Anthony Skinner, an analyst for Verisk Maplecroft risk management, told The Independent. “The election is ultimately a smokescreen to give the impression of political change, while preserving the interests of le pouvoir [the power].”

Turnout numbers will be key in determining the next government’s credibility. In a likely attempt to boost voter enthusiasm, the security forces have recently jailed and prosecuted a number of figures associated with Bouteflika-era excesses.

If that fails, Algerian authorities have been accused of exaggerating turnout numbers in previous elections, explaining away paltry numbers at voting centres in big cities where independent and international journalists are present by claiming larger turnout in rural areas. No international election monitors will observe the vote on Thursday.

“Despite claiming that it is completely autonomous, the National Independent Authority of the Elections will not ensure a free, fair or transparent electoral process,” said Mr Skinner. “Constituents will be able to vote without their electoral card, meaning that the official results of the poll are unlikely to correspond with the actual turnout or distribution by candidate.”

In response to the staunch criticism of the vote, the army and its allies in the intelligence service have launched a crackdown on protest movement leaders. In addition to Mr Chouicha, more than 120 activists associated with Hirak have been jailed including prominent veterans of Algeria’s war of independence.

Artist Abdelhamid Amine, known popularly as Nime, was also handed a one-year jail sentence on Wednesday. He is famous for his biting, satirical illustrations of Algeria’s ruling elite, frequently depicting generals and businessmen on the take.

Mr Chouicha appears to have been arrested solely for taking part in protests. He has been charged with “rebellion” based on Facebook posts critical of the elections and the army, according to Human Rights Watch.

Analysts say that whoever succeeds Mr Bouteflika will face the unenviable mandate of managing relations between an entrenched military elite and a profoundly dissatisfied population and protest movement that has proven immune to the many tools used by the regime to suppress dissent over the decades.

“Algeria’s next president will take on an incredibly difficult job,” said Mr Skinner. “Apart from respecting and safeguarding the interests of the military, he will also act as the most prominent face of the government in handling Hirak. The movement has made it absolutely clear that it will reject the new president as an illegitimate, straw man.”

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