There is another election the world should be paying attention to this week – in Algeria

Authorities in the country long ago alienated the more-than-one-in-four Algerians under 30 who are unemployed

Robert Fisk
Thursday 12 December 2019 17:37
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Algerians celebrate President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's resignation

It’s the one election which really counts. It’s an election which could have a devastating effect on the European Union. It’s an election about poverty, unemployment and immigration, and about lies. Many millions of voters would prefer that the election was abandoned.

So forget the charade of Brexit and the political suicide of the United Kingdom. The election which really matters is being held today in Algeria, where more than 24 million people are supposed to vote for five pro-regime candidates effectively chosen by the same corrupt military that has governed the country for the past 57 years. Vast and peaceful demonstrations across Algeria have called for this utterly fraudulent poll to be cancelled.

The tens of thousands of young Algerians who have thronged the streets of Algiers every Friday since 22 February are an apotheosis. Like their brothers and sisters in Iraq and Lebanon, they are demanding an end to the whole rotten system of crypto-militia family governments which has destroyed the freedoms and the future of generations of Arabs. Yet the election in which they are supposed to cast their votes today is a parody of democracy. At least four of the five candidates were all ministers of the regime – two of them were prime ministers – and are supported by the same old and desiccated officers of the Algerian army.

The protests began when the moribund, speechless, husk-like 82-year old president, Abdulaziz Bouteflika – the president in the coffin, as he was called by Algerians – decided to stand for a fifth mandate in July elections. More likely, given his state of health, this was decided for him. Algeria’s top army officer, Ahmed Gaid Salah, then announced – in the vain hope that this would satisfy the legions of young men and women on the streets – that Bouteflika’s candidacy had been withdrawn. There was a vain attempt to hold another poll.

But then General Salah – himself, at 79, no spring chicken – announced the 12 December elections, and Algeria’s youth were outraged to learn that the five ex-apparatchiks were to contest the poll. These men were part of the very same clique that had ruled a corrupt and corrupted state ever since it won independence from France in 1962. The regime, with the bank accounts of some connected to it containing millions salted from Algeria’s annual $76.1bn oil and gas revenues (a 2012 figure) – has been scandalously supported by the western powers, especially France during and long after the country’s savage 1992-99 civil war. Six people were convicted in 2016 in a corruption case involving the state energy firm Sonatrach.

Europe’s weasel policy towards Algeria, colluding with the regime’s repressive military authorities while tut-tutting at its human rights abuses, has been the result of the usual short-sighted western policy that the “war on terror” needs the cooperation of Arab dictatorships to avoid an Islamist takeover: in other words, European security is infinitely more important than Algerian democracy. This fraudulent idea, touted vis-a-vis their own countries by the Sisis and Assads of the Middle East, means that France continues to provide military, political and economic support to a “government” which only won its war against Islamists with mind-numbing cruelty – and which long ago alienated the more-than-one-in-four Algerians under 30 who are unemployed in a country of more than 43 million souls.

Surrounded by thousands of cops, protesters in cities across Algeria last week carried banners which bluntly called for “no vote with the mafia” and “generals into the garbage cans”. Such is the rotundity of many of these generals and ex-generals that their opponents will need very big garbage cans indeed. While insisting on their patriotism in a nation whose wealthy patrons always wearily accuse their opponents of working for foreign powers, the crowds shouted over and over again: “No election”. The next weekly demonstration will be tomorrow – so we may gather some clues to the future of Algeria on the day after the election. How many will actually vote?

The EU parliament’s condemnation of the Algerian government’s arbitrary arrests of demonstrators is meaningless – it is in any case dismissed by the regime as “interference in the internal affairs” of the country. Yet repeatedly, street leaders of the Hirak (the Movement) have warned that a continuation of the military regime will result in such despair that millions more Algerians will seek to cross the Mediterranean in an exodus that will dwarf the present Algerian presence in France. The scale of Arab immigration might then decide who the next French president will be.

General Salah’s attempts to quieten the furore of the Algerian streets – where the unemployed and the professional classes, women as well as men in a comparatively conservative society, have gathered together – has been truly pathetic. Only this week an Algerian court imprisoned two former prime ministers, Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, for corruption while other former officials have been detained.

Salah had already ordered the arrest of Bouteflika’s brother Said on the grounds that he and two former intelligence officers – one of them the frightening General Mohamed Mediene, known as “the eradicator” during the war against the Islamists – were trying to change the leadership of the army. It is said that Salah himself was to be removed. But behind this grim story of betrayal lie the mass graves of the civil war which was only ended – this was Bouteflika’s poisoned initiative – by a ceasefire in which regime killers would be pardoned but Islamist fighters only forgiven if they did not have “blood on their hands”.

But blood was on everyone’s hands in this “dirty” war. The Islamist killers of the GIA would slaughter entire villages for their supposed loyalty to the regime – babies would have their throats cut and pregnant women disembowelled, while police torturers would force captives to swallow starch and then hose water into their stomachs until they exploded. Ex-soldiers in European exile described to The Independent how they were given drugs while guarding checkpoints and ordered to kill any man with a beard.

Dark memories are alive among the street demonstrators today who, remarkably, include former armed militiamen who worked for the regime during the dirty war. Now they stand alongside teenagers who were born after the war ended. Fearful of further arrests, the Hirak has no anointed leaders – which repeats the fateful mistake of Egyptian revolutionaries in 2011 – because, in the words of one demonstrator addressing students last month, “we want you on the streets, not in prison”.

These events are watched in Paris with more concern than the French authorities might choose to admit. President Macron was the first French leader to speak openly of the systematic state torture employed by France during the seven-year Algerian war of independence from French rule which ended in 1962, but this has earned him no special praise from either the regime or those who wish to replace it. Inside France, there now exists the Alliance of Democrats from the Algerian Diaspora (ADDA), which supports the democratisation of Algeria and the demands of Hirak, and tries to explain the conflict to a country – France -- whose often slovenly intellectuals have largely chosen to avoid any discussion of the crisis in Algeria today.

There may be two million Algerian bi-nationals in France today. The statistics of men and women of Algerian origin in the country are confusing, since they may include those born in Algeria, their children and grand-children born in France and the half-million Algerian “harkis” and their families who fought for France and were forced into exile in France, many of whom have died in the intervening years.

There have been extraordinary examples of Algerians who had illegally entered France in recent years but who have returned to Algeria of their own volition in past months to join the street demonstrations. If the regime wins again, however, they will go back to France – most likely accompanied by a vast population of dispossessed youth who have despaired forever of finding dignity in Algeria.

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