It is likely that for many Europeans – and Britons in particular – the date of the 12th of December 2019 will be remembered as the day in which the Conservatives broke the so-called “Red Wall” for the very first time since the end of World War II, conquering a large majority in Westminster and bringing its leader Boris Johnson back into number 10. Just as likely, however, that the same date might evoke something rather different in North Africa. As a matter of fact, presidential elections were held in Algeria on December 12 as well. In this case, however, the electoral consultation took place in a phase in which the usual mechanisms through which power is achieved and maintained have become profoundly dislocated as an effect of the powerful popular movement (hirak) emerged for the first time on February 22nd. According to the results provided by Algerian authorities, former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune won the presidential elections, conquering about 58 percent of the valid votes. Nonetheless, this seems all but the starting point of a smooth presidential mandate. To understand why it is useful to take a step back.
On April 2nd, after about five weeks of unprecedented protests, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to resign. The hirak – initially sparked by students, disenfranchised youth and informal workers from low-income neighbourhoods – was, first and foremost, a clear reaction to Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled to be held on April 18th. Nothing more than an ageing and seriously ill president, wheelchair-bound, incapable of addressing the nation after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2013, epitomized the social and political contradictions of a country in which nearly 70 percent of the population is below 30 years of age. Despite this, the massive popular movement did not emerge out of the blue. Rather, the storm was anticipated by years of growing social protests and strikes.
The four main demographic categories that were the protagonists of such a wave of discontent that escalated from 2013 onwards were public sector workers, mainly in the educational and health services; blue-collar workers in surviving state-owned factories; the youth of the south, agitating against unemployment, deprivation and shale gas fracking; and workers operating in the strategic oil and gas activities. Many of these actors, together with middle-class constituencies such as lawyers, judges and journalists, gradually joined the hirak in the course of the anti-fifth term protests, leading to the emergence of a broad convergence across class and ideology. Such an almost all-encompassing opposition network put the regime under great pressure, which was forced to sacrifice Bouteflika in the hope that this would have demobilized the masses. Tactically employing article 102 of the Constitution, the same man who just five weeks before had been presented as the presidential candidate of the regime, was suddenly declared unfit to rule. After twenty years in power, Bouteflika was therefore forced to resign. This was nothing less than a ‘soft’ military coup staged by the armed forces, also representing the moment in which, according to Algerian intellectual and activist Hamza Hamouchene, the country moved from “a military dictatorship with a civilian façade” to “a military dictatorship tout court”.
Hirak shakes Algeria
In sharp contrast to the army’s expectations, however, Bouteflika’s fall did not appease the masses. On the contrary, huge protests were staged regularly every Tuesday – by high school and university students – and every Friday – by the more encompassing hirak. The strategy of the military was centered around three main lines: buying time and waiting for the summer season, in which the very high temperature would have probably weakened the protest movement; buying off some moderate parts of the hirak through the arrest of high-ranking politicians, tycoons, and Bouteflika’s relatives; and finally holding presidential elections that should have represented the endpoint of the transition. Such an implicit plan was vehemently rejected by the protest movement that immediately after Bouteflika’s resignation turned its frustration against the actual kingmaker of Algerian politics – that is, the head of the army and omnipresent Ahmed Gaïd Salah.
Whilst the hirak is neither a structured organization nor has a formal spokesperson, it has shown a rather surprising capacity to hold on to the regime’s attempts to co-opt it, formulating a set of requests that might be synthesized in three main demands: the foundation of a new republic based on a civil, rather than military, state; the immediate liberation of all political prisoners; and the rejection of any elections before the approval of a new constitution. These requests have been advanced through a constant mobilization from below, which after slightly decreasing in the summer has come back to record-high levels in autumn. As a consequence of such pressure from below, the regime was forced to postpone the presidential elections, initially scheduled on July 4.
Five months later, the situation has not changed significantly. The entire opposition spectrum rejected to take part in the presidential elections held on December 12, whereas the hirak continued to mobilize in the streets, considering the elections a blatant farce. Eventually, due to procedural aspects, just 5 out of 23 would-be presidential candidates made the final list. Two of them were former prime ministers – Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis – whereas Azzedine Mihoubi and Abdelkader Bengrine had been ministers in the recent past. To conclude, Abdelaziz Belaïd was the head of the pro-regime Front El Moustakbal. Succinctly, the entire competition was within the regime ranks.
As already seen, the winner was Tebboune, considered by many analysts and commentators Salah’s first choice. The turnout, as largely expected, was very low. According to the regime’s data, which almost certainly represents a huge exaggeration (turnout was almost nil in Kabylia, the main Berber region of the country, and arguably not higher than 10 percent in Algiers), just 40 percent of the voters would have cast their ballots. It also has to be considered that about 15 percent of these were voided ballots, representing therefore a clear rejection of the transition. The brittle ground on which the new presidency has been established makes its future questionable.
What comes next?
What will happen in the coming months in Algeria remain, however, extremely difficult to predict. To a large extent, this is also the product of a currently ongoing situation in which several and different outcomes are potentially feasible. In spite of this, some tentative considerations might be provided. First, starting from the assumption that the presence of the generals in politics is logically at odds with any form of democracy, the emergence of a democratic system appears the least likely scenario. The long-lasting, vast and critical interests of the Algerian armed forces mean that a crucial precondition for the establishment of a real democratic setting is a sharp and radical de-militarization of Algerian politics. Yet, this sounds nothing less than impossible, at least for the time being, in the absence of a serious defeat at war or if any splits and divisions emerge between rank-and-file soldiers, on the one hand, and high-ranking officials, on the other. Second, it appears likely that Tebboune, showing some kind of conciliatory predisposition towards the hirak will be able to co-opt some parts of the moderate opposition. As clearly shown by the recent declaration by Abderrezak Makri, leader of the largest Islamist party in the country, le Mouvement de le société pour la paix (MSP), such a scenario is developing in these very days. Third, whereas the hirak remains extremely vital, it faces two serious menaces. On the one hand, it risks becoming a ritual – more ordinary than an exceptional– form of politics, with weekly demonstrations staged on Tuesday and Friday. On the other, once (and if) the regime is able to determine divisions within the movement between moderate and radical groups, both the security apparatuses and the hirak will be more willing to resort to violence, opening up a completely unknown scenario. In this regard, either the protest movement is able to reconnect itself to the economic wing of the anti-government contestation, leading to a single moment of general insurrection against the military-led regime, or it is likely that it will ebb over time. The almost infinite ways in which the aforementioned elements might come together mean that the future of Algeria has still to be written.
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