Publication Social Movements / Organizing - State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - International / Transnational - Africa - North Africa The Presidential Elections in Algeria

An electoral masquerade, mass protests, and police violence

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Sofian Philip Naceur,

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December 2019

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„The movement has and will have no representatives“
„Le Hirak n'a pas, et n'aura pas de Representants“: „The movement has and will have no representatives“

As in Iraq and Lebanon, the movement in Algeria attaches importance to its „leaderless“, cross-class and cross-confessional character. In Lebanon, the slogan is „I am the leader of the revolution“ („ana qa'id/at al-thawra“) - alluding to the fact that it is each individual and the people themselves who lead this revolution. During a mass demonstration in the center of the Algerian capital Algiers on December 17, 2019, Ryad Kramdi / AFP

After more than ten months of constant mass mobilization, protests against the ruling elites and for a profound political change continue unabated in Algeria. The controversial presidential elections on 12 December 2019—an enforced showdown between the protest movement (mostly called “Hirak” in Algeria, the Arabic word for “movement”) and the state class induced by the regime’s leadership for strategic purposes—did not end the crisis, but rather exacerbated it. The election of former Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune as the country’s new president further fuelled the protests as Hirak and the opposition consider the vote illegitimate and an obvious attempt to prevent comprehensive reforms and defend the privileges of the elites.

The conflict is thus entering a critical stage once again, as the regime tried to use the ballot to plant the seeds for a violent escalation of the ongoing face-off. Algeria’s state class, headed by de facto ruler and Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah, pursued a contradictory dual strategy aiming to renew the legitimacy of the country’s political leadership, thereby ensuring the power of the ruling elites, but also regain control over public spaces. The presidential election ultimately had the goal of provoking a violent backlash by the Hirak. Yet the movement persistently adheres to peaceful means of protesting. Particulary in Algiers and the Berber region Kabylia, riot police and the military-controlled gendarmerie aggressively cracked down on the Hirak on Election Day in a manner unseen since the mass mobilization against the regime began in February. Indications of a change of strategy by security forces in dealing with the protests had been evident for months, although it has never surfaced as clearly as around the vote. The Hirak did not respond with violence yet. However, an office of the state-controlled electoral authority ANIE (National Independent Authority for Elections) was set on fire in Bouira and subsequently burned down. The day after the vote, tens of thousands of protesters peacefully took to the streets in several cities across the country, venting their anger about Tebboune’s election as Algeria’s new head of state. Security forces once again attacked protesters in Algiers and the Kabylia provinces with batons and tear gas and literally hunted down demonstrators in the Western Algerian city of Oran. Around 400 protesters were reportedly arrested in Oran alone.

Sofian Philip Naceur works as an independent journalist in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, writing for, among others,  junge Welt, taz, and Der Standard.

How the political situation might evolve in the near future remains unclear. Gaïd Salah is likely to step back as Algeria’s political front runner in favour of Tebboune, but the army chief will certainly continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. Both will continue their attempts to take the wind out of the Hirak’s sails; whether by force or by political concessions is still uncertain and will depend on whether the movement will be able to maintain its impressive mobilization and peacefulness in the upcoming months. The non-violent nature of the protests has so far been the most important assurance to prevent the government from crushing the movement with excessive force or even declaring a state of emergency. Nevertheless, the regime is persistently looking for strategic mistakes by the Hirak and intensifies its attempts to provoke it.

Bouteflika’s Resignation and the Rise of Gaïd Salah

The ongoing political crisis in Algeria was triggered by the candidacy of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for the presidential elections, originally scheduled for April 2019. Bouteflika’s allies within the fragmented state class sought to defend the status quo in the country at any cost and, therefore, allowed Bouteflika (in office since 1999) to run for a fifth term. His candidacy was seen as grotesque, mainly because the 82-year-old has barely been able to rule since suffering a stroke in 2013. Ever since, he is wheelchair-bound and has not given a single public speech. The question of who has been effectively ruling the country ever since and who filled the power vacuum that arose by Bouteflika’s long-lasting absence remains a subject of speculation. His younger Brother Saïd, officially appointed special adviser to the president, certainly gained ground and was considered a political key figure between 2013 und 2019. But army chief Gaïd Salah also benefited from Bouteflika’s absence. He strongly expanded his power since 2014 and even managed to gradually weaken and neutralize powerful internal rivals within the security apparatus.

In February, only a few days after Bouteflika’s candidacy was officially announced, spontaneous protests against a fifth mandate of the ailing president erupted in Kabylia and several provinces in Eastern Algeria. Although the country had witnessed an increase of socioeconomically motivated protests and strikes since 2017, most notably in the health and educational sector, no politically motivated demonstration had occurred so far—until February 2019. Only a week after the first protests against Bouteflika’s controversial presidential bid, tens of thousands of people responded to calls for protests in social media and staged peaceful marches in several cities across the country on 22 February. Ever since, protests and sit-ins have been taking place almost every day while the scale of the protests grew significantly every week, further increasing the pressure on the government.

It quickly became clear to the regime that it has to respond to the protests with concession to slow down the popular mobilization in the streets in order to save the “system” and the current order, ensuring the monopolization of political and economical resources and privileges for an elitist state class, as a whole. Accordingly, shortly after, a wave of resignations and arrests of high-ranking profiteers of Bouteflika’s presidency hit the country—however, the aim of this arrest campaign was not to initiate reforms as demanded by the Hirak but to give the state class a respite. In March 2019, the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, the leader of the RND party (National Democratic Rally), in power since 1997, and a controversial politician considered extremely corrupt and who even faces strong sentiments of hatred in Algerian’s society, resigned. In April, Bouteflika likewise had to bow to the pressure of the Hirak and eventually stepped down. As stipulated in the Algerian constitution in case of the resignation of a head of state, Bouteflika was replaced by the president of the upper house of parliament, Abdelkader Bensaleh (RND), in office since 2002. However, Hirak and opposition were not satisfied with these superficial changes within the state’s leadership and have been persistently calling for a real rupture with the old political order.

Reorganization of Algeria’s State Class

After the military led by Gaïd Salah effectively took over in Algeria in the aftermath of Bouteflika’s resignation, the chief of staff and the army’s leadership were increasingly targeted by the Hirak, which has persistently called for Gaïd Salah’s dismissal ever since. Being in the front-line of popular demands for disempowerment was considered severely risky by the military. Therefore, Gaïd Salah initiated a purge within the ranks of the regime that further intensified the temporary chaos within the ruling class. Dozens of high-ranking politicians and businessmen as well as governors, mayors, and local police chiefs previously allied with Bouteflika were incarcerated and put on trial for corruption, money laundering, or abuse of office. Gaïd Salah, however, exploited this wave of arrests for political and strategic purposes and neutralized countless rivals for access to the state’s resources and political power within the regime in the slipstream of the ongoing protests. One noteworthy outcome of ten months of mass protests is certainly the large-scale reconstruction and realignment of the Algerian state class.

In September 2019, a military court in the city of Blida sentenced Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediène, the former head of military intelligence who was once considered untouchable, his successor Athmane Tartag, the leader of the Trotskyist Workers’ Party Louisa Hanoune, and Saïd Boutefika to 15 years in jail for alleged conspiracy. The DRS (Department of Intelligence and Security), led by Tewfik from 1990 until 2015, was considered the most powerful branch of the Algerian security apparatus for years, but has been gradually deprived of power in favour of the army’s general staff since Tewfik’s forced retirement in 2015. In April 2019, Gaïd Salah subordinated the DRS’s successor, DSS (Directorate of Security Services), formerly under control of the presidency, to the Ministry of Defence, and thereby significantly centralized the control of Algeria’s intelligence agencies in his hands. As a result of Tewfik’s conviction, the former balance of power between Algerian security organs was indefinitely unsettled as control shifted towards the general staff.

Immediately before the presidential elections in December, a court in Algiers sentenced 13 former high-ranking politicians and businessmen to lengthy prison terms for corruption-related allegations and charges related to the shady sponsoring of Bouteflika’s election campaign. Former prime ministers Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal (National Liberation Front, FLN) were sentenced to 15 and 12 years in jail respectively, former Minister of Energy Youcef Yousfi to ten years, and the former head of the Algerian businessmen association FCE (Business Leaders Forum), Ali Haddad, to seven years in prison. The symbolic message behind the verdict was clear, as one of its primary goals was to send a signal to the Hirak and the Algerian population indicating that the country’s leadership under Gaïd Salah was taking its time to seriously crack down on former profiteers of the Bouteflika era. At the same time, the verdict aimed at encouraging the population to head to the polls in the upcoming electoral masquerade. Gaïd Salah’s attempt to use the vote to renew the legitimacy of Algeria’s political leadership and thus be able to step into the shadow of an elected executive branch of government could have only succeeded if a considerable proportion of the electorate would have voted. But a low turnout was already looming ahead of Election Day.

Flawed Selection of Presidential Candidates

The reasons behind this were obvious, as the pre-election phase entirely resembled all those manipulated ballots organized in the Bouteflika era. The vote was not expected to be free, fair, or transparent. However, the government responded to demands by the Hirak to amend the electoral law and establish an independent electoral commission. That said, the outcome of the corresponding reform—approved by the government and President Bensaleh in September 2019—was disenchanting. Neither the slightly amended electoral law nor the newly established election authority ANIE could dispel doubts about the independence of the electoral procedures in place. The ANIE remained de facto entirely controlled by the state or its satellite organizations. ANIE head Mohamed Charfi repeatedly framed his commission as an “independent” body and even called it a “fruit of the Hirak”, but Hirak and the opposition largely anticipated a staunch pro-regime performance by the commission.

When the ANIE officially announced the names of all approved candidates, it was certain that Algeria was once again facing an electoral charade. All five candidates were known for their close ties to the regime and ultimately loyal to the state class. Besides the two former prime ministers Ali Benflis and Abdelmajid Tebboune, the ANIE confirmed the presidential bids of two former ministers—the moderate Islamist Abdelkader Bengrina and RND interim leader Azzedine Mihoubi—as well as Abdelaziz Belaïd, the head of the Front El-Mostaqbal (Future Front), a spin-off of the FLN and formally an opposition party, co-opted by the regime for more than a decade.

While Bengrina’s and Belaïd’s candidacies were considered hopeless, Benflis and Mihoubi were expected to stand a chance in securing the support of the military establishment and thus winning the elections. The return of former Benflis allies to Algeria’s political sphere in mid-2019 had additionally fuelled speculations that after his two failed presidential bids in 2004 and 2014, he might be chosen as the country’s new head of state. Meanwhile, the FLN—almost uninterruptedly in power since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962—surprisingly endorsed Mihoubi’s candidacy. Thus, the two most important civilian fractions formerly backing Bouteflika were apparently trying to counter Tebboune, considered to be a close ally of Gaïd Salah. The FLN’s interim chair, Ali Seddiki, told TSA Algérie that Tebboune was still a member of the FLN and even of the party’s Central Committee, but ran for president as an independent. Uncertainties concerning the extent of the internal power shifts within the state class as well as within and between the various civilian and military fractions of the regime are likely to persist for the time being given those cryptic and confusing allegiances.

A Grotesque Electoral Campaign

In the meantime, the electoral campaign could have hardly been more absurd, since no candidate was able to effectively campaign. Campaign events were repeatedly disturbed by Hirak activists, a polling station was literally bricked up and ballot boxes were stolen. Venues rented for electioneering remained largely empty throughout the campaign. Slots designated to display campaign posters were repeatedly adorned with pictures of imprisoned political prisoners or used for waste disposal. Photos of those display slots, decorated with garbage bags, flooded social media and the local press for weeks ahead of the vote.

Meanwhile, a TV debate between all five candidates was aired on state media one before the election. The ANIE attempted to make the electoral facade appear legitimate but failed to do so altogether. The debate was not independently organized, as the electoral commission itself was in charge of the show. The Munathara initiative had successfully organized several electoral debates in neighbouring Tunisia in fall 2019, but said in a statement that the Algerian TV debate did not meet international standards in terms of transparency and independence from state control. “The fact that an electoral authority organizes an election debate is highly problematic, electoral bodies are there to organize elections”, Munathara founder Belabbès Benkredda told the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. “If journalists are not allowed to ask questions and if there is no interaction between the candidates, than we are dealing with a press conference and not an election debate”, he said.

At the same time, protests continued and escalated considerably in the week ahead of the ballot. A general strike was launched only days before polling stations were set to open to increase the pressure on the regime, although the strike only materialized in some regions of the country. Meanwhile, security forces intensified repressive actions against demonstrators, activists, and journalists. In Béjaïa and Bouira, gendarmerie forces used batons and tear gas against protests on the day before the elections. According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD), about 300 people were reportedly arrested in Algiers alone.

Algerian security forces run to disperse protesters during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers on December 12, 2019 during the presidential election
The recent waves of beatings and arrests against the protesters in Algeria should be a preview of the coming weeks, the pressure against the Hirak (movement) is getting stronger. Algerian security forces threaten protesters with violence during a demonstration in the capital Algiers on 12 December 2019, Stringer / AFP

Heated Atmosphere on Election Day and Polemics against Tebboune

The presidential election on 12 December took place amid an atmosphere that was anything but calm. While the state’s propaganda machinery urged the 24.5 million voters to cast their ballot by all means, the election was overshadowed by tension in the streets due to the increasingly aggressive posture of the security apparatus. Large-scale protests in numerous cities across the country, stormed and besieged polling stations, destroyed ballot boxes, and a low turnout successfully thwarted Gaïd Salah’s attempt to install a new political leadership considered legitimate throughout the country.

According to official statistic, turnout stood at almost 40 percent, a figure considered unreliable as polling stations remained largely empty. Instead, the streets were packed. Tens of thousands of people joined protests in Algiers alone on Election Day, marching and chanting against the election and the regime all day long. Nevertheless, the epicentre of the popular resistance to the vote was again Kabylia. Numerous polling stations remained closed in the provinces of Tizi Ouzou, Béjaïa, and Bouira, or were blocked for hours by demonstrators. No region in the country witnessed a turnout as low as here. In a town near Béjaïa, protesters had stormed two polling stations in the early morning and apparently found ballot boxed already filled with ballot papers. In Béjaïa, Tizi Ouzou, and Bouira, minor skirmishes between the gendarmerie and protesters occurred on Election Day. An ANIE office in Bouira was set on fire and subsequently burned down. In Tizi Ouzou, the vote was even suspended due to security reasons, according to ANIE.

The capital Algiers also witnessed a turbulent day. Security forces repeatedly tried to crush the demonstrations by force, beating protesters with batons and using tear gas against the crowds. Dozens of people were injured and countless demonstrators temporarily arrested. Protests continued the day after the vote in numerous cities. Meanwhile, the security apparatus seems to have given up its reluctant handling of the peaceful Hirak marches, as security forces have considerably increased their repressive tactics since the election. The excessive use of force against protests in Oran on 13 December might be a foretaste of the upcoming weeks. The headwind for the Hirak is getting rough.

According to ANIE, Tebboune won the vote by a landslide. The 74-year-old gained 58.13 percent and therefore an absolute majority in the first round of the election. His four opponents were resoundingly defeated. A run-off was therefore not held, as this would have only been necessary in case no candidate gained an absolute majority in the first round of the vote. Given the increasing repression by security forces against the Hirak, the movement actually has little to smile about, but still responded to Tebboune’s election with yet another surge of sharp sarcasm and polemics. Since the announcement of the election results, the latest trend at protests has been to tear up bags of flour and shake them out in the streets—an unambiguous reference to the alleged involvement of Tebboune’s son in the so-called “cocaine affair”. In May 2018, Algerian customs seized 701 kilograms of cocaine in the port of Oran. The arrest of Kamel Chikhi, who was charged with the import and trafficking of the cocaine, was followed by a wave of arrests of politicians, public servants, and children of high-ranking officials. Tebboune’s son Khaled was also arrested for his alleged involvement in the affair, and has been in custody in Algiers since June 2018. He is accused of using his father’s influence to grant Chikhi a construction permit. Allegations of money laundering are also swirling.

Prospects: Slow-Motion Escalation

Algeria’s new head of state has practically no legitimacy throughout the country after the controversial electoral farce, and protests continue unabated with no end in sight. However, the feeling in the streets may continue to heat up in the upcoming months, as it is not only the security apparatus that is escalating repressive measures against protesters. The judiciary also cts more and more in favour of the state’s and military’s leadership, and has been issuing countless politically motivated verdicts against protesters, activists, trade unionists, journalists, and opposition figures in recent months. In early December, the human rights organization Amnesty International sharply condemned the growing repression against the Hirak in the run-up to the elections. In a statement, the Algiers office of Amnesty expressed its serious concern about the “substantial” increase of arrests during the election campaign as well as the increasingly “hostile” rhetoric of government officials against the protest movement.

After a campaign event by Ali Benflis in the western Algerian city of Tlemcen, a local court sentenced four arrested demonstrators to 18 months in prison for “inciting unarmed gatherings”, 14 others were handed suspended sentences. In Algiers, dozens of people are facing trial on charges such as “threatening national security”, “threatening national unity”, or “civil disobedience”. Targeted arrests of well-known activists have also significantly increased. Most recently, the Algerian cartoonist Abdelhamid Amine, also known as “Nime”, was sentenced to three months in prison and nine months of probation in the city of Oran, while the independent trade-union activist and president of the Oran office of the Algerian Human Rights League LADDH (Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights), Kaddour Chouicha, was arrested two days ahead of the vote and sentenced to one year in prison in a summary trial.

While the opposition figure and leader of the left-wing party UDS (Democratic and Social Union), Karim Tabbou, has been in custody since September 2019, security and judicial authorities have practically incarcerated the entire leadership of the oppositional youth organization RAJ (Youth Actions Gathering), which has been quite active in the streets since the beginning of the popular movement and has already been a primary target of Algerian authorities for months. In addition to RAJ president Abdelouhab Fersaoui, the organization’s co-founder Hakim Addad and activist Djalal Mokrani, at least five other RAJ members are currently behind bars. More than 200 political prisoners are believed to be incarcerated nationwide. Dozens of activists, protesters, and journalists are currently under legal surveillance, and hundreds of Hirak activists or demonstrators face trial in the upcoming months on various charges.

The judiciary’s increasingly politicized approach to the Hirak is concerning, given the staunch aggravation of Gaïd Salah’s aggressive rhetoric as well as the rise of violent tactics pursued by security forces. So far, the protest movement successfully resisted all provocations by the regime and has been able to almost consistently maintain the peaceful character of the protests. Regardless of how the political setting will evolve in the upcoming weeks and whether the state class is introducing a strategy of political appeasement against all odds, maintaining the peaceful manner of the protests is the only way to prevent a violent confrontation between the Hirak and the regime. Such a confrontation would be devastating for the movement and grist to the mill of the already palpable counter-revolutionary dynamics in the country.

Meanwhile, time is running out for both camps as Algeria nears an unprecedented crisis of its public treasury. The country is structurally dependent on oil and gas exports, which generate around 98 percent of foreign exchange revenues and 60 to 70 percent of the state budget. Since the collapse of world market prices for hydrocarbons in late 2014, Algeria’s state budget has halved. Algeria’s foreign currency reserves are declining at a stunning pace and are likely to keep the country afloat for a maximum of three years. Of the 195 billion US dollars in foreign reserves Algeria had accumulated as of early 2015, only 72.6 billion were left in April 2019. By the end of 2020, reserves are expected to further decline to 51.6 billion. While the country is bound to undergo far-reaching economic reforms and an adjustment to its social welfare model, the current political crisis is preventing a broad and inclusive public debate about how Algeria’s economic and social configuration might look in the approaching era after the oil rent. The state class, persistently clinging to absolute power, is clearly pursuing a continuation of the rentier state model, which can neither provide enough jobs for the predominately young population nor effectively counter the monopolization of oil and gas revenues by the elites, comprised of the state and army leadership and their allies.

Opposition forces have called for a realignment and diversification of the Algerian economy for decades. The old elites, however, persistently stick to the rentier state model and further expanded oil and gas exploration and exploitation and thus their hydrocarbon rent-seeking. The amendment of the hydrocarbon law, hastily approved by the government in fall 2019, not only permits the controversial expansion of shale gas exploitation, which already triggered massive protests in the affected regions of southern Algeria in 2017, but also removes barriers to foreign oil and gas companies investing in Algeria. Accordingly, the ongoing political developments in the country are closely monitored and watched not only in Europe and the US, but also in Russia and China, as both countries and European governments alike are keen to benefit from a collapse of Algeria’s public treasury and, in the slipstream of such a crisis, expand their influence and gain a stronger foothold in Algeria, whose economy remains largely isolated.