North Africa, West Asia

Algeria: Divisions as country heads towards controversial elections

Will the Algerian public unite again once time has unraveled a clearer picture for the future?

Rayane Anser
28 May 2019, 8.02am
"Algeria belongs to the people". Demonstration in Algeria, 16 April 2019. Picture by Ammi Louiza/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

On Saturday, the Algerian Constitutional Council has officially ceased to accept submissions of candidates seeking to participate in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled to take place on the 4th of July of this year. Key political figures and parties have suspended their participation in the controversial elections as they consider the continued popular protests to have invalidated the poll. Only three leaders of political parties have submitted documents to the council along with over seventy independent candidates none of which are expected to rally significant popular support. The council is due to release a final list of approved candidates within ten days from the deadline of submission in line with Article 141 of the organic law organising elections.

These elections were set up following the resignation of Bouteflika and the suspension of the presidential elections of April 18th. For fourteen weeks, Algerians have been taking to the streets every Friday afternoon to protest for change. It all started when their incapacitated president who had been in office for twenty years attempted to run for a fifth consecutive term despite both health and constitutional impediments. The incredible numbers that poured onto the streets every Friday placed unprecedented pressure on the elite in power. After multiple failing attempts to present a solution to the crisis that would both keep Bouteflika in power and also send the angry protesters back home, the long reigning president resigned from office opening the door for an array of possibilities and scenarios for Algeria’s future.

Protests continue and momentum decreases

Despite the achievement that the Algerian movement attained which was hitherto unthinkable with the country’s history overweighing prospects of a mobilisation, Algerians saw in their peaceful and successful movement a rare chance to overhaul more than just one figure of the corrupt system. To many Algerians, overthrowing Bouteflika was a milestone to be celebrated, but only a first battle in a long war against corruption and injustice. Demands of the protesters grew with every new Friday and Bouteflika’s resignation made even the most ambitious goals seem attainable. Algerians vowed to continue to protest until they have seen real and significant change.

The past few Fridays, however, have seen relatively smaller numbers of people participating in the weekly protests as reports estimate thousands rallying in the capital Algiers while earlier protests against Bouteflika’s fifth term were estimated in millions. This decrease in momentum could be explained by the fact that Algerians have welcomed the Islamic holy month of Ramadan three weeks ago and have been fasting for the past three Fridays. Temperatures have been on the rise so fasting and marching in a protest could prove very challenging to many. Similarly, a turn from protests could also be attributed to the fact that a faction of Algerians is happy with the status quo. Algeria is currently ruled by an interim government awaiting new elections in July. Moreover, after a series of accusations initiated by the army chief, Genral Ahmed Gaid Salah, some of the most conntroversial figures in the disintegrated regime have been arrested and remain in custody. Many Algerians are happy to see these people brought to justice and praise the army chief for triggering these arrests. Others are very sceptical about the reality of the matter and a few even criticise the way the arrests are carried out especially after a leader of a prominent opposition party was summoned for questioning and testimony. The buzz around these high-scale arrests have taken centre-stage and partly overshadowed the continued protests.

Differences resurface

Fighting against an unconstitutional fifth term for the ailing Bouteflika was successful in bringing all the different sects of Algerian people together for one undisputed common goal. Once this shared goal was achieved however, many of the differences characterising these groups were quick to resurface resulting in an incredible polarisation of views. The Algerian public is mainly divided on how the post-Bouteflika period should follow through and although the views on the matter are fairly nuanced, they do more or less poor into two opposing factions.

Even before Bouteflika officially resigned, it was clear that the military was a significant and powerful actor. After all, the resignation of Bouteflika did not come through until after General Gaid Salah, who was considered a strong ally of Bouteflika’s, pulled the rug from under the president’s feet and called for his removal. Since then, the military had become the number one player in the arena with accusations on the army chief’s part initiating arrests of major regime figures. These moves that Gaid Salah has undertaken since he first declared his stance against Bouteflika and the prominent role he has come to play since then have made him the most controversial figure in Algeria today. The divide of the Algerian public regarding the future of the country can roughly be drawn in relation to where Algerians stand in relation to him.

Constitutional vs unconstitutional paths

One side of the divide is represented by those enthusiastic supporters of Gaid Salah who see in him a protector of the country against external threats and a leader ready to cleanse the system of some of its most corrupt figures. This is the group of people that has turned back from participating in protests and is happy to participate in the upcoming presidential elections. This group also remains in favour of the constitutional path that outlines new elections following a transitional period of 90 days. The army chief’s supporters argue that those politicians who oppose elections are confident in their inability to win by means of a popular vote and would rather, therefore, opt for a political vacuum and chaos.

On the other hand, vocal opponents of Gaid Salah represent the other end of the spectrum and are comprised of a myriad of people. There are those who are championing a civil state and are pessimistic about any future for the country that involves military participation in politics. Others disapprove of elections as overseen by the current administration which continues to be represented by a prime minister and head of state who were appointed by Bouteflika and a corrupt Constitutional Council that has approved an unconstitutional candidacy of the ousted president. This group mainly disputes the army chief because he continues to advocate for elections under the current administration. Finally, some people consider Gaid Salah as corrupt as the people he is accusing of plotting against the country and view him as an opportunist who saw in the mobilisation of the people a chance for him to come to the forefront and settle the scores with his rivals. Many of the army chief’s opponents were quick to brand the army chief’s calls for a constitutinal removal of Bouteflika as long overdue and while some advocate for a solution outside of the constitutional framework, others propose constitutional alternatives to the scheduled elections. Only recently, three national personalities have issued a joint statement calling the Army Command to engage with representatives of the popular movement as well as opposition parties, and advocated for a transitional period that precedes elections. For the most part, many Algerians are not satisfied with a change that boils down to ousting Bouteflika and have all vowed to carry on with the protests and boycott the July elections should they take place.

Surface and deep differences

On a grass roots level, this polarisation of the Algerian public is less ideological than it is a mere conflict of visions on how the critical period after Bouteflika’s removal should be managed and by whom. However, ideological differences do exist, and they mostly feed the views of the upper political crust which seeks to steer the public in favourable directions to its agendas. For example, some of the most vocal opponents of Gaid Salah today were all in favour of the military intervention that took place in the early nineties following the victory of the Islamic party in Algeria’s first multi-party elections. Among these vocal opposition figures are members of Mouwatana Movement of the likes of Zoubaid Assoul who were appointed to the National Council of Transition following the military coup of 1991. This solidifies the argument that plenty of these outspoken political figures against General Gaid Salah only oppose his role in as far as it does not serve their agendas which means their stance against him does not come from a deep conviction that the military’s power should be limited.

Fear of a worse alternative has, therefore, prompted much of the public to take the side of the military chief and reserve judgement of his role until the future unfolds further considerations. After all, the experiences of other countries like Egypt are still fresh in the minds of Algerians and plenty of them fear a counter revolution, and dread to see a deep state emerge from the ashes of the overthrown regime. Nonetheless, the Algerian divide remains one of views, and just like Algerians united against a new term for Bouteflika that was leading the country towards the unknown, they could unite again once time has unraveled a clearer picture of where a better future for Algeria lies.

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