Algeria Reestablishes Authoritarianism through Elections

On June 12, Algeria held an early parliamentary election whose results reflected both Algerian voters’ apathy about the system they inherited from former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the protest movement’s inability to force required change. These elections were originally scheduled for 2022, but President Abdelmadjid Tebboune dissolved the sitting parliament in February in an effort to bring popular legitimacy to political machinations enacted since the  incapacitated Bouteflika’s departure in April 2019. That these elections saw a very low participation rate (some 23 percent of eligible voters) was a testament to Tebboune’s failure to bring life to a dead system, one which millions of Algerians repudiated when they prevented Bouteflika from running for a fifth term.

What appears to be Algeria’s new direction in the foreseeable future—and in the absence of renewed vigor in the protest movement—is the entrenchment of an electoral authoritarianism that borrows democratic practices without implementing democratic rule. Despite differences in circumstances and conditions, Algeria’s new political arrangement is not altogether different from others in the Arab world that limit democratic politics to people’s mere ability to cast ballots—never mind the need for clear electoral programs, representativeness of results, or voter buy-in. One similarity is the conscious decision by the country’s Islamists to participate in the elections and lend a hand to a system that for a long time relied on an alliance between established politicians, the security services, and beneficiaries of crony capitalism—what came to be known as le pouvoir.

The Election Round

The latest round of elections in Algeria produced a slight reshuffling of parliamentary factions but did not change the overall configuration of regime support in the legislature. Main winners were the National Liberation Front (FLN) with 105 seats, Independents with 78, the Islamist-leaning Movement for Society of Peace (MSP) with 64, and the National Rally for Democracy (RND) with 57. The government of Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad resigned following the election and another will be formed after the new parliament is seated in July. It is certain that the election results will produce a coalition cabinet that can secure the support of a majority of deputies (204 out of a total of 407). It is also likely that Ayman Benabderrahmane, the man chosen to be next premier, will have an easy task in forming a cabinet that is friendly to President Tebboune and his regime’s agenda.

It is also likely that Ayman Benabderrahmane, the man chosen to be next premier, will have an easy task in forming a cabinet that is friendly to President Tebboune and his regime’s agenda.

While the new parliament may not be a hindrance to the new political engineering over which President Tebboune presided since his election in December 2019, its composition of regime-friendly parties speaks to an obvious schism in Algeria’s political structure today. This division pits the army with status quo forces that have made peace with the post-Bouteflika architecture, designed and built by remnants of the old regime, against forces in the popular movement that reject the new edifice. The schism was represented in the election by those who participated in the poll as candidates and voters—the FLN, the MSP, the RND, Independents, and others—and those who boycotted the process such as the Rally for Culture and Democracy, the leftists, socialists, and the popular Hirak that was responsible for Bouteflika’s fall.

Moreover, the division was obvious in the low turnout recorded by Algeria’s National Independent Authority for Elections, headed by Mohammed Charfi. Only 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the December 2019 presidential election that Tebboune won, and less than 25 percent of voters participated in a constitutional referendum in November 2020. What is disturbing, yet indicative, is President Tebboune’s remark that what concerned him in this election was not the rate of participation but the legitimacy of those elected. His comment really meant that the president of the Algerian republic of almost 45 million inhabitants is content with neglecting the opinions and choices of some three-quarters of the country’s voters. Although he is right to emphasize the legitimacy of the election and its results, it is hard to view the president as committed to a good course of democratic politics for the future of the country. Additionally, while the legitimacy of those elected may be assured, what remains missing but desired is the legitimacy of the system as a whole and whether it will answer the demands of the people now or in the future.

The latest round of elections will help to sustain a political system that is no different in its legitimacy, representativeness, or responsiveness to the will of the people from other republics in the Arab world.

To be sure, the latest round of elections will help to sustain a political system that is no different in its legitimacy, representativeness, or responsiveness to the will of the people from other republics in the Arab world, such as Egypt. Egypt’s 2018 presidential election, when President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi ran unopposed, had a 41 percent turnout rate, while its 2020 parliamentary elections saw only 29 percent voter participation. Today, there is a palpable sense of an Egyptian regime that is isolated from its people and yet maintains its authority with harsh measures of repression. Despite serious differences in political development indicators and practices, Algeria’s emerging electoral authoritarianism is not different from that of Egypt: both allow inordinate power to their armed forces and security services; both have produced ineffectual yet obedient parliaments; and both have stymied calls of protesters for radical change in the political system.

The Algerian Islamists Participate in the Charade

What is interesting in the Algerian case—as opposed to that of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is on the run from Sisi’s regime—is the participation of the Islamists in the MSP in Tebboune’s restructuring of the regime and the political process this far. Abderrazak Makri, leader of the Algerian Islamist MSP, had expressed his party’s willingness and readiness to cooperate with President Tebboune and all political forces in the country. Although Makri announced that his party will not joini the putative government, the MSP will not be expected to be a major force of opposition.

It is not clear how the MSP will conduct itself in the future, but for now it has chosen not to play the same role of Morocco’s Islamists, where the Islamist Justice and Development Party has been at the center of political power since 2011 by holding the premiership. Morocco’s Islamists have indeed accommodated themselves to the monarchy and obviously learned to live within the limits set by the Makhzen. They have even accepted normalization with Israel at the expense of the kingdom’s position on Palestinian rights, justifying it on the grounds of gaining control over the Western Sahara as an exchange. Morocco’s Islamists have also acted to stymie and persecute “journalists, activists, social media commentators, and artists critical of the monarchy” as well as pro-independence activists from Western Sahara.

Benabderrahmane will be expected to serve the interests of the established order that was consolidated by the victory of the National Liberation Front—which carries the halo of the 1962 revolution—and friendly parties. He would have to implement the law-and-order agenda espoused by President Tebboune, who believes that the Hirak that toppled Bouteflika in 2019 has already achieved its objective and activists should just join the “new Algeria.” If the MSP becomes a force in the opposition, it may escape accusations of collusion with the government; but if supports the latter, it would be responsible for condoning activist arrests, jailing journalists, curtailing freedoms, and violating human rights.

If they become defenders of government policies, Algeria’s Islamists would join the Arab status quo in its assault on demands for change and in its counter-revolution against the Arab Spring. 

If they become defenders of government policies, Algeria’s Islamists would have joined the Arab status quo in its assault on demands for change and in its counter-revolution against the Arab Spring. To be sure, they will not be different from their cohorts in Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Bahrain, and other countries where Islamists found that it is in their best interest to cooperate with authoritarian regimes. Interestingly, the same can be said about Shia Islamists in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Iraq (the myriad pro-Iran militias) that today behave as if they are the vanguard defenders of increasing authoritarian rule and participate in breaking popular protests and killing protesters. Having learned the lessons of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that dared to think outside the bounds of the traditional axes of the machine of authoritarianism—the army and security services—Islamists decided to throw their lot with the established order. In the Algerian case—and having learned from their country’s civil war in the 1990s—the Islamists may well gain some concessions in exchange for their cooperation: in social policy regarding education, welfare, and the status of women, among others; and in economic policy and government largesse to their supporters and constituency.

The Economy Will Remain a Main Concern

While the parliamentary elections gave Tebboune’s agenda the political legitimacy he claims it deserves, it is the Algerian economy that needs a necessary boost. The latest World Bank report paints a poor picture of the country’s well-being. Algeria’s hydrocarbon exports suffered in 2020 because of the global slowdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, necessitating a real and serious effort at economic diversification and structural reform. The country witnessed a 5.5 percent contraction in gross domestic product (GDP) growth, and the budget deficit rose to 16.4 percent of GDP. Overall unemployment stood at almost 13 percent in 2020, while youth unemployment hit 30 percent in 2019. Algeria’s hydrocarbon exports of oil and liquefied natural gas declined by 30 percent in 2020 due to mismanagement and lack of investment. The Algerian domestic market is also a major consumer of oil and gas production. As the country’s main rent-accruing resource, the hydrocarbon sector’s decline spells disaster in the near and long terms.

The popular Hirak that began its agitation against the Bouteflika regime in 2019 was also protesting dire economic conditions that were compounded by official and private corruption, mismanagement, and crony capitalism. Not much has changed since.

To be sure, the popular Hirak that began its agitation against the Bouteflika regime in 2019 was also protesting dire economic conditions that were compounded by official and private corruption, mismanagement, and crony capitalism. Only limited progress was made during the early months of the post-Bouteflika period, when the army shepherded the political process until Tebboune’s election in December of that year. Two former prime ministers, Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, were arrested along with other political and security officials, including Bouteflika’s brother and a former intelligence chief, and convicted in what was considered an intra-elite battle, a “war of clans.” (Ouyahia’s and Sellal’s convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court—another bastion of establishment figures—though both returned to court in January 2021 to face corruption charges again.) Today’s political and economic conditions are practically the same, despite Tebboune’s misplaced optimism and his claim of legitimate elections for a parliament that is unlikely to oppose his agenda. Indeed, the Hirak may have been weakened and its objective of radical change may have been limited to toppling Bouteflika, but the country’s antecedent conditions still exist.

It Remains up to the Hirak

The Algerian Hirak’s success in forcing Bouteflika’s departure in 2019 was a testament to the ability of peaceful grassroots activism and agitation to change an established political order, no matter the degree of its entrenchment. This movement must again return to its prominence lest the newly reestablished system succeed in reengineering its dominance. But such a return to peaceful activism must be wedded to a political program that can be carried and sustained by a clearly defined and identified leadership of men and women activists. The Hirak’s boycott of the recent elections was a passive message that only declared the movement’s rejection of the façade of ineffectual elections. A movement for change must go beyond such a step and provide an alternative to entrenched authoritarianism, one that will not be impacted by the disengagement of disaffected citizens. In fact, Algeria’s authoritarians appreciate such disengagement and benefit from it, especially that they can count on the apparent support of cynical Islamists who market themselves as the real defenders of the people’s interests.

Perhaps Algeria’s Hirak activists should learn lessons from similar protest movements in Lebanon and Iraq that also started in 2019 against entrenched orders. Neither movement proposed a firm, detailed, and clear reform program nor elected a dedicated leadership to carry its program to fruition. Lebanon’s protesters of 2019, who were multi-confessional, secular, young, and believers in purposeful and peaceful change, have been beaten down by leaders of entrenched political parties and their supporters, only to see their country sliding into the proverbial abyss. Iraq’s similar protesting cohorts have also seen their hopes derailed and their country becoming the playpen of Iran-friendly militias and politicians. Indeed, Algeria’s Hirak activists must decide if they want to see what they originally advocated come true or to let the established order and its supporters run away with the fruits of the day.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here


i Source is in Arabic.