Algeria’s Upcoming Elections Are Not the End of the Road

Algeria’s military and political leaders hope that the North African country’s voters will endorse their declared plan for gradual change and participate, en masse, in presidential elections on December 12 to help revive institutional life following months of protests and demonstrations. However, the protesters’ rejection of the elections and their insistence on the wholesale dismantlement of the old regime and the resignation of its personalities promise to deny the election at least part of its legitimacy. To be sure, the current stalemate does not augur well for the country’s civic peace, which requires serious de-escalation and compromise if Algeria hopes to both end its upheaval and address the grave conditions that set the stage for it.

The current round of the presidential election is already late in taking place; it was supposed to have been held on July 4, some 90 days after the resignation of the former president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The Algerian Constitutional Council scrapped the July 4 poll because of the lack of suitable candidates. With the approval of the powerful military institution––led by Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Saleh––the election was postponed until December 12. Abdelkader Bensaleh, formerly the head of the Council of State, continues to assume the position of president in an acting capacity after Bouteflika’s forced resignation on April 2.

Campaigning officially began on November 17 after the election commission certified five candidates, all in one form or another associated with Bouteflika’s regime despite their insistence on being different from the former president. Of the five, two stand out and are considered the stronger candidates: Ali Benflis, who once served Bouteflika as prime minister but then broke with him and challenged him unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2014; and Abdelmajid Tebboune, who also was prime minister for barely 90 days and was dismissed when he ran afoul of the president’s inner circle. The three others are Azzedine Mihoubi, a former culture minister; Abdelkader Bengrina, previously a minister of tourism; and Abdelaziz Belaid, formerly a senior member of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and now the leader of the al-Mustaqbal (Future) Party.

Reproducing the Old Regime?

Needless to say, with this coterie of candidates, the presidential election may simply resuscitate the regime of the so-called pouvoir, the alliance of power in the country that includes FLN leaders, business tycoons close to the state, and military and security services. General Gaid Saleh has gone out of his way to assure the public about the process and declared that the military institution is not interested in parties and politicians. But the absence of alternative candidates from outside the traditional circles of power, coupled with the protesters’ continued rejection of the election, has cast doubt on whether the exercise will be enough to assuage Algerians’ desire for a new system of governance that can build a second Algerian republic.

The presidential election may simply resuscitate the regime of the so-called pouvoir, the alliance of power in the country that includes FLN leaders, business tycoons close to the state, and military and security services.

Indeed, hardly anyone can claim that the election will bring a new head of state who will quickly assist in the progress of a radical transition from Algeria’s old power structure to a truly open political system that reflects the wishes of today’s leaderless protesters, most of whom are young and all yearn for a voice in governance. The best the new president can do––if he so desires and if he is allowed the freedom of action by the military institution and other current vestiges of political power––is merely to lead a project of opening up state institutions to voices thus far prevented from participating in government. But it would be folly to believe that this process is easy or clear specifically because of the vested interests that have controlled and benefited from the state for decades. It also would be naive to have full faith that the military institution––that today holds the country in its own hands––is ready to limit its influence in politics if a true democratic experiment is allowed to start.

With contestants for the December 12 round belonging to the current political structure, the military institution should fear no change in its standing or position vis-à-vis other sectors of the state and society. This is specifically why General Gaid Saleh is adamant about holding the election, no matter the opinion of the protesters who were the original instigators of change from the ossified Bouteflika leadership. The question has thus become one of turnout as the protesters have declared their rejection of the poll. The new president will need to enjoy the legitimacy of a majority in a high turnout election to be able to rule and establish a new political order––something Gaid Saleh cannot assure. If protesters’ demands for the departure of the former regime’s oligarchs are not satisfied, the new president would very likely start his tenure already wounded and unable to correct whatever ills led to the current stalemate.

On the other hand, if the winner of the election decides to be bold enough to challenge the military, his continuation in power could very well be jeopardized. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the Algerian military would not repeat the Egyptian experiment of 2011-2013. After Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces shepherded a political transition and allowed free parliamentary and presidential elections, Egypt’s generals supported a coup in 2013 against the natural trajectory of the process. That the Muslim Brotherhood was the beneficiary in both elections was hardly the only factor in the coup because the military’s interests were assured and guaranteed by the administration of the late President Mohamed Morsi. In addition to anti-Brotherhood agitation from regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, what mattered for the Egyptian generals was the uncertainty that they someday may be sidelined. In Algeria, such a scenario is not far from being possible, given the military’s position in the state and its institutions.

If the winner of the election decides to be bold enough to challenge the military, his continuation in power could very well be jeopardized.

The Responsibility of the Protesters

Whatever the circumstances of holding the presidential poll or facing the military’s (un)readiness to radically change Algerian politics, the young and leaderless demonstrators should not be ignored—as both potential voters and real instigators of the events of the last ten months. Their protests have lasted for over 40 weeks during which hardly any violence was committed, except by security forces. In fact, the protesters insisted on peaceful demonstrations to assuage the security services’ worries about law and order and to send a message that the cause is to establish a state of laws that would fight corruption, enable everyone’s participation in politics, and defend rights and freedoms.

But the protesters’ rejection of the election and apparent total distrust of the military’s intentions may shortchange their cause or distance them from influencing matters since it appears that choosing a new president will take place on December 12, come hell or high water. Hugh Roberts writes in Jadaliyya that the protesters may have lost an opportunity to influence events because of their rejection of the election, as the military appears to be organized and ready for the challenge of leading Algeria’s transition to a new president. Rejecting the election has prevented them from effectively using the constitution’s provisions about the people’s centrality in choosing the chief executive of the country.

Roberts is at least partly right: no matter the power of the street and the poignancy of the protesters’ resilience since last February, being on the outside in a country under the rule of a strong military necessitates serious compromise. Like all transitions from authoritarianism in developing nations since the 1970s, Algeria needs a transitional period during which regime hardliners are assuaged by the compromises that regime moderates can achieve with those demanding change. The election may be the only option that can assure law and order and provide a mechanism for gradual change from decades of single-party rule.

The protesters should be satisfied, provisionally and partially, by what they have been able to achieve thus far in the very difficult mission of change from rule by the FLN and state-affiliated businessmen. Indeed, their steady and stubborn insistence on continuing to press the different elements of the pouvoir regime has produced tangible results. Many political, security, and business leaders who preyed on the state and the people for decades have been jailed or sidelined. But the protests have not scored any significant victory—except for maintaining unity among demonstrators—since last July. Many officials of the old regime remain in their posts, including Bensaleh and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, while the military gains good marks for maintaining peace and stability and apparently convinces the international community that it is rational, capable, and well-intentioned. If public perception is an important part of political management, and it is, then General Gaid Saleh and his cohorts may be stealing the show.

The protesters should be satisfied, provisionally and partially, by what they have been able to achieve thus far in the very difficult mission of change from rule by the FLN and state-affiliated businessmen.

The neighboring Sudanese example stands out as a reminder to the Algerian protesters to accept less than their optimal demand of quickly dismantling the entire political edifice. In Khartoum, the pressure from the street, like that in Algiers, was able to convince the officers of the military institution that, first, the longtime leader is dispensable and, second, that they can lead a process of change from authoritarianism. Granted, the two countries’ political histories and types of economy produced different elites and political philosophies and cultures. But what is uniform is the fact that the interests of the military institutions are the same: to remain relevant and to preserve a political space to influence events. With a military institution in Algeria that has so far refrained from massive-scale repression, it is arguably possible to trust it to facilitate a process of change that can generally be as equitable as the situation warrants. However, it is essential that the protesters in Algeria remain vigilant and continue to exert the necessary pressure that Sudan’s demonstrators applied to assure a similar graduated outcome.

Tunisia is another example to emulate despite the radically different political circumstances. Late President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali did not inherit a regime claiming the legitimacy of a long revolutionary struggle for liberation, nor was the Tunisian military, as an institution, close to his person. Repression was the purview of a secret police that jailed dissidents and kept watch on society. It was the demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Tunisians that turned the tables on ben Ali and launched what is today a promising, albeit acrimonious, transition to democracy. Indeed, the common feature of the Tunisian, Sudanese, Algerian, and now Lebanese and Iraqi protests is the adamant adherence of demonstrators to the rightness of their cause of fighting the old vestiges of corruption, bad governance, and betrayal of the people’s trust. Algerian protesters can maintain their vigilance, no matter the military-imposed presidential election, until they realize their ultimate goal of creating a regime and government that address their demands for change.

Contours of a Compromise

It is doubtful that the upcoming presidential election will bring forth a presidency and a regime that would shepherd a quick transition to democracy and fully eradicate the malfeasance that governed Algerian politics for decades. It is also not certain that the new president will enjoy the needed legitimacy of a high-turnout election, given the protesters’ abstention from the vote. Neither should the absence of millions of Algerians from the voting booth be a moment of triumph for the military, the elites of the FLN regime, or their supporters. With the protesters likely continuing to object to renewing the old formula, whoever is elected as president will remain ineffective just when the country is looking for a steady hand after months of upheaval. To be sure, there is an abundant need for serious compromise. Neither the protesters nor the regime and its military can accomplish their goals without attempting to address the other’s wishes and worries.

There is an abundant need for serious compromise. Neither the protesters nor the regime and its military can accomplish their goals without attempting to address the other’s wishes and worries.  

The protesters––who cannot stop the election––would do well to agree to allow a new president a honeymoon period to see if he will listen to their demands for a clear change from old politics. With formal institutions outside of their reach, protesters might consider combining their sustained protests with a willingness to compromise on certain issues—instead of a wholesale rejection of negotiations. After all, their rightful and peaceful protests will remain their best source of power and the most direct implement for realizing change. Moreover, the resignation of a septuagenarian president and the arrest of a few corrupt officials are, alone, not enough to produce positive results; rather, only sustained pressure on the regime will likely achieve the desired outcome.

On the other hand, a new president would do well to start his tenure by striking a tone of independence from the old centers of power: the military, the FLN, and the state-affiliated businessmen. He could quickly use whatever goodwill he commands with military officers to assuage their concerns about their institution’s corporate interests. But his best bet remains in beginning long and purposeful negotiations with the street over the mechanisms of free parliamentary elections, constitutional change, and distributional economics so that the youth may find reason to hope for their future. Short of that, a new president will remain a symbol of the old pouvoir and will fail to garner the needed support to bring Algeria to the civic peace it so deserves.

And since Algeria’s potential compromise is a matter for Algerians alone to reach, it behooves regional and international actors to provide needed support—but only without undue interference or influence. Indeed, Algeria is too important to fail in a region where Tunisia’s democracy is trying to consolidate, Libya’s inter-factional disagreements are threatening the country’s long-term peace, and extremism’s menace is heightening every day. If Tunisia’s competing political forces are able to adhere to general principles of national compromise and Sudan’s military and civilian elites have discovered a working formula for cooperation, so too can Algeria’s protesters and regime stalwarts arrive at a condominium that serves everyone’s interests.