Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Following Election of New President, What Next for Algeria?

Algeria demos
Algerian anti-government protesters chant slogans as they gather with national flags during a mass demonstration in the centre of the Algerian capital Algiers on December 17, 2019. Photo: RYAD KRAMDI / AFP

Algeria has been plagued by persistent anti-government protests since February 2019, resulting in the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April and de facto military rule up to the 12 December presidential election. With the election results failing to satisfy the mass movement seeking real change, the new administration’s next moves will be crucial for the country’s stability.

The election had a record low turnout of 39.9 per cent, according to the constitutional council, although the actual turnout is thought to be far lower, according to Algerian analyst Moussaab Hammoudi who cited a government source.

“It’s clear that the officially announced turnout is completely false,” he told The New York Times. “We saw that nobody came out to vote. We’re used to these completely falsified elections. That’s why we didn’t put forward a candidate.”

Abdelmadjid Tebboune was declared the new leader with 58.15 per cent of the vote, putting him far ahead of his not-so-close rival Abdelkader Bengrine from the Elbinaa Islamist party, who won 17.38 per cent of the vote.

Protesters rejected Tebboune’s win. Shouts of “The election was fixed! It wasn’t legitimate! The march will continue!” were heard at a rally after the vote, according to an AFP journalist in the capital Algiers.

The protest movement, known as the Hirak, called on Algerians to boycott the election. In some areas this was possible such as in Kabyle, a Berber stronghold. The country’s Berbers have played a central role in challenging the status quo.

Opponents have claimed that the election and proposed candidates were a ploy by the establishment to consolidate power, and the only way to move forward is through dialogue with the Hirak.

All five candidates had links to Bouteflika, who ruled for 20 years even after suffering a serious stroke in 2013. A former prime minister, Tebboune is also thought to be close to army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, who emerged as Algeria’s strongman after Bouteflika was forced to step down. Salah attempted to distance himself from the old regime by introducing a major anti-corruption campaign against Bouteflika’s inner circle, including his brother Said Bouteflika.

Salah, who died of a heart attack on 23 December, had been a proponent of pushing through an election as soon as possible to break the impasse since Bouteflika’s departure. But protesters argued that the election was simply a way for the regime to gain credibility before moving forward with a system that will not lead to any real transformation.

Lamenting that the old government of the National Liberation Front (FLN) has not changed since it took power after independence in 1962, protesters have vowed to continue demonstrating and to keep demonstrations peaceful despite human rights groups recording increased repression against the Hirak and the Berbers.

More than 300 protesters have been arrested since June, more than 120 of whom have been either sentenced, sent to prison or kept in pre-trial detention, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, which was created on 26 August to defend arrested protesters.

Analysts now say that not listening to the people will deepen the chasm between them and the regime.

To a certain extent, Tebboune’s election makes sense because of his former position but also because as prime minister he was dismissed for criticizing the president’s clan, which enabled him to distance himself from the old regime during his election campaign. However, this may not be enough if protesters continue to reject his leadership.

According to Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, and Alessia Melcangi, an assistant professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, Tebboune should be open to a serious dialogue with the protesters and their proposed reforms while creating ‘new avenues of participation for the population’.

‘The plain continuation of the status quo is a clear recipe for a future of turmoil and instability,’ they argued.

Both protesters and analysts fear the situation will get worse. As reported in the Financial Times, one protester said, “This will not be the end of the crisis — this is the start. Is Tebboune even free to make his own decisions? He’s just part of the gang.”

The threat of increased violence and repression is looming despite the protest movement, which is made up of diverse classes and age groups, being peaceful.

“They can repress activists or a political party but not a people,” human rights lawyer Moustapha Bouchachi told the Financial Times. “It will be hard to justify to the world the use of violence against peaceful people.”

“One thing remains sure,” said Dalia Ghanem, an Algerian political analyst and resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, speaking to Fanack, “throughout these nine months of peaceful protests, we’ve seen a pattern of escalation from the security forces.”

She added, “If the new president wants to build a modicum of legitimacy, he should stop this pattern and avoid an escalation. However, the option of violence cannot be ruled out.”

To move forward, Ghanem also emphasized the need to release the protesters currently being detained.

Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East and North Africa analyst for Stratfor, agreed that a new clampdown is likely to occur but the government is also likely to avoid outright violence as much as possible.

“They know better than anyone how especially inflammatory this would be in Algeria, given the country’s recent history of political violence,” she told Fanack.

While gaining the trust of the protest movement will be challenging and will take time, she continued, to do so Tebboune must continually orient his decision making and discourse towards the priorities of the people and not the political elite. “Though he may gain the trust of some, he will never gain the trust of them all,” she said.

The international community could also help to steer the nation towards greater democracy by providing advice and support for the economy, which has been stagnant for several years, to help ease tensions.

However, Tebboune’s next moves may well be decisive, notably who he will select for his cabinet, who will replace Salah and what Tebboune’s priorities will be.

The new administration’s economic policies will also be crucial, according to Hawthorne. “Tebboune has to maintain the country’s hefty welfare state while also patching up long-term structural imbalances and inefficiencies, and that is a difficult balance to strike.”

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