Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Rachid Nekkaz, Algeria’s Unconventional Politician

Rachid Nekkaz
Rachid Nekkaz. Photo Agence Vu

Rachid Nekkaz is an Algerian businessman, activist and former presidential candidate. He is one of the few opposition leaders who currently enjoy popularity among young voters. In a country where most political decision makers are over 60, 44-year-old Nekkaz has been able to connect with young people, engaging with them tirelessly using social media, innovative initiatives and consistent messaging.

Born on 9 January 1972 in France to Algerian immigrant parents, he studied history and philosophy at the Sorbonne university before making his fortune with a tech start-up. He later diversified into real estate and investment. His journey as an activist began in Paris, where he cofounded a number of associations to promote electronic voting and education.

He first came to public attention as a potential candidate for the 2007 French presidential elections. However, he failed to secure the 500 mayoral endorsements needed, falling short by 13. He claimed that his supporters had been under pressure to withdraw their support, and that his campaign office had been broken into and a computer with a database of his political supporters had been stolen.

He subsequently ran unsuccessfully in the 2007 legislative elections and in the 2008 municipal elections.

He made headlines in 2010, when he established a €1 million fund to pay the fines imposed on women who choose to wear the Islamic veil in countries, including France, where it is against the law to do so in public.

He presented himself for election again in 2011, standing this time for the Socialist Party, but he did not make it past the primaries.

Algerian Presidential Hopeful

In 2013, Nekkaz renounced his French citizenship in order to nominate himself for Algeria’s 2014 presidential elections. Some of the issues on which his campaign focused were:

  • Moving the capital to Djelfa, a city about 300km inland, in an attempt to relieve overcrowding in the current capital, Algiers.
  • Abolishing military service and establishing a professional army.
  • Providing a 10,000 Algerian dinar allowance for poor families.
  • Donating his presidential salary.

Nekkaz emerged as a modern candidate who believes in the power of young people and Algeria’s economic potential, thanks to its human and natural resources beyond hydrocarbons. He made full use of social media and his Facebook page has almost one million likes, not far behind President Abdelaziz Bouteflika whose page has 1.03 million likes.

However, many doubted his intentions, given his lack of success in French politics, and accused him of being out of touch with the realities of ordinary Algerians. He was even ridiculed on national television for his poor Arabic skills and not being able to sing the national anthem, a must for patriotic Algerians.

On 5 March 2014, he failed to present the signatures required to validate his candidacy. He announced that the bus carrying the signatures, driven by his brother, had disappeared moments before the deadline. Although the constitutional council gave him extra time, he was unable to recover them. Many speculated that he had never had the required number of signatures in the first place and had invented the disappearance story to avoid political embarrassment. However, a sit-in he organized in central Algiers to protest the incident was well attended.

Nonetheless, Nekkaz capitalized on his campaign by founding a political party called the Youth and Change Movement. The party is yet to be granted a license by the Algerian authorities.

Walk for Change

Since 2014, Nekkaz’s popularity in Algeria, mainly among the youth, has increased. His ‘cool’ attitude, which contrasts sharply with most politicians’ rather formal and conservative approach, has undoubtedly helped his cause. Instead of the traditional political speeches and heated rallies, Nekkaz has relied on his accessibility to the public and unconventional initiatives. After building a reputation as a human rights activist in Europe, he launched a walking initiative, travelling by foot all over Algeria with a group of supporters, stopping in remote villages and eating and sleeping in locals’ modest houses. He walked 1,300km to Ain Saleh in the extreme south, where he joined an anti-fracking protest. He later walked another 700km to the east of the country, calling it the walk for peaceful change.

The initiative was so popular that people started associating ‘walking’ with him in small jokes. He also led an anti-corruption campaign, protesting outside Algerian officials’ expensive properties in France and demanding they reveal the source of their income. More recently, when Algerian authorities banned entrepreneur and media mogul Issad Rebrab from buying El Khabar media group, citing a law that prevents a single entity from owning more than one daily newspaper, Nekkaz offered to buy the company in solidarity with Rebrab, even though the two businessmen have no apparent connection.

Despite the widespread lack of trust Algerians have in their politicians, Nekkaz has been able to connect with the grassroots, especially unemployed youth. The scepticism towards him has eased, thanks to his consistent messaging and refusal to compromise his beliefs. He has regularly been pranked on national television, but his reactions, even when he was unaware he was on camera, has convinced viewers that his love for his country is genuine.

His unconventional initiatives have not only positioned him as a man of the people, they have also increased his understanding of Algerian society, countering frequent criticisms that he is a rich, out-of-touch foreigner. Unfortunately for him, since the new constitution bans Algerians who have lived abroad in the last ten years from running for office, his political chances are slim. With his party’s license still pending, he has announced that he will organize his supporters to stand as independents.

As Algerians prepare for the 2017 legislative and municipal elections, Nekkaz, whose name in Algerian Arabic means the jumping man, will need a long run-up if he hopes to take his political activism to the next level.

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