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Algeria: Six months after Bouteflika, it’s the same as it ever was

By Alexander Brown

The lofty dreams of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Algeria have begun to lose their passion. Protests continue on a weekly basis, but the amount of attendees have been steadily decreasing from their peak in the first days of the movement, when claims of two percent of the total population spontaneously joining in public protests to force the resignation of then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika seemed both probable and the natural result of decades of corruption, abuse, and official economic mismanagement for the personal gain of top government officials. Now, the reality is setting in for many Algerians, especially the ones who were spurred to action in the early days of the movement, that their protests were only good enough to dislodge the members of the government that weren’t expecting it, like Bouteflika and his allies.

The man who replaced him, Abdelkader Bensalah, as interim president, was cognizant of public distrust of most of the current political figures in Algeria (made more obvious by the fact that the National Liberation Front, the sole legal political party in Algeria until 1989 and both synonymous with and discredited by Bouteflikas fall, has been hedging its bets by giving up token parliamentary positions to politicians from its allied opposition parties, like Islamist MP Slimane Chenine’s election as leader of the parliament, as a sop to public opinion) and gained the backing of the military. More importantly, for the existence of the interim government, he allied himself with General Ahmed Salah, the commander of the armed forces whose public break from the government reportedly dissuaded president Bouteflika from staying and making a fight for the presidency. General Salah has been attempting to convince protesters of the need to extend Bensalah’s authority (his term as interim president officially ended July 9th) to legitimatize the actions of the now constitutionally illegal interim government in light of their claimed inability to hold “free and fair elections”. One of the main demands of the protest movement was for a free election of the new president in six months, and the deadline has passed, giving the protesters a large boost in general support and discontent about the interim government that unfortunately has not shown much staying power or encouraged action on the scale of the anti-Bouteflika protests of early 2019.

The protesters and many normal Algerians know that General Salah is the true power behind the interim government, and while they are not particularly fond of him, have acknowledged his actions to address some of the grievances of the protest movement, especially with his crackdown on many well-known establishment politicians, generals, and “private” businessmen who were known to be corrupt and for “conspiring against the state”, a nice catchall term that means nothing objectively but is understood by everybody. Unfortunately, those arrests were not followed by many successful convictions, and the interim government’s inability to find qualified leadership for positions occupied by those corrupt officials have only served to increase suspicion of Salah, all of which makes it more difficult for protesters to take his claims of logistical issues in organizing new elections at face value, even if they may be true. His announcement of September 2nd, calling on the electoral commission to schedule a national election for this year, could be seen as a positive move for the protest movement, but it also casts the commission as a convenient scapegoat if they fail to set a date by September 15th, the deadline Salah set in his announcement.

Algerians are also concerned about history, both theirs, and the history of the region, when it comes to electing new leadership. The Egyptian example is prominent in everybody’s minds, where a mass public protest movement took down an authoritarian leader and held elections, leading to the election of a conservative Islamic government that cracked down on the rights of the pro-democracy movement, forcing the military to intervene and return the country to its political status quo. Since most of the opposition political parties with any organization and support in Algeria are conservative Islamic parties, and Algeria in general has a majority Islamic population, these concerns are likely to be at the forefront of the interim governments fears. The Algerian civil war in the 1990’s was brought about by radical Islamic terrorists attempting to install an Islamic government,which in most part found little to no support from the general Islamic population in the country, and the military gained its prominence and no small amount of respect in leading Algeria to success in the war. However, the legacy lives on in both sides, with the interim government likely concerned that an Algerian Moslem Brotherhood variant might rise to power in an election, especially with the lack of support for FLN and the interim government, and the protesters are afraid of the military taking control of the government permanently, like former General Al-Sisi did in Egypt after the military deposed the Moslem Brotherhood. Neither side is likely to find much common ground between those two historical perspectives, and thus a compromise is unlikely, leaving the status quo as the most likely result to endure.

While General Salah may be telling the truth about the countries inability to hold a free and fair election in such a short amount of time, he likely does appreciate that keeping the protesters in a holding pattern can only benefit him with how the situation is currently balanced. The Algerian military is not likely to engage in violence against the protest movement, since many of its stated goals (the end of high levels of corruption, improving economic opportunities in the country, specifically for youth, and election reform) have resonated with both enlisted soldiers and junior officers, while many of the high level military officials have either been arrested or are looking to ride the wave of discontent without risking their positions. The protest movement has also been consistent in its commitment to non-violent forms of protest, which makes it more difficult to order any sort of military action against them, compared to if the crowds were rioting, assaulting soldiers and threatening general stability. This could change if the protest movement sees itself losing support and decides more radical action is necessary, but for now, violence serves the goals of neither side, making the situation tense, but more stable than most other post-upheaval nations. This is in itself a win considering the historical trend of political instability leading to violent clashes, especially when there is a high probability of sustained violent clashes provoking a civil war, with the remnants of the Islamic terror groups responsible for the last war in the lightly populated south using the instability to attempt to gain relevance again.

As the stand-off continues, the possibility of a dramatic action of either side of the equation, either a sudden free election, or the imposition of martial law and General Salah or another military official taking official control of the government seems to decrease in probability. The most likely events that will end up occurring down the road is that the protest movement goes out with a whimper, rather than a bang, a vilified but politically stable Bensalah remains interim president until the FLN can ensure an election allowing them to remain the majority power, with suitable offerings made to provide the appearance of change to the public, and an continued general decline in the economic and political spheres, leaving Algeria mostly the way it was before, a struggling anocracy in a underdeveloped corner of the world, another victim of the rapidly dissolving dreams of the Arab Spring era.

Alexander Brown is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University. All views expressed in the article are his own.

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