Algeria: will the 2019 elections save the situation?

Summary: a slate of ageing candidates in the upcoming presidential election is unlikely to satisfy the street as hundreds of thousands of Algerians continue peaceful protests.

We are grateful to an Arab Digest member from Algeria for the article below on the upcoming elections in Algeria, which are due to be held next Thursday 12 December.

Popular protests against inequality and corruption are currently roiling economies around the globe. Although Hong Kong has been grabbing most of the headlines internationally of late, the Middle East and North Africa are by no means immune, as Jeremy Bowen reports in a recent video for BBC News. In this region, it is currently Iran, Iraq and Lebanon which are attracting most of the attention — in the case of the first two, not least because of the large number of fatalities on the streets.

In the midst of all this, it should not be forgotten that Algeria has been in the forefront. Indeed, it has been witnessing massive — and very largely peaceful — popular protests, known as the hirak movement, more or less continuously since February 2019.

Ahmed Gaid Salah, Chief of Staff of the Algerian People’s National Army

These started as a response to the authorities’ decision that the 82-year-old then President Abdelaziz Bouteflika should run for a fifth term of office despite his being a long-term absentee from the political scene and visibly diminished in his capabilities since his 2013 stroke.  However, the protests were not aimed simply at one individual so much as ‘the system’ as a whole as, for the first time since the 1990s, Algerians gathered in millions clearly to express their deep desire for political change. Under pressure from ‘the street’, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah (who was first appointed to this position by Mr Bouteflika himself in 2004 and who is widely seen as the country’s most important powerbroker today) effectively forced the President’s resignation on 2 April. In accordance with Article 102 of the Constitution (but also with the clear support of the military), the head of the Senate, Abdelkader Bensalah, was appointed Acting President by parliament a week later pending elections which, according to the Constitution, should have been held within 90 days.

While the street protests were clearly justified and brave since at the beginning, nine months later Algeria finds itself still at an impasse. Rather than engineering real change, the hirak movement seems to have driven the country into a protracted political crisis where a still deepening divide between those in power and ‘the people’ is making itself more and more visible on a daily basis thanks to the lack of real debate aimed at finding a solution. Indeed, since the appointment of Mr Bensalah, with the sole mission under the Constitution to organize Presidential elections, such elections have been postponed twice —  18 April because of the protests and then 4 July thanks to a lack of candidates.

Finally, the 2019 Algerian presidential election is now due to take place on 12 December, with the Constitutional Council confirming and accepting the files of five candidates among the 23 applicants. The five, announced on 2 November, are: former Prime Ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune (73 years old) and Ali Benflis (75); former Culture Minister Azzedine Mihoubi (60); former Tourism Minister Abdelkader Bengrine (57); and MD Abdelaziz Belaid (56), head of the El Mostakbal Movement party.

Looking at them collectively and individually, one cannot help having a deep feeling of déjà vu, especially while listening to some of their speeches since the start of the campaign. Furthermore, four of the five candidates served in former governments, where their achievements remain questionable at worst or of no impact whatsoever at best; one —Abdelkader Bengrine — is focused on women’s celibacy as his solution to Algeria’s problems; and two are over 70 which, with all due respect to the individuals concerned, is widely seen as not what is really needed in a country of 42 million inhabitants where the under-35s account for over 70% of the population.

In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that, at the 37th Friday weekly manifestation on 1 November, around 200,000 demonstrators called for radical change to the political system, the dismissal of all those currently in power and a boycott of the 12 December election, describing the latter as “les élections d’un pouvoir corrompu est un piège à cons”.

Such a response underlines the reality that Algeria, under its next President, urgently needs to renew itself by reimagining a political system in a manner which learns from past mistakes, better to serve ‘the many’ rather than simply ‘the few’. This can only be achieved by: (i) looking ahead instead of being stuck in a past; (ii) embracing the hirak and respecting Algerians who are finally rejecting autocracy and kleptocracy and fighting for a better life; (iii) undoing the status quo by putting an end to clientelism as well as corruption; and (iv) ensuring social justice and a government which is genuinely accountable to the electorate as a whole.

Considering the enormous challenges the country has been, and is still, facing, only a strong candidate who is independent of vested interests can hope to make headway in these respects. In particular, in a country with a huge youth majority, s/he needs to be in tune with the legitimate aspirations of Algeria’s younger generations. Not least because, as things stand, despite a decline in total joblessness, youth and women’s unemployment remains high with a jobless rate of 21.5% among the 15–24 age group.

Exacerbating matters is the general economic situation Algeria faces. It remains highly dependent on hydrocarbon revenue for the budget and for access to foreign currency, i.e. 60% of state budget and 94% of total exports. The IMF estimates Algeria’s fiscal breakeven price for oil at $116 per barrel and its external breakeven at $83, i.e. far above the current or foreseeable range despite the efforts of the Opec+ group to push the price upwards. Foreign currency reserves have fallen almost 60% since 2014 and are expected, according to the most recent Oxford Economics Country Economic Forecast, to close 2019 at just 16 months of imports.

In short, the time when energy prices were high enough to meet the cost of subsidies and social programmes which helped to ensure social stability appears to be over for good; and the need for far-reaching economic diversification is clear. However, this involves both those currently in power and those supporting the hirak movement coming together to make difficult political and economic decisions

Today, we cannot be sure if the 12 December presidential election will prove the solution to Algeria’s problems. But keeping the biggest country in Africa in such a vulnerable political, economic and geopolitical position and with a Constitution that vests ultimate power in the decision-making  process solely in the Head of State does not seem the wisest way to try to move forward.

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