Argument

After 8 Months on the Streets, Protesters in Algeria Aren’t Giving Up

Citizens have been promised new elections. But they are looking for more fundamental change.

An Algerian woman protests during a demonstration in Algiers.
An Algerian woman wearing the national flag as a headscarf chants during a demonstration against the ruling class in the capital, Algiers, on Sept. 27. Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images

On paper, being president of Algeria is a job opportunity like few others. You’ll rule over one of Africa’s largest countries. You’ll likely enjoy a long career, aided by some of the continent’s largest hydrocarbon reserves to help you manage your budget. Because of the country’s overly centralized system, you’ll get to appoint everyone, from ministers and judges to several managers of state companies and other institutions. Also, unusual for an era obsessed with youth, the only age discrimination you’ll face in the selection process will tend to favor septuagenarians and over. The job is currently vacant, and, much to the chagrin of Algerians themselves, applications have reopened.

The only catch is that you don’t actually preside over the country. In reality, the position is closer to hotel night manager than head of state: You’ll be in charge of things, but you won’t actually get the final say on most key issues. On paper, Algeria is ruled under a presidential system. But since gaining independence from France in 1962, the country has been run from the shadows by an opaque jumble of army chiefs, secret services officers, and older politicians. Algerians know this assortment of forces as le pouvoir, “the power,” and for the past six decades they have been subjected to its violent whims, its internal power grabs, and its complete lack of accountability.

Now, after nearly eight months of a peaceful civilian uprising that has rattled the country’s power structure, Algeria’s rulers have strengthened their push for new presidential elections, which they hope will quell protests. Following continued pressure from the army, interim President Abdelkader Bensalah announced the poll is to be held on Dec. 12. Bensalah—who took over after the army pushed out Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April in response to growing protests—has long been a part of the regime. He has been allowed to remain in his temporary posting by the army, despite having far overstayed his constitutional mandate.

Soon after the date for December’s election was set, on Sept. 15, Algerians came out for another round of Friday protests across several cities. It was the 31st consecutive week of demonstrations. Once again, they rejected elections and chanted for the ouster of the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has become the face of the army’s grip on power. In all likelihood, protesters will continue to refuse elections because even though they toppled the already frail Bouteflika, the movement has done nothing to ease the army’s control over the structures of political power. Electing a new president under the existing system of governance would just put another face on the existing regime, maintaining the military’s grip over the country.

Instead, what many Algerians continue to demand on the street is a reshaping of the entire governing system. What would real change look like? A transitional period that includes the election of a constitutional assembly that would work on a new legal foundation for the country—make it a civilian state instead of a military one, as demonstrators regularly demand across the country’s cities.

The generals have been trying to portray the last eight months as a de facto political transition: The people protested, the president was pushed to resign, a purge put several of the former regime’s apparatchiks and businessmen in jail, and now the people are ready to democratically elect a new president. This narrative serves the country’s military rulers, because the army has chosen or approved every single one of Algeria’s presidents since independence.

Over the past several months, le pouvoir has employed an array of tricks in an attempt to quell demonstrations: It has stoked regional animosity between Berbers and Arabs, violently repressed protests, and arrested opposition figures. Authorities have also moved to prevent protesters from other parts of the country to join Friday demonstrations in the capital. Protests have remained peaceful. But the dangers of an escalation are everywhere. Added violence would allow the army to justify a severe clampdown, as it has done in the past.

At the same time, Salah has increasingly turned to the language of the insecure despot: In public speeches, he equates any opposition to military rule as a lack of patriotism. Alternating between threats of a more muscular response and a commitment to ensure the army’s full support for the people, Salah is trying to convince Algerians that this time, elections will be fair. The regime has announced the creation of a new, supposedly independent elections commission to oversee polls, which have so far been under the purview of the Ministry of Interior.

But if there is one thing that Algerians have learned through almost 60 years of military authoritarianism, it is that they should not trust the regime’s promises. If army rulers were indeed supportive of a real change in Algeria, they wouldn’t have felt the need to arrest opposition figures and peaceful demonstrators over the past several months.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Algeria’s current predicament is how far the generals ruling the country have been left behind by events on the street. For them, it is a question of survival. But expecting Algerians to accept new elections without any real change in the way power is structured is a naive approach to resolving the stalemate. Besides a new head of state, the country needs an independent judiciary and institutions that work for the population instead of supporting the interests of an entrenched political-military oligarchy. Algerian demonstrators are unlikely to just go back home after proving they are capable of mounting a peaceful siege around their aging regime.

Algeria badly needs a legitimate president. But it shouldn’t be the current establishment, void of any popular legitimacy, overseeing the hiring procedures. By attempting to shove another regime-appointed manager down people’s throats, the country’s ruling generals won’t solve the current crisis. The best they can hope for is a brief respite before the next one.

Francisco Serrano is a writer and emerging-markets analyst.

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