Argument

Algeria’s Election Won’t Save Its Democracy

In the presidential vote this week, citizens looking for change will have few good options to pick from.

An Algerian protester holds up a red card during an anti-government demonstration in Algiers on Dec. 11.
An Algerian protester holds up a red card during an anti-government demonstration in Algiers on Dec. 11. Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images

On Dec. 12, Algerians will go the polls to elect a new president. The vote is already proving controversial. Over the last year, a major protest movement—called Hirak—has been taking to the streets weekly to demand the ouster from politics of the country’s established elite. All of the five candidates up for election have strong ties to the establishment, and Hirak is urging people to avoid the polls.

Mohamed Charfi, the president of Algeria’s election authority and a former minister of justice, is not concerned about the legitimacy of the vote. Last week, he declared that Hirak protesters (who number at least in the hundreds of thousands) are far outnumbered by supporters of holding the vote. Hassan Rabehi, a government spokesperson, likewise claimed last week that he was confident in the “massive” participation of the Algerian people. And in the upper chamber of Parliament, Salah Eddine Dahmoune, the minister of the interior, alluded to dissidents as “traitors, mercenaries, homosexuals.” He later partially retracted the statement by saying that he wasn’t talking about the protesters but about those who permitted the European Parliament and nongovernmental organizations to intervene in the country’s internal affairs (the parliament recently passed a resolution criticizing Algeria’s human rights record).

In an apparent bid to boost the election’s democratic credentials, on Dec. 6, the same day as a massive wave of protests throughout the country, the five candidates took part in a live debate on national television. The spoke in the vaguest terms about the economy without touching the sensitive subjects of the army’s role in politics, repression, and this year’s wave of political detentions. All of them served under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who resigned earlier this year in the face of mass protests. Two of them, Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, are former prime ministers.

It is not surprising that many Algerian viewers came away with little hope that Algeria’s next leader would promote reform in the country, which is facing high unemployment (about 12 percent), especially among the young (29 percent), and where corruption is widespread. The country is also highly dependent on hydrocarbons—and therefore on oil and gas prices, which have been relatively low. Now there’s deep political unrest to boot.

“People are determined not to move backward,” Ghilas Aïnouche, a political cartoonist in his 30s told Foreign Policy. “I see their determination growing each day. We can’t stay home and cross our arms while we’re sinking into a dictatorship that is more dangerous than the one before Bouteflika left.” Public discontent with the upcoming vote has meant that several campaign rallies had barely any attendees other than an excess of security officials. Several were interrupted by Hirak protesters. Voter turnout this week will likely be extremely low, which will undercut the results’ political legitimacy. In all probability, the protests will continue into the new year and beyond.

In response, Algerian authorities have used the usual tools to try to maintain the political status quo. They have repressed peaceful demonstrations, condemned and arrested individual activists, and imprisoned scores. One particularly high-profile case is that of Lakhdar Bouregaa, 86, a former combatant in Algeria’s war of liberation against the French. He was arrested in June for openly supporting Hirak and criticizing Ahmed Gaid Salah, Algeria’s most powerful figure since Bouteflika’s departure. He’s since been in jail for nearly six months, despite his health problems, and is accused of undermining the morale of the army.

His plight is increasingly common. According to human rights activists, many protesters have been apprehended by plainclothes officers, without being shown any warrant, and have vanished for up to two days before suddenly appearing in court. The National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, an organization created by a group of activists and lawyers last August, has documented 288 cases of people jailed for their participation in Hirak. Given the difficulties in obtaining documentation, the figure could be much higher.

Until last month, the majority of the detained activists were held in Algiers, the capital, where protests have been banned since 2001. Now, repression is spreading throughout the country as elections draw closer. Local reporters are finding it increasingly difficult to cover the Hirak movement and are facing substantial police harassment. One journalist, Khaled Drareni, has been arrested several times, only to be released hours later. Mustapha Bendjama, the editor of Le Provincial, was put under judiciary control last week after being arrested while near a rally against a meeting held by Ali Benflis, a candidate in the upcoming elections. Several other journalists are currently behind bars.

But none of this has deterred activists from calling for change. Ahcene Kadi, a member of the Youth Action Rally (RAJ), a group at the core of Hirak, has been taken in many times. In an interview in April and several after, he told me about two previous arrests. They only lasted a few hours, he said, but he was well aware they were a warning to step back in line. Eventually, in September, Kadi was taken by force from a cafe by plainclothes officers and wasn’t able to communicate for more than two days until his appearance at court, after which he was taken to jail. He and other detainees, including RAJ activists, initiated a three-day hunger strike on Tuesday.

In a letter he wrote from his cell published by his brother on Facebook last Sunday, he said, “Our struggle continues. … We’re more determined than ever to end this politico-military system. … Let’s keep all united and supportive in order to stop the electoral masquerade of Dec. 12.”

His sentiment is shared by plenty of Algerians, who won’t stop protesting until the country sees a real transition: away from what they see as a corrupt and repressive dictatorship that replaced French colonialism in 1962 and to real democracy. “Repression is boosting our determination,” said Elhanafi Afroune, a 29-year-old activist from Akbou in the Kabylie region. “We demand a period of transition, and we’re determined to reach our goal. We want elections, but not with the gang. We want the end of this system.”

Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance reporter based in Morocco. She worked as a correspondent for four years at the French media site Mediapart and has written for Orient XXI, Rue89, Al-Monitor, and the Christian Science Monitor. Twitter: @Ilhemrachidi

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