Tense transition in Algeria

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 3

Eight years after Algeria’s government clung to power during the Arab Spring, the country is being rocked by protests against its longstanding autocratic state. The spark was cast in February 2019, when the elderly and infirm president Bouteflika announced he would stand for a fifth election, having already ruled Algeria for 19 years, along with the help of his corrupt clique of relatives and party elites. The movement, known in Algeria as “Hirak”, led to Bouteflika stepping down as president and the resignation of the prime minister. Yet the interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, is himself an elite of the FLN party like Bouteflika, and the protests have intensified to bring about a real change in the government, as has the government’s repression. The interim regime faces many of the same criticisms as the former. Many of the former members of the ruling clique are currently being tried in a secret military tribunal, along with at least one opposition leader. The army’s influence seems to be growing as it pressures the protesters to simmer down in the months leading up to the election. And France, although it is invested in the outcome, is both unable and unwilling to intervene in a country with which it has such a tortured history. The way forward for Algeria centers around the success of the upcoming election, and there is room for France and the EU to help their neighbor in accomplishing this.

Bensalah announced a new presidential election for December 12th, despite having already served longer than the ninety days constitutionally allowed for an interim president. The new elections have proved controversial, however, with many Algerians doubting the legitimacy of elections managed by a Minister of Justice holdover from the old regime. The army, too, has begun putting pressure on protesters, which it had largely avoided doing, by blocking buses bringing protesters to Alger, although avoiding violence for now. The regime has also detained a number of activists and journalists, particularly those flying the Berber or Amazigh flag. Pressure from the regime has nevertheless been inconsistent in part due to resistance from the judiciary; in late October many judges and magistrates began to strike rather than prosecute detained protesters. The protesters are primarily young people, sick of high youth unemployment and government corruption, which have not improved under the interim government. To them, Bensalah is just as bad as Bouteflika, and protests are unlikely to end until after the December election.

France, Algeria’s former colonial ruler, finds itself in a tricky position. Protests against the Algerian regime have spilled over into French cities with large Algerian minorities. In Algeria, however, France’s hesitant involvement is scorned. When president Macron praised Bouteflika for stepping down and establishing an interim government, protesters in Alger held signs with slogans telling him to deal with his own protests (the gilets jaunes movement), or reminding him that it was 2019, not 1830. Although opponents of Bouteflika, the protesters viewed Macron’s praise of the interim regime as still overstepping the French president’s rightful boundaries. Le Monde reported that France is perceived as having a role in supporting the former Algerian regime, and indeed France has a major stake in stability in Algeria, where many French people have family ties. France particularly fears that instability in Algeria will lead to large scale migration to France, creating a headache for the government and possibly adding fuel to the right wing parties in that country.

France can help in one way, however, which is to help ensure the legitimacy of the Algerian elections. The interim government must do everything it can to avoid any impropriety, and allow them to occur freely. One of the primary demands of the protesters is transparency from their corrupt government, and so the elections must appear free and fair to all. France must avoid the appearance of overt meddling; if it is perceived as rigging the elections, it could damage their legitimacy catastrophically. Rather, the European Union as a whole must endorse the elections and offer monitors to report on any corruption of their integrity. The EU already sends monitors to numerous elections every year, notably Tunisia in October of 2019.

The EU election monitoring process is explicit in its goals: to observe only, and not to participate in the organization of the elections. This helps it to maintain impartiality, which is vital to be seen as legitimate. Its only mandate is to observe the campaign and electoral process, and to publish findings after. The presence of impartial observers like these can have the effect of pressuring the regime organizing the election to do so more fairly and transparently, particularly in a situation like Algeria’s with such a powerfully mobilized public. It is through this mechanism that France can help assure Algeria’s stability. A free election, legitimized by foreign observers, could end the ongoing crisis in Algerian politics. This also has the upside that France would not be directly involved, but rather acting through the EU, which does not have the same difficult post-colonial relationship with Algeria that France does.

As for the remains of the old guard, a public corruption inquiry should be carried out, rather than the haphazard military tribunals currently occurring. A power grab by the military is harmful to the protesters’ goal of a free and democratic society, even if it is against the corrupt former leaders. It would be best if no one ran for president under the old revolutionary party banner, the FLN, as that party is now seen as the one most tied to the corrupt practices of the old regime. The ultimate goal of the interim government should be an orderly investigation into the old regime’s corruption, followed by a fair election.

If the December elections produce a leader seen as legitimate, and the corruption of the old regime is swept away, 2020 could see an Algeria that is finally free and fair, after centuries of brutal autocratic rulers. The stakes are high, but the prospect of a more peaceful, safe, and democratic Maghreb could lie just beyond the new year.

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