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Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Algerian roadmap challenged

Calls to boycott Algeria’s presidential elections scheduled for July are gaining momentum

Amira Howeidy , Wednesday 17 Apr 2019
Algeria protest
A police officer fires rubber pellets during clashes with protesters in Algiers on 12 April (Photo: AP)
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The impact of Algeria’s pro-democracy movement appears to be expanding beyond the massive street protests that have been seen in the country over recent weeks to other forms of dissent, including within state institutions.

The government’s ability to proceed with the presidential elections that Acting President Abdelkader Bensalah has scheduled for 4 July is being questioned.

Since 22 February when the popular protests began in the form of weekly demonstrations opposing ousted former president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office, the dynamic between the growing opposition movement and the authorities has been largely confined to a series of concessions by the regime in response to the massive outcry against it.

Apparently overwhelmed by the momentum of the protests, neither side has been able to generate a mature vision of meaningful change in the country.

But while the protest movement is still leaderless and thus incapable of negotiating directly with the government, it has expanded beyond the streets and anti-regime slogans in ways that could sabotage the government’s plans.

On Saturday, members of Algeria’s judiciary announced a boycott of the presidential elections in a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Justice in Algiers.

A spokesman for the Magistrate’s Club, which organised the rally, said the country’s judges refused to be “false witnesses” for a poll whose results had been decided in advance.

The magistrates, who also called for an independent judiciary, said that the existing electoral laws gave them little control over the polls. They denounced what they described as “pressure” on judges by the authorities, but they did not name specific cases.

The escalation echoed a similar stand taken by over 1,000 Algerian judges in March, who announced their refusal to supervise the elections should Bouteflika continue to stand.

The ailing 82-year-old ex-president, in power since 1999, was forced to submit his resignation after Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh issued an ultimatum earlier this month.

However, the protests, which had earlier defied a ban on demonstrations in the capital Algiers, did not stop even after Bouteflika’s resignation, and they have continued to demand genuine change in the form of dismantling the entire regime.

Saleh, 79, the face of Algeria’s army which has been the country’s most powerful political player since the country’s independence from France in 1962, had previously called the protestors “agents” acting to destabilise Algeria before shifting to support the apparently unstoppable protest movement.

His ultimatum to Bouteflika contained hostile references to the ex-president’s associates, whom Saleh pledged he would uproot in order that they could face justice. As the protests raged on following Bouteflika’s departure, there were demands for the ouster of all the officials associated with his regime.

Algeria’s parliament proceeded to name speaker Abdelkader Bensalah, formerly a staunch supporter of Bouteflika, as acting president for 90 days until new elections could be held.

By replacing Bouteflika with the man who tops the “B4” group rejected by the protestors, also including Tayeb Belaiz, head of Algeria’s Constitutional Council, Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, and Moad Bousharb, head of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), the opposition movement has reason to believe that the establishment and the army will attempt to maintain the status quo.

Belaiz, however, resigned from his position on Tuesday.

For the first time since February, the 12 April protests were met with efforts by anti-riot police to disperse the demonstrations with water-canons and tear gas. By the end of the day, some 180 people have been arrested.

In response, the protests continued throughout the week on an almost daily basis. Students from Algeria’s largest university, Bab Ezzouar, announced an open-ended strike on Sunday until Bensalah stepped down and in protest against Saleh’s roadmap for change.

On the same day, 40 of the country’s mayors announced their refusal to participate in the presidential elections. The secular Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) Party said the 37 municipalities under its control in the Kabylie region of Algeria would boycott the poll.

RCD founder Said Saadi issued a statement calling on Saleh to resign owing to his shifting allegiances and his failing the people. “The question is not if, but how and when you will step down. The age of military dictatorship is over,” Saadi said.

Several cabinet ministers reportedly had to cancel local trips when roads were blocked in southwest Algeria.

Ali Benflis, a candidate in the 2004 and 2014 presidential elections, said he would not participate in any new elections under the conditions now in place when the same men, institutions, and mechanisms of the Bouteflika era still obtained.

Algerian political analyst Abed Charef said that next Friday’s protests on 19 April could “overthrow” the 4 July presidential elections.

“This objective seems largely within the reach of the protesters in view of the dynamic that has taken place, which is clearly favourable to them,” he wrote in a column published on the   Eye Website.

The authorities had hoped to drag the country into election gear, but that had not happened, he said. Instead, only one former general, Ali Ghediri, had announced his intention to run in the elections amid a growing boycott trend.

All this would mean that the presidential elections scheduled for 4 July would be unmanageable, Charef predicted.

“No candidate can campaign under normal conditions. The protesters promise not to let things happen. To complete the process, the government will have to toughen the crackdown, which may further discredit it and accelerate its downfall,” he said.

On Tuesday, Saleh, who had remained silent for two weeks, made vague statements accusing Algeria’s former spy chief general Mohamed Mediène of conspiring against the will of the people and placing obstacles before efforts to find a solution to the crisis.

The army chief did not comment on police efforts to disperse Friday’s protests or the growing calls to boycott the July elections.

While the opposition movement appears to have the upper hand for now, some observers warn that the situation in Algeria might prove to be unstable in the absence of compromise.

According to Algerian political analyst Zoheir Boumama, the military establishment in the country may intervene to prevent complications in the crisis, but without engaging in the political process.

“Agreeing on a compromise will become impossible if the crisis is allowed to continue,” Boumama said.

Representatives of the protest movement will need to emerge in order to negotiate with the military to allow the latter to exit, he said, adding that “it is impossible to expect any form of democratic transformation without the involvement or agreement of the army.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Algerian roadmap challenged 

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