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Algeria’s presidential elections to be held amid disagreements between army and protesters over roadmap

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 11 Dec 2019
Algeria
Demonstrators chat slogans during a protest demanding that the upcoming presidential election be cancelled in Algiers, Algeria December 10, 2019. REUTERS
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The Algerian people can guarantee that, for the first time in two decades, the president will not be Abdelaziz Bouteflika. They will vote for a new head of state on Thursday.
 
But this is no indication that the country will have a smooth transition by any means amid a 10-month, post-Bouteflika protests. Following the country’s Hirak movement — or the so-called Smile Revolution — in 2019, army rulers and protesters have had nothing but disagreements.
 
Protests have not stopped since Bouteflika was ousted because they are not content to see the army governing the country. Meanwhile, the army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah has failed, so far, to persuade protest leaders to negotiate with him a post-uprising roadmap.
 
As put by Lisa Watanabe, a senior researcher at ETH Zurich’s Centre for Security Studies, it is “hard to see at this point concessions made by either side.”
 
Watanabe, speaking to Ahram Online, said the army see the presidential elections are the only way out of this political deadlock, while protesters believes that the elections are a way of “renewing the existing system”. She believes that the protesters can be encouraged to negotiate if they saw a caretaker government overseeing a transitional phase, in addition to a new constitution getting drafted.
 
Yet, she added that the army might not be willing at this stage to respond to any of these “high demands”. Watanabe said it all “depends on what will happen after the elections,” especially in terms of whether the protests will remain nationwide, noting that the protesters want a civilian president with no ties to the former regime.
 
The elections will be held amid a lack of trust between both parties dominating  the political scene in Algeria. Perhaps the political background of the five presidential candidates makes the situation even harder.
 
The candidates include two former prime minister, Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, former culture minister Azzedddine Mihoubi, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine, and Abdelaziz Belaid, head of the El Mostakbal Movement party.
 
The army took a few steps to appease the protesters, including arresting key figures of Bouteflika’s era. For example, the youngest brother of Bouteflika, Said, and two ex-intelligence chiefs, Generals Bachir Athimane Tartag and Mohamed Mediene, were apprehended.
 
Said was widely accused of being the actual ruler of Algeria, especially after Bouteflika had a stroke in 2013. An Algerian court sentenced Khaled Nazzar, an ex-defence minister, and his son Lotfi to 20 years in absentia. Both are reportedly in Spain.
 
But these moves were not enough to neither satisfy the protesters with the ongoing status quo nor persuade them not to boycott the presidential vote. According to a report by Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, overseas polling stations, which opened on Saturday, have been roughly empty.
 
A number of reasons led to the current situation. Firstly, some of the protesters themselves were arrested. 21 protesters received a six-month jail sentence by an Algerian court for “undermining national unity”. The arrest campaign even started during the early days of the anti-Bouteflika protests in February.
 
Sabina Henneberg, the American University in Washington’s lecturer of international service, said that the protest movement’s demands include “releasing those who have been detained and replacing government leaders by a technocratic/independent government.”
 
Henneberg believes that the army’s “genuine recognition of these demands” and “end of the violent crackdown on protesters” would “probably go much further in incentivising dialogue than the planned elections will.”
 
A similar take was shared by Francesca Caruso, researcher at Istituto Affari Internazionali. She believes that “for most Algerians, legitimacy will be missing for the next president.
 
“For protesters, the elections only promise the continuance of the old and opaque regime, which mainly consists of senior figures within the People’s National Army, political parties with close ties to the regime, and influential economic elites,” Caruso stated.
 
Economics play a great political role in the North African country. According to a report published by the World Economic Forum in April, the Algerian economy — mainly dependent on oil and natural gas — needs to grow by more than six percent on an annual basis during the next few years to “provide enough jobs for the millions about the enter the labour market.”
 
Oil and gas, said Reuters, provide 94 per cent of export revenues and 60 percent of the Algerian budget. These earnings dropped by 6.3 percent this year. 
 
The trade deficit reached 12 percent in the first half of 2019, according to state data, while foreign exchange reserves dropped by $7.28 billion in the first four months to $72.6 billion.
 
Five years ago, the latter figure stood at $178 billion when crude prices recorded $100 per barrel. The fact strongly implies that the people are not only protesting over politics.
 
The new president will definitely have to deal with these challenges.
 
According to a Washington Post article by Michael Robbins, a Princeton scholar and director of Arab Barometer, the Arab Spring uprisings in neighbouring countries pushed the regime then “to increase subsidies and authorise back pay owed to civil servants.”
 
The collapse of global oil prices in 2014, according to Robbins, stopped the government from maintaining these policies, which led to a collapse in economic ratings with just 13 percent.
 
Robbins, who was conducting research in Algeria a few months ago, told Ahram Online that the army had a chance to rule the country for decades and squandered many chances for development. “The people blame the army for it,” he said.
 
He added that he expects a very low turnout at ballot stations because of the “frustration from the government”. 
 
“At this point, the protesters don’t seem ready to go home, especially that the army doesn’t want to make concessions,” Robbins warned.
 
For Robert Kubinec, assistant professor of political science at NYU Abu Dhabi, the army “is betting on people feeling tired of protesting, especially that they gave it their best shot and it didn’t work.”
 
Meanwhile, Kubinec blamed the protest movement, which faces the “natural” challenge of getting smaller by virtue of time, for not being organised, which makes it more difficult for the Algerian people to agree on demands or make decisions.
 
“The good thing in Algeria is that protests have not been violent and have an open political discourse. But the opposition needs a plan,” Kubinec added.  
 
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