Paralysing polarisation in Algeria

Haitham Nouri , Saturday 28 Sep 2019

With Algeria moving towards presidential elections later this year, the public’s priority remains removing the remnants of the former regime, writes Haitham Nouri

Paralysing polarisation in Algeria
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Algiers, chanting against the crackdown on the demonstration (photo: AP)

Algeria’s political scene is divided over the holding of presidential elections, slated for later this year, and the commencement of the trials of former regime figureheads such as Said Bouteflika, younger brother of former president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, who was known as a powerful figure in the presidential palace although he enjoyed no constitutional authority.

The trial of Said Bouteflika, Mohamed Madin, intelligence chief for 25 years and his successor Osman Tartaq, as well as the head of the Workers’ Party Luiza Hanoune, began on Monday at Blida south of the Algerian capital Algiers.

The military court hearing the cases accused the defendants of “conspiring against the power of the army and the state,” a charge for which they could face five to ten years in prison or the death sentence, according to Algerian military justice and the country’s criminal law.

Said Bouteflika, Madin and Tartaq were arrested on 5 May, weeks after the former president resigned. Hanoune gave herself up to the military court on 9 May and has since been in custody.

The Blida court will also try in absentia former minister of defence Khaled Nizar and his son Lotfi, along with Farid bin Hamdine, director of the Algerian public pharmaceuticals company, on the same charges. The three defendants have fled the country and warrants have been issued for their arrest. 

Algerian officials believe that the commencement of the trial of Said Bouteflika and his co-defendants “is evidence of the sincerity of the authorities and that their target is not just to arrest a large number of politicians and businessmen to distract the public,” according to informed sources.

There is public pressure in Algeria to remove the figureheads of the Bouteflika regime, as well as controversy over whether to hold new presidential elections on 12 December.

Political groups have traded accusations concerning the presidential elections, which were earlier cancelled in July when there were no contenders. The groups have requested the elimination of a number of members of the country’s Independent Authority for Elections, because they were “not agreed upon,” according to statements made last Friday.

They also requested that the elections be held after ousting every authority figure in the former regime and allowing the political parties time to build support in the country.

“The future is bigger than to remain the hostage of the officials of post-independence Algeria,” wrote Nasser Gaby, an Algeria sociologist, on social media. He added that the former authority figures and the Islamists were the only groups with access to the majority of the population, which had created a dangerous and unknown situation.

Fourteen figures are contesting the presidential elections, including former prime minister Ali Benflis, and these are accused by opponents of “selling out the revolution for personal and political gain.”

The accusations were made following the 31st week of protests in Algeria, which saw decreasing numbers of demonstrators after the army banned buses carrying protesters from entering the capital.

Some observers believe that most residents of Algiers are not against the “post-independence state” since they enjoy a better standard of living than people elsewhere in the country. 

There have been calls for protesters in the capital to make up for the decreasing number of demonstrators entering from outside. Some demonstrators have carried banners demanding the ouster of Army Chief Ahmed Gaid Saleh, and some media outlets have accused the protesters of seeking to sabotage the country.

Saleh has called on all Algerians to cast their votes in the presidential elections so that “Algeria can win the bet” and avoid the danger of a “constitutional void”.

Algeria has been headed by interim president Abdel-Qader Saleh since the resignation of Bouteflika in April. The interim president has called for a national dialogue to precede the elections, but its outcome has simply pushed Saleh to call for early elections.

A number of political groups fear that holding elections “without a free media, the release of political prisoners and the stepping down of remnants of the former regime” will mean that either remnants of the current regime or the Islamists will win the elections.

If the scenario of a civil war, in which more than 100,000 Algerians were killed in the 1990s, can be avoided, the two parties of the regime and the Islamists could strike a deal to preserve peace and rule the country together. 

Others fear that if the results of the presidential elections are not to the liking of the regime, there could be a repeat of this civil war. It was the “civil coexistence” initiated by Bouteflika in 2000 that stopped the civil war that raged in Algeria in the 1990s, and this was one of his important achievements.

 Following the civil war came the “era of luxury,” as Bouteflika liked to call it, when oil prices rose until 2014 and the government was able to satisfy the public through generous subsidies.

This situation ended in 2014, when Bouteflika won a fourth term in office even though he had had a stroke that affected his mobility and abilities. With the attempt of Bouteflika’s circle to promote his candidacy for a fifth term, Algerians across the country went out onto the streets to protest, eventually causing his resignation.

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