The most intense year in Algeria’s modern history closed with former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune elected president in a race that saw the lowest turnout in the past three decades.
Events heated up in Algeria 8 November 2018 when parties loyal to former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika urged him to run for a fifth term despite the health problems he had been suffering since 2013.
It was on that day in November 2018 that public outrage surfaced. Many Algerians feared those close to Bouteflika would continue to rule in his name, taking advantage of his deteriorating health.
Bouteflika is one of the icons of the Algerian War of Independence against French colonialism (1954-1962). He took over the Foreign Ministry during most of the rule of president Houari Boumédiène (1964-1978). He was president of Algeria since 1999, but he suffered a stroke that left him wheelchair-bound since 2013.
Nonetheless, he ran for a fourth term in office in 2014.
In late February 2019, demonstrations swept the country in protest against his running for a fifth term, after which Bouteflika stepped down, leaving power in the hands of parliamentary speaker Abdelkader Bensaleh and army chief General Ahmed Gaid Saleh, known in Western media as the strongman.
For months the Algerian authorities came up with a number of initiatives that the protesters ignored. There have been more than 40 weekly protests, taking place on Fridays, whereas university students have been protesting on Tuesdays.
Following Bouteflika’s resignation six weeks into the demonstrations, the herak — or protest movement — demanded the removal of “all regime figures” raising the banner “no elections with gangs”.
Modest electoral participation, however, reveals that the herak doesn’t represent all the Algerian people. “The majority of the herak is even doubted,” said Ammar Belkassem, a professor of sociology at the University of Constantine.
“The herak problem is that it doesn’t have a leadership, so it is difficult to know its real size and who it represents,” he added.
“Unorganised and leaderless protests do not fulfil their demands. Tunisia and Sudan are cases in point,” Belkassem stated.
Tunisia has had regular elections since the overthrow of president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali in early 2011, thanks in part to the Tunisian General Labour Union, which has a resonating impact, according to Belkassem.
He pointed out that, “it was the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, enjoying the support of Tunisian society, that won the Nobel Peace Prize.”
The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was given to the National Dialogue Quartet, comprised of four key organisations in Tunisian civil society: the Tunisian General Labour Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.
“It was these institutions that made national dialogue a success and restored calm to the country,” Belkassem said.
“The same goes for Sudan with its Sudanese Professionals Syndicate that delivered a country much more complex than Algeria to a transitional government in four months only,” he added.
“Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir was overthrown in April, much like Bouteflika. But in August the Sudanese protesters and the Transitional Military Council signed a declaration establishing a new authority. We didn’t do the same in Algeria,” Belkassem pointed out.
In Algeria, nine million voters cast their ballots in the recent elections, representing 39.93 per cent of the Algerian electorate, which exceeds 22 million.
Tebboune won with 4.945 million votes, or 58.15 per cent, followed by the candidate for the Movement for the Society of Peace, with close ties to the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood, with 17.38 per cent.
Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis received 10.55 per cent of the votes, slightly less than the votes he won in his race against Bouteflika in 2014, which was 12 per cent. At the time he condemned the election, saying the process was “a comprehensive forgery of the results”.
The “regime’s candidate”, as Azzedine Mihoubi is called by local media, came in fourth with 7.26 per cent of the votes, followed by Abdelaziz Belaid with 6.66 per cent.
Nasser Haji, a reporter with the Algerian national TV, said that “many fear deteriorating economic conditions,” as trade has almost come to a halt, although the main demonstrations are held on Fridays only.
“Algerians wanting to do major transactions, such as buying or repairing houses or purchasing cars, have put off their plans because no one knows what will happen next,” Haji added.
“Major economic and political challenges lie ahead for Tebboune, especially after the fall in global oil and gas prices,” he stated.
Algeria depends on revenues from its oil and gas exports, which make up 95 per cent of its hard currency earnings and contribute about 60 per cent of the state budget.
The country’s oil production dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day in 2005 to a million barrels per day at present.
Bouteflika’s rule depended on what he termed “oil lavishness”, witnessed during the first decade of this century when oil prices skyrocketed to $100 per barrel. In those years, Algeria, a member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the third largest oil producer in Africa and ninth gas producer in the world, constructed mega projects that generated millions of jobs for youth and consumed millions of dollars.
“The authorities appeased the public and postponed economic reforms and unpopular decisions. But when the oil prices went down, corruption that wasted huge amounts of money was discovered,” said Haji.
To date, Algeria uses oil revenues to subsidise fuel, electricity, food and housing. But it appears the new president’s utmost priority is to not repeat the practices of the former regime, restoring the public’s confidence in state institutions, and convincing the herak — which intends to continue demonstrating — to settle down.
Tebboune’s priorities also include reviving the economy, that has come to a halt since the beginning of 2019, achieving social justice and equality, fighting corruption, and giving the judiciary its independence.
During his presidential campaign, the slogan of which promised change, Tebboune announced his commitment to 54 decisions that once elected president he would immediately work on. The most prominent of these is a “vast revision” of the constitution based on “a real separation” between authorities and separating money from politics.
Tebboune’s election is “appropriate”, said Haji. He is a veteran administrator and a capable politician, he added.
Aged 74, Tebboune had held a number of prominent positions. After graduating from the School of Higher Management in 1965, he was governor of several Algerian provinces in the 1980s. In the early 1990s he was appointed minister delegate for local communities, then assistant to the minister of interior during the reign of former president Liamine Zéroual in the mid-1990s.
Tebboune’s star rose with the rise to the helm of Bouteflika in April 1999. He was minister of housing for four tenures, and he took over the portfolios of information, culture and trade.
Despite his experience in administration, he spent only 80 days as prime minister after he lost the war he waged against businessmen who wanted to be in control of Algeria’s political decision-making process.
Bouteflika replaced Tebboune with Ahmed Ouyahia, who is currently imprisoned on charges of corruption.
Corruption is the Algerians’ primary concern. Many believe they should lead a “better life” given their country’s vast oil wealth.
However, according to unofficial estimates, tens of billions of dollars were taken out of Algeria and into European bank accounts because of corruption until 2010.
Many observers are of the belief that Algeria, with its 42 million population, can’t be compared with countries whose population doesn’t exceed a few millions.
“This justification is not acceptable. We can neither aspire to live extravagantly nor agree to the state’s sole dependence on oil,” pointed out Belkassem.
“Despite our limited industrial attempts during the era of Houari Boumediene, Algeria did not go all the way, even with Bouteflika’s ‘oil lavishness’,” he added.
The majority of projects constructed during the years of oil extravagance were in housing and infrastructure, and supplying the basic needs of Algerians in fuel, medicine and food.
“The new president must know that we understand the responsibility is huge, but we will not remain silent against corruption or uncalculated economic adventures,” Belkassem said.
Protests continued, albeit on a smaller scale than in summer, on the Friday that saw the election of Tebboune. “The rage is still there. Overthrowing everyone in the regime is impossible, nor is it accepted for the entire regime to stay in power,” said Haji.
This is the main dilemma facing Tebboune. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen in the coming year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. under the title: Algeria’s challenges, past and present