On Thursday, the country’s authorities will stage a presidential poll that was twice deferred this year in the wake of a startling anti-establishment uprising that dramatically ended President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s two-decade-long rule in April. But the protest movement, known as the Hirak, resolutely opposes the election. All five candidates are closely linked to Algeria’s ruling establishment — a mix of political, military and business elites known for decades in the former French colony by the simple euphemism “le pouvoir,” or “the power” — and the protesters fear that the ascension of any of them will be a roadblock to meaningful change.
As they have for almost a whole year, demonstrators returned to the streets of Algiers on Friday, chanting “No to voting!” Among the candidates are two former prime ministers of Bouteflika, who was chased out of power after he attempted to seek a fifth presidential term. The mass protests that kicked off in Algeria punctured the regime’s myths of authoritarian stability. They also presaged a wave of unrest that unfurled across the Arab world, with pro-democracy or anti-establishment protest movements taking hold in Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.
Now Algeria’s protesters are determined to hold the line. “The elections have no legitimacy whatsoever, they seem more like a comedy show than anything else,” a female youth activist told the Guardian. “We want a transition, a real one, with people who have no ties with the old regime.”
The transitional regime is led by Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, Algeria’s military chief since 2004. Analysts think the country’s top brass is eager to weaken the protests and recede back into the shadows, from where they are more accustomed to influencing the country’s largely opaque political system. This week, an Algerian court sentenced some former regime officials to lengthy jail terms on corruption charges. But the protesters, who represent a diverse cross-section of Algerian society, aren’t satisfied and are proving a thorny obstacle to the regime. In recent months, authorities have detained or convicted hundreds of protesters on vague charges.
“The crackdown on protesters casts a long shadow on whether the Algerian authorities are prepared to accept everyone’s basic rights to speak out,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “No one should be arrested simply for waving a flag or expressing their opposition to an election.”
The resilience of the protest movement places a huge question mark over Algeria’s political future. The military “has not been able to contest the unprecedented challenge represented by the Hirak, which is trans-ideological, trans-generational, and peaceful,” Louisa Dris-Aït-Hamadouche, a professor at the University of Algiers, told the Project on Middle East Democracy, which produced an excellent survey of expert views on Algeria’s political predicament that is cited liberally here.
For years, Algeria’s military-backed regime convinced many of its citizens that it was a necessary bulwark against chaos, including Islamists with whom the regime fought a bloody civil war in the 1990s. That argument, explained Dris-Aït-Hamadouche, has “lost much of its efficacy with a large part of the population, especially the youth,” who know only the postwar years and an increasingly enfeebled economy. Now, a fossilized regime faces a new generation of dissent.
“The Hirak has intentionally remained leaderless, an understandable choice to protect against the regime interference and retaliation that have weakened previous Algerian opposition movements,” said Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a scholar at the American University of Beirut. “But the Hirak’s proven ability to reclaim public spaces, to stay united, and to exert pressure on the system suggest it is strong enough to avoid regime intimidation or division.”
But a dud, low-turnout election won’t deliver the protest movement much on its own. Sharan Grewal, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, suggested that the protesters may have to shift tactics after the election. It could try to organize itself and enter negotiations with the newly elected president, but the movement’s leaderless structure — as well as its sweeping demands for a purge of the governing elite — makes such politicking difficult. The other path would be escalation.
“While the Hirak has faced targeted repression, it has thus far escaped a large-scale crackdown, in part because the movement remains popular among nonprotesters and the lower ranks of the security forces,” observed Grewal. “Strikes and roadblocks could alienate these groups and make repression more likely.”
The way forward is treacherous. Hugh Roberts, an Algeria expert at Tufts University, argued that the protest movement is simply “not the bearer of a functional project,” that it’s united mostly by “what it opposes” and has proposed little by way of meaningful political reform. Its calls for the wholesale removal of the ruling establishment, said Roberts, may pave the way for further crackdowns by the army-backed regime.
And the rest of the world is unlikely to care. Major European governments and the United States have long been content to do business with Algeria’s autocratic leadership, seen for years as a reliable counterterrorism partner and an anchor of stability in North Africa. The cause of Algeria’s pro-democracy protesters has largely receded from view in Western media.
“Solidarity from the outside world feels absent,” said Francis Ghilès, a research fellow at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs. “Western governments vocally support pro-democracy uprisings in Hong Kong and elsewhere, but are silent about the one in Algeria, confirming that they still prefer to deal with an authoritarian regime there.”