This April Algerians will be electing their president. Not much of an election though. Observers agree that it is more a coronation of the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The absence of credible opposing candidates due to the decision of the opposition parties to boycott the elections is a real nightmare for the government. The prospect of a very low turn-out is also very real as the results of the last 2007 parliamentary elections (officially 35.65%) are still fresh in minds. The Algerian government is facing an even greater problem as it struggles to promote a democratic facade on the international scene. While the election of Barak Obama was hailed around the world as ushering a new era of change, the return of the Democrats to the White House was received with a feeling of alarm within Algerian decision making circles.
President Bouteflika was elected in April 1999 and went on to secure re-election for a second (the last as per Algerian Constitution) in 2004. His campaign promised the institution of national reconciliation to bring to an end the bloody years of the civil conflict which ravaged Algeria in the 1990s. Fearing a second Tehran, the military took the tragic decision to scrap the first round of Algeria’s first plural legislative elections held in December 1991. Furthermore, the military affected a putsch against the then president Chadli Ben Djedid in January 1992 and established the High Council for the State comprised of four civilians and a general to run the state. Almost immediately, various armed Islamist groups resorted to terrorist action in protest and state of emergency was declared in Algeria ever since.
No definite figure of the victims of the Black Decade, as referred to in Algerian media, has been given but all estimates including Bouteflika’s run around 200,000 killed, with 8,000 to 14,000 disappeared. The damage to infrastructure and assets hardly needs highlighting; suffice to say that Algeria was put backward to the early years of the 1970s in terms of economic viability and stability. This very brief account of the background is very useful to understanding the domestic, regional and geo-political implications of the upcoming presidential elections, and to why the change of leadership in Washington is flagging up awkwardness, to put it mildly, in Algiers.
Any civil war is bound to generate human rights abuses and legal breaches. The Algerian experience was no exception. Throughout the 1990s the military regime in Algeria had been on the receiving end of charges of human rights abuses against its own population from both domestic and international human rights NGO’s such as LADDH, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. While coercing the domestic human rights voices was attained effortlessly, dealing with the international watchdogs proved extremely difficult for the Algerian regime. Clinton’s first term coinciding with the burst of the conflict and his re-election during the most explosive years of the violence posed an uphill battle for the regime in Algiers which was suffering isolation and extreme criticism for its handling of the situation.
All attempts of the Algerian government to engage with the Democrats failed. Clinton made it clear that until Algeria took serious measures to improve its human rights record it will continue to face isolation in the international arena. Neither holding presidential elections in mid 1990s nor a second plural legislative election in mid-1997 changed the mood in Washington. Faced with such an acute situation of political isolation and inability to obtain economic loans and credits from international monetary organizations, the military regime engineered another concession where they pressured the then president Lamine Zeroual, a retired general himself, to shorten his term and call for anticipated presidential elections in April 1999. Thus, Bouteflika (former foreign affairs minister 1963-79) was called form his twenty-year long exile to be elected president. Free and fair elections were promised which tempted the opposition to join in with six candidates of equal or even high calibre such as Houcine Ait Ahmed (historic leader of the War of Independence and founder of FFS, Algeria’s first opposition party in 1963), Dr. Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, Mouloud Hamrouche, and Sid Ahmed Ghouzali. However, the six candidates withdrew from the race on the eve of ballot day as reports of wide scale fraud were reported in remote rural regions as well as armed forces station in the barracks.
The race went through though and Bouteflika became president. This was another blow to the military calculations desperate to market its democracy to a reticent West and an unimpressed White House. There is consensus among Algeria politics experts now that although brought by the military, Bouteflika seized the circumstances to adjust the terms of the deal. He offered to guarantee the generals, now faced by Pinochet-like legal charges in European courts by families of the disappeared victims, an amnesty in return of their concession to allow him put in motion a national reconciliation initiative which would compensate families victim of the tragedy as well as a social re-integration programme for those still engaged in armed operations against the government.
The deal was sealed and a national referendum was held in fall of same year (1999), where official figures showed Algerians support for the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. This, the Algerian decision makers calculated, would turn the page on the years of violence and isolation. The election of the Republicans was of good timing in Algiers as the War on Terror soon became a virtue around which alliances were now forged. Gone were the years of human rights abuse intimidation by NGO’s. Algeria is now at the fore of the war on terror in North Africa and the military re-invented its recent experience as a visionary anticipation of the events which led to 9/11. The new entente between Washington and Algiers was marketed as a win-win deal. A deal which was consolidated by massive oil and gas exploration contracts for the American companies operating in Algeria. The change in leadership and rules of the game in the context of the war on terror coupled with the rising oil prices, as well as the re-election of the Republicans for a second term were all music to ears of the decision-making circles in Algiers. A regained standing in the international community backed by massive hard currency reserves paved the way to systematic repression of the independent press, opposition parties as well as surviving civil society groups. Algeria has become a facade democracy observers concluded.
While 2007 was the year of rumours about the health of president Bouteflika, 2008 was that of intensive speculation for Algerians and observers about the amendment of the constitution to do away with the restriction of the presidential terms to two only as stipulated by article 176. The Economist in its report The World in 2009 had already predicted that ‘Bouteflika will celebrate a decade in power by seeking a third term in the April election—and will probably win.’
On 12 November 2008, as the world was still celebrating the election of Barak Obama with all the hopes for the change promised, the Algerian government proceeded to the amendment of the Constitution through the Legislative Assembly by raising hands rather than popular referendum. The amendment targeted article 176 which now no longer restricts the number of consecutive terms. The Algerian opposition, civil society and intellectuals were dismayed before this Constitutional Caesarean as Abed Charef, a leading Algerian domestic politics author, put it in protest. While renowned intellectuals signed petitions and opposition leaders considered the move as a historic setback to Algeria’s democracy, respected figures such as Houcine Ait-Ahmed saw in it yet another coup against the will of the people’s hopes for democratic change. Helpless, all credible opposition parties called for the boycott of the upcoming April elections while students vented their rage through the only least controlled media, Facebook groups and Youtube.
It’s not a worry for the Algerian government; the domestic voices have long been almost silenced and the surviving vocal ones barely draw the attention of the Republicans in Washington. But it is 2009; Obama’s agenda and resolution to ‘renew America’s promise’ reminded the Algerian decision-makers that the honeymoon with Republicans is over. Some Algerians felt some hope hearing Obama’s inaugural speech warning: To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’ . Not long after that warning was made, The U.S. State Department released its 2008 Human Rights Report which landed a damning assessment of the Algerian government’s conduct.
The report painted a poor record of individual and collective human rights as well as some aspects of social and livelihood in Algeria. The report contrasted a different image from the glamorous one the regime has until then portrayed abroad and boasted at home. It has revived issues the Algerian government thought they have been relegated to the backseat in the age of the war on terror. More specifically, on the issue of the disappearances the report found that ‘[the Reconciliation Charter] provides impunity for members of armed groups and state officials and that the government had not yet initiated proceedings to investigate the fate of the disappeared’. And that ‘[f]amilies of the disappeared experienced complications and delays in receiving compensation from the government’. The Report also criticised the government’s restriction of freedoms of expression in that local press is intimidated and that ‘[s]everal international journalists continued to have their accreditations either withdrawn or denied’. The picture with regard to the right of association and to organise is not brighter either in that ‘[i]n 2007 security forces banned an international seminar on forced disappearances organized by several NGOs, and the government denied visas for Roberto Garreton, a UN expert on human rights, and Anne Laurence Lacroix, deputy director of the World Organization Against Torture, to attend’.
Government corruption was another aspect of the report’s criticism in that ‘[p]ublic procurement was often tainted with irregularities, including the excessive use of private agreements…[where] tenders, evaluations were not released to participating companies, and evaluation methods and techniques were not clearly defined.’ Even the recent amendment in the constitution aiming at increasing women’s role and participation in the political affairs (observers considered it as an attempt by the regime to posture a progressive image for the West while forging a third term for Bouteflika) did not receive any credit in the Women Rights section of the report but rather concluded continuing discrimination and abuses against Algerian women. Echoing the Algerians’ frustration with the government’s failure to deliver even at times when oil prices reached unprecedented levels, the report stated that ‘[t]he national minimum wage of 12,000 dinars ($177) per month did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family’.
Before such a damning report, the Algerian government made public official reactions and unleashed its media machinery to remind the United States of its own human rights abuses from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo. The independent daily Liberté ran a front page with the big heading: The Report which provokes Algeria’s Wrath. The Interior Minister, Yazid Zerhouni, called the Americans ‘to clean up their backyard first’ and ironically invited the Americans ‘to establish their report of what has been happening in Guantanamo’. For Algerians this is all déjà vu; it is the 1990s all over again but for close observers of Algerian affairs the analysis is of a complex nature. The return of the Democrats to the commanding wheels in Washington with their traditional support for liberal groups means harder days ahead for repressive regimes. The economic recession with the downturn on the oil market means declining oil revenues. This poses challenges both at home and abroad. With the war on terror rhetoric forfeited, the American umbrella under which several governments around the world justified their conduct against opposition and civil society groups is no longer standing. The tactics of forging alliance with the Republicans through oil industry lobbies is over, at least for the next four years. The revenues which were lavished domestically to appease social unrest (rather than to invest in a sustainable programme to kick-start the economy) are dwindling as the oil barrel price continues its descent.
It is complex issues like these and others which make the prospect of Algeria uncertain. Many Algerians and foreign observers believe the forced constitutional amendment to allow Bouteflika to run for a third term demonstrates the regime’s inability to renew its own blood. It is also indicative of the balance of power within the circles of the real decision-makers. Many including The Economist believe it is an ‘ongoing shift of power from the old military-led ruling class to the presidency’. The presidency here being Algeria’s intelligence organ within the presidency. It comes as no surprise then that Amnesty International has last week warned the next Algerian president, read Bouteflika, that impunity is a threat to Algeria’s future.
The report calls on the next Algerian president, due to be elected on 9 April, to review the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation by taking a series of measures in order to re-mould it into a Truth and Justice law which would do with the institutionalised impunity of those involved in human rights abuses be it military forces or terrorist groups. Besides, the truth about the fate of the victims should be unveiled and support to their families provided. In other words, Bouteflika is urged to undo the deal which he had sealed ten years ago with the military when he became president. While the opposition interpreted the recent renewed international spotlight under which the Algerian government is placed as an opportunity to help loosen its grip they continue to call for the boycott of the next elections. Another very low turn-out would embarrass the government which always portrayed turn-out figures as proof of its popularity regardless of the ballot results.
This week’s elections will have far reaching domestic, regional and geopolitical repercussions. Domestically, the unprecedented popular frustration with the bold way in which the Constitution was amended has been fuelling dissent not only among politicians and civil society but also the youth who see no light at the end of the tunnel. Potential recruits for terrorist groups for some and would-be illegal immigrants to Europe onboard of make-shift boats for others. This latter is a constant nightmare not only for the government but also for the southern member countries of the European Union.
Regionally, Tunis, Tripoli and Cairo are all on the watch as to how this forced third term would go in Algeria. Gaddafi will be celebrating his thirty years in power next September amidst rumours of plans to equip Libya with a constitution and find a way to get Saif Islam Gaddafi to succeed to his father. The same plans are envisaged in Egypt for Djamal Mubarek.
Much more is at stake for the West. Algeria supplies 25% of EU’s gas needs and almost 10% of UK’s. The completion, due this year, of the Medgaz natural gas pipeline between Algeria and Spain will bring another 8 billion cubic metres per year of Algerian gas to Europe. The recent gas supply crises between Russia and Europe have heightened Algeria’s position as a serious and strategic partner in the EU energy security talks. Therefore, Algeria’s domestic stability is of a strategic importance to the EU. It is then not a surprise that the Czech ambassador to Algeria headed an EU delegation which held talks with Said Sadi, leader of the opposition party RCD, in order to discuss the domestic situation in Algeria and the reasons which convinced the opposition parties to boycott the April elections. The UN also sent a delegation which held talks with the opposition party FFS and was received by the government as well.
Bouteflika celebrated last month his 72th birthday. He will be 77 by the time his new term concludes. Algeria is like a stalled old bus. Neither changing the battery, replacing the windows, nor getting a new paint seemed to impress the passengers. Not even softer seats or the driver’s claims that the reservoir is full. As long as the bus is always late and keeps breaking down and missing the schedule the passengers’ frustration is bound to grow against the driver who keeps imposing the route of the journey. There is a growing risk that the bus will be either confiscated or damaged by angry passengers who know the real owner of the vehicle never cared about the destination of the bus and often imposed his will.

Posted by Editor