Algerian democracy: a political cul-de-sac


In an article entitled ‘Bouteflika’s triumph and Algeria’s tragedy‘, Jacob Mundy argues that a civilian rule in Algeria has become practically an impossibility not because of military influence, but because of current president Bouteflika’s monopoly of power. I reproduce below a section of his article which I find describes well how ironic it is that the first president we get who does not come from the military institution will be the one to send the country back into the throes of military authoritarianism. Another missed opportunity amongst so many others…:

After the 2004 election, it seemed inevitable that Bouteflika would seek to lift the two-term limit for the presidency. The reason for this — and the reason why Bouteflika’s third term is a blessing and a curse — is that there seems to be no other political force in Algeria capable of replacing the old chieftain. While Bouteflika has wrested the reins of power from the grip of the military, he has seemingly monopolized it for himself. It is not just that power is heavily concentrated in one office, the presidency, but that it is centered in a single person. As the 2009 elections demonstrate, there is no personality, no figure, no movement and no organization that is capable of filling his shoes. The only constituency with the potential to counter Bouteflika’s ambitions also happens to be, by definition, the most disorganized: the Algerians who do not bother to vote. During the 2009 campaign, one of Bouteflika’s key messages was simply to plead for Algerians to vote — either for or against him. Instead of backing or fielding candidates, Islamist figures and a few political parties championed the indifferent and the dispossessed with their calls for a boycott. A record low turnout in 2009 could have been read as a vote for “none of the above” or even a popular mandate for the reinstatement of term limits. These opposition hopes were dashed when the Interior Ministry began reporting turnout of over 70 percent after polls closed on April 9. Though the Interior Ministry claims are to be taken with a grain of salt, Bouteflika can now even claim triumph over apathy.

Bouteflika’s victory is now almost total. He has conquered the generals, kept the FIS from returning in any form, staved off democratic challenges from his own party and the Kabyle Citizens’ Movement, and won the right to a third, or even fourth, term. The challenges he faces now seem almost quaint by comparison: residual political violence, high unemployment, widespread disillusionment with government and the state’s near total dependence on hydrocarbons.

What is in store for Algeria? The master of Algerian political satire, Liberté’s Ali Dilem, recently poked fun at Bouteflika’s health. The cartoon announced the rollout of Bouteflika’s campaign team: a line of doctors with their stethoscopes at the ready. Bouteflika will be 77 when he next comes up for reelection in 2014, and a bout with what many believe was stomach cancer made it seem that he had already reached his last days in 2006 and 2007. But recent videos posted to his official campaign website show an almost jaunty Bouteflika pressing the flesh with the same vigor as in 1999.

Dilem’s cartoon also hints at the subtext of inter-generational tension. At an academic conference in Oran in February 2008, a young Algerian political sociologist dared to suggest that relations of extended kinship — “tribalism” — were affecting electoral outcomes in several eastern provinces. Before he even finished his paper’s introduction, an elderly man shouted that he would not allow such an attack on a sovereign, independent, democratic nation. The ornery spectator challenged the young scholar, “Where were you in 1954?” The young scholar calmly replied, “I wasn’t born yet,” eliciting thunderous applause from the students in the audience. Such exchanges make it seem as if Algeria has stood still for the past 20 years. The 1988 riots, which had ushered in the brief democratic experiment of 1989-1991, were a rupture between the generation of the war of independence and those born afterwards. Inter-generational tensions were not the cause of the civil war, but were perhaps indicative of the underlying conditions that made it possible. Bouteflika’s triumph shows that the “dinosaurs” — the war of independence generation — have some fight in them yet.

Who would replace Bouteflika should he die? As with his role model, Boumedienne, who expired abruptly in 1978, the void would likely be filled by the only institution in Algeria that has the resources and capacity to assert effective control nationwide: the military. After all, the omnipotent Boumedienne was followed by Chadli Bendjedid, often mocked as a lackey of the army. The irony of Bouteflika’s triumph — the civilianization of the regime — is that it has come at the expense of a sound foundation for civilian-led politics in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Algerian democracy: a political cul-de-sac

  1. I liked

    […] The challenges he faces now seem almost quaint by comparison: residual political violence, high unemployment, widespread disillusionment with government and the state’s near total dependence on hydrocarbons.

    and the story of the young scholar.

    I think I can use this article and start the rumour that all this is a well-planned strategy by the military: select someone who thinks only he deserves to be the president, call him in, help him suppress any opposition, stay in the shadows… and wait.

    It’s almost admitted by everybody that Bouteflika has handed the current affairs’ management to his brother, and his involvement decreased even more since his hospitalisation. But if the plan is to appoint Said as Algeria’s next president, why does the regime do nothing to get the people acquainted with him?
    I don’t think the army will bring someone from the military and put him in El Mouradia. I believe we’ve turned the military president page, but, regardless of who’s the president, I also believe the army will always hold the real power (so the article kind of makes sense, and you are right in calling it a cul-de-sac). At least until we elect our president instead of “them” appointing him.

    • And well, I don’t think the army will bring someone from the military and put him in El Mouradia. I believe we’ve turned the military president page, but, regardless of who’s the president, I also believe the army will always hold the real power. At least until we elect our president instead of them appointing him.

      I am not so sure MnarviDZ. The Algerian army’s favourite line seems to be ‘we’re always the ones who end up wiping the mess you create’. So condescending and patronizing. The Army believes it is the ultimate entity with the power and genuine willingness to ‘save’ the country in their way of looking at things. And I suppose they are in many ways, like in any country on the planet. A lot of old army officers with connections to the revolution feel resentment towards the people of Algeria because they feel they do not deserve the sacrifices they made for ‘them’. I can see them using the same line when the time comes for a new president to take over, who knows how the scenario will be…

      There is a lot of resentment between any potential ruler and the civilian society.

      I also think that Bouteflika has managed to at least start to weaken the military influence but he ruined our chances of constructing a real civilian rule by his power obsession. I must say that the Algerian people didn’t help either.

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