Algerian protesters flood streets, press ahead for ninth consecutive month
TUNIS - Algerians flooded the streets of Algiers and other cities across the country November 22 for the 40th consecutive Friday, calling for an overhaul of the military-dominated ruling system and displaying sharp divisions over a planned presidential vote December 12.
“Wallah manaahabsine” (“We swear we will not stop”) chanted demonstrators as they marched in Algiers for the ninth consecutive month. Demonstrators near the sea repeated “Hamla i’tiqalia, machi intikhabia” (“Arrest campaign, not electoral campaign”) in a reference to the arrest of activists who attempted to disrupt presidential campaign events.
Elsewhere, protesters shouted “makach el intikhabat maailisabaat” (“No vote under the rule of the gangs”) and “dawla madania, machi askaria” (“Civic state, not a military one”), pushing back against Algerian Army Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah’s role as de facto ruler since the ouster of long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the scheduled vote.
Algeria has been without an elected leader since April 2, when Bouteflika was ousted after growing protests. He was replaced by interim President Abdelkader Bensalah. Planned elections to determine a successor in April and July were cancelled because of a lack of viable candidates.
Gaid Salah, eager to see through elections that could help the country out of its political crisis, called for voters to come out in large numbers for the December elections.
He maintains the vote is the only constitutional way forward and dismissed the opposition’s demands for a transitional period during which reforms could be enacted to secure a freer political environment before elections.
Gaid Salah and his supporters argue such open-ended transitions have failed to bring stability and economic growth across the continent. Algeria, facing a looming economic crisis and security threats on its borders, needs stability above all, they insist.
“We distinguish clearly today between those who want for Algeria to succeed and those who want for it to be plunged in the trap of the political impasse with all the disastrous repercussions and the entailing dangers,” said Gaid Salah in a public address November 21.
Some Algerians, apparently taking their cue from Gaid Salah’s nationalistic tone, staged counterdemonstrations to voice support for the military and assail protesters of the Hirak anti-regime movement as “traitors” and “children of France.”
However, opposition and protest figures held firm to their demands, arguing that any future president will have been vetted and approved by the military.
They say the only time the army generals have buckled under popular political pressure was when nationalist independence war hero Mohamed Boudiaf became president in 1992. Boudiaf was killed by an army officer six months later after he bucked the generals and advanced a pledged crackdown in corruption.
All five current presidential candidates, including former prime ministers Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, are insiders who served under Bouteflika. They have defended the army and the electoral process during their campaigns.
Algeria’s 21-day electoral campaign, which began November 17, has been largely limited to closed-door meetings with party members, with an obvious heavy police presence.
Zoubida Assoul, a retired judge and civic activist, said “the presidential candidates are in complete denial of the situation. They pretended that the campaign is taking place in a normal climate.”
Omar Berbiche, editor of El Watan newspaper, said: “The electoral campaign has pushed the country into a cycle of protest-repression-arrests that threatens to intensify and sharpen more in the coming days as the positions of both the Hirak and the regime appear irreconcilable.”
“Nothing is being done by the authorities to appease spirits and prevent the radicalisation of the Hirak with the speeches demonising opponents to the elections as ‘traitors to the nation’ or ‘persons with no roots or links with the people’,” he said.
Opponents of the elections expressed outrage by hanging garbage bags or photos of nationalist heroes and protest activists over presidential candidates’ billboards.
Amnesty International said in a statement November 21 that “it is deeply worried by the climate of repression and restriction of freedom of expression that marked the beginning of the electoral campaign.”
Former senior military intelligence officer Mokhtar Said Mediouni, who backs Gaid Salah’s push for elections, said he thinks “a majority of the Algerians will vote, even those who are participating in the Hirak.”
“While the government tolerates the Hirak, the people of the Hirak are undermining the electoral campaign. It is not normal behaviour in a democracy. The state has to crack down on these people,” he said, adding they were responsible for the violence.
Analysts said they expected the elections to go ahead despite low turnout that some said could undermine the future president’s legitimacy.
“A low turnout will discredit the elections and the elected president,” said political scientist Cherif Dris.