Algeria’s new president reaches out to protesters but huge uncertainties remain

Algeria's former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune was declared the winner of the December 12 presidential election.
Sunday 15/12/2019
‘New page’. Newly elected Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaks at a press conference in Algiers, December 13.  (AP)
‘New page’. Newly elected Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaks at a press conference in Algiers, December 13. (AP)

TUNIS - Algeria avoided irreversible damage of a potential bloody showdown between security and protesters when it carried out its first presidential election since the removal of long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power last April.

Former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a 74-year-old technocrat, was declared the winner of the December 12 vote, which was marked by a mass boycott but no major violence, despite protesters shutting polling stations in most of the restive Kabylie region.

Managing to conduct the election was, in itself, a win for the army. There were high stakes for the military command to salvage the elections and avoid bloodshed as a test of its authority and credibility.

The same day he was declared the election’s winner, Tebboune expressed determination to work for compromise with protest figures and opposition parties. He seemed interested in co-opting — not confronting — the protest movement.

“I address directly the Hirak (protest movement), which I have repeatedly blessed and supported, to extend my hand for serious dialogue with them, for the sake of Algeria and only Algeria,” he said.

Lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi, a leading figure among the protesters, said the movement, much more than the vote, was bound to be a determining factor that “will usher in a future for Algeria.”

Tebboune’s offer of direct dialogue with protesters and his pledges to free unfairly tried detainees and introduce constitutional and electoral reforms, setting up local and legislative elections, will provide him a grace period.

“I commit myself to redress all injustices suffered by the Algerians during the rule of the gang,” he vowed, referring to the Bouteflika era. But the trial of “corrupt” leaders will continue, Tebboune said.

Tebboune’s election as president is unlikely to quickly end the political stalemate. Protests intensified the day after the vote as many Algerians feared the election could be a ruse to keep army-backed elites in power.

Analysts cited Algerians’ high turnout in recent demonstrations as an indication that Tebboune will face a tough task addressing the country’s social crisis, fuelled by a dire economic situation with key oil earnings falling and a planned 9% public spending cut next year.

“The huge number of protesters at the day following the vote suggests that nothing was resolved and the stalemate remains complete. The Hirak will continue with the same intensity,” predicted political writer Makhlouf Mehenni.

Tebboune hopes, however, to engage a peaceful political and economic transition.

“I will work with all Algerians to turn the page of the past and open a new page of a new republic with a new mindset and new approach,” he said.

A “new page” of stability in Algeria would be a welcome development for the country’s neighbours in the Maghreb, Sahel and the Western Mediterranean.

Algeria shares a 6,500km border with six countries, many of them weakened by the fallout of the “Arab spring” uprisings, jihadist threats and by foreign interventions in Mali, Niger and Libya.

The bloody assault by jihadists of a Niger army base December 10 displayed the limits of strategies implemented by France and other Western powers to stem jihadism in the Sahel.

France’s complex relations with Algeria were illustrated by Tebboune’s response to French President Emmanuel Macron, who had advised Algeria’s new president to engage in dialogue with protesters. “He can sell what he wants at home. I am only accountable to Algerians,” Tebboune said.