Algeria’s old guard destroying its future

Quite apart from the risk of violence, any president elected in such a fashion would carry little credibility with many of his countrymen.
Saturday 21/09/2019
People view the covers of national and foreign newspapers, with the announced Algerian presidential election date dominating headlines, at a stand in Algiers. September 16. (AFP)
Forcing deadlines. People view the covers of national and foreign newspapers, with the announced Algerian presidential election date dominating headlines, at a stand in Algiers. September 16. (AFP)

When the demonstrations that have engulfed Algeria started more than six months ago, Algerian Army Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah threatened the demonstrators with a “Syrian” solution.

He had to swallow his words quickly when the army publication El Djeich, in a pointed rebuke, insisted the army would never consider the people of the country its enemy.

For half a year, Gaid Salah and a crusty group of aged senior generals — average age of more than 70 — feigned to follow this advice and dialogue with the Hirak Movement, as the protest has been called. Last summer, however, they started losing patience with what they saw as a student rumpus. Demonstrators were arrested, information websites taken out and foreign journalists, as well as observers from Human Rights Watch, expelled from the country.

Gaid Salah, who was in the habit of speaking every Tuesday responding to the demonstrations, now fires off virtually daily salvoes against those he accuses of “plotting to destroy” Algeria.

Hirak persists in its refusal to select leaders, convinced — as it turns out rightly — that the high command does not and never has had any intention of opening serious negotiations that might lead to a competent and credible government of transition that could prepare for democratic and transparent presidential elections.

Not all officers share Gaid Salah’s hard-line view but none have chosen to defy him openly.

His ordering presidential elections for December 12 will no doubt result in a sham poll that will be presented as a democratic exercise. Algeria’s foreign partners will acquiesce, thankful that “stability” has returned to Africa’s largest country.

A vote conducted in such conditions is, however, unlikely to bring stability to the country. The electoral register will not be revised in any serious way thus depriving millions of young Algerians, who have never voted, the opportunity to cast a ballot.

As happened when he attempted to force a poll in April and in July, Gaid Salah might find no credible candidates step forward.

Algeria badly needs structural economic reforms, quite apart from new political institutions. As the economic situation worsens, hard currency reserves dwindle and the cost of the endless list of subsidies rises, Algeria may be forced to seek recourse from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

For generals who are so finicky about their patriotic credentials, handing the reins of reform to the IMF would carry immense irony. In the eyes of many Algerians, such a move would amount to no less than an economic betrayal of a country that boasts plenty of competent economists capable of preparing a reform blueprint.

Gaid Salah has decided the gendarmerie would stop the entry into Algiers of any Algerian who does not live in the city.

Two former heads of security, Mohamed Mediene and Athmane Tartag, are to soon go on trial. Will they respect the omerta that has characterised senior security officials who fall on hard times in the past or will they spill the beans? Were they to choose the latter course, several senior generals, including Gaid Salah, could be in for an uncomfortable ride.

Were the vote to go ahead in December, Gaid Salah and his peers would seek to convince their countrymen and the outside world that the Algerian state machine has “been put back on the rails.” Nothing however would be further from the truth.

Quite apart from the risk of violence, any president elected in such a fashion would carry little credibility with many of his countrymen. Reforms cannot be carried out without trust and a minimum of respect of the people for those who lead them.

Not only would Gaid Salah have forfeited that trust but the very fact that a group of very old officers, who are quite out of their depth where modern economics are concerned, control an army in which most younger officers are far better educated than they are does not suggest stability in the future.

Refusing to accept the biological clock is a time-honoured device in authoritarian regimes but unpredictable events have a way of upending the best-laid plans.

Maybe that is what Gaid Salah secretly yearns for: an Algeria whose influence on the regional stage is declining, a younger generation of civilians and military kept well away from the levers of power and the cash cows they have been enjoying for decades.

The country’s foreign partners may acquiesce politely to such a scenario but, if it plays out, it is most unlikely to bring greater stability to Algeria domestically or the broader north-west African region.

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