Protesters await military's next move as Algeria's election deadline looms

While the unrest has jolted the status quo, has yet to develop a concrete path to change outside of the scope of the ruling establishment.
Sunday 19/05/2019
A police officer sprays tear gas at anti-government protesters in Algiers, May 17. (Reuters) 
A battle of nerves. A police officer sprays tear gas at anti-government protesters in Algiers, May 17. (Reuters) 

TUNIS - Algeria’s opposition leaders and activists are waiting to see if the military will press ahead with an electoral timetable that protesters have rejected as too rushed.

The government set May 19 has as the deadline for presidential prospects to declare their candidacy ahead of elections July 4. The opposition said that is an insufficient amount of time to mount a serious challenge to a long-ruling establishment.

Political analysts said Algeria’s powerful military leaders, who have been the country’s de facto rulers since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted April 2, are pursuing "a change within the regime” rather than a “change of the regime” that protesters want.

They warned that, by bucking protesters’ demands for a political overhaul, the country could experience another spate of violence.

The Algerian Interior Ministry said that about 70 people had declared their candidacy for the election. Military leader General Ahmed Gaid Salah, a central figure in Algeria’s political transition, is thought to be fielding his own candidate to shore up his power and influence.

Political writer Ali Titouche said there are “no candidates with popular or regional support” and that elections are unlikely to go ahead because protests continue each Friday against the process.

Mass protests broke out in Algeria when Bouteflika, 82 and wheelchair bound, declared he would seek a fifth term in office in February. Demonstrations continued even after Bouteflika stepped down, with protesters calling for a complete political overhaul.

While the movement has jolted the status quo, it has yet to develop a concrete path to change outside of the scope of the ruling establishment. Instead, the military is set against a large, disparate protest movement that has no clear leadership.

How the military moves forward with the country’s election timetable, including whether it enforces the election deadline, will significantly affect Algeria’s future, analysts say.

Gaid Salah promised to maintain "harmony" and "unity" between the army and protesters, who have repeatedly chanted "army and the people are brothers" during demonstrations.

Analysts said Gaid Salah has benefited the most from the demonstrations, using protesters’ demands to purge the political system of his rivals.

Gaid Salah, who previously gave a weekly public update on the nation’s progress, has been silent for two weeks, adding to protesters’ concerns that the government could clamp down on those who oppose its road map.

An editorial by El Moudjahid, a newspaper close to the government, said authorities will “go after all those... activists who hamper the electoral process.”

Political writer Chekri Said pointed out that millions of Algerians are speaking out against the scheduled elections.

“Millions of Algerians repeated it each Friday and students chanted it this Tuesday (May 14) with lawyers protesting against it and opposition figures underlining it again and again that the presidential election will not take place July 4 but the ruling political power continues to ignore all them," said Said.

Gaid Salah, who has floated the possibility of replacing Bouteflika himself, said the electoral timeframe must be followed as per the constitution.

"Gaid Salah's emphasis over the July 4 elections prompted many around him to ask whether the general has his own candidate among the 70 aspirants named by the Interior Ministry," said political writer Ghania Oukazi.

“Gaid Salah continues settling accounts with his rivals through the judiciary. His camp and its rival clans are expected to stage attacks and counterattacks in the weeks and months ahead until the July 4 election."

Said Saadi, a secularist opposition figure, said the army leadership “has stopped communicating with the public. It is acting and with high speed and often with no respect to the law. All its decisions are directed at restoring the old order."

"We are in presence of two actors: the military and the protests. They project two distinct destinies for the country," he added.

Political analyst Kamel Lakhdar Chaouche warned that Algeria could descend into violence if a consensus is not reached.

"Algeria has suffered cycles of violence each 10 or 20 years since its independence 57 years ago because of infighting between successive regime clans. We are anew in the face of a new cycle fraught of risks of violence and civil war,” he said.

Journalist Abed Charef said the military has a "Plan B" for the “to-be doomed elections.”

"Those who suspect the military of resorting to force, the army's move after the failure of the elections will prove them wrong," he said.

"In the shadow of the army, Interim President [Abdelkader] Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui pretend to manage the country's affairs with no conviction.

“This unprecedented situation will push the army, the real power, to unveil its Plan B. It is imminent. The army has never believed in the July 4 elections even when its leader defended the respect of its legal window."