Tensions escalate in Algeria over presidential election

The Algerian Interior minister calls presidential vote’s opponents “traitors.”
Sunday 08/12/2019
Azzedine Mihoubi, presidential candidate and secretary-general of the Democratic National Rally, delivers a speech during an election campaign rally in Algiers, December 4. (DPA)
The military’s man. Azzedine Mihoubi, presidential candidate and secretary-general of the Democratic National Rally, delivers a speech during an election campaign rally in Algiers, December 4. (DPA)

TUNIS - Algeria’s Interior minister assailed Algerians opposing upcoming presidential elections as “perverts, homosexuals and traitors” while army-backed authorities moved towards a bitter showdown with a 9-month-old democracy movement that calls the vote an imposture.

“They are fake Algerians, traitors, mercenaries, perverts, homosexuals. We know them one by one,” Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune said December 3 in unprecedented criticism by a government official of the protests and their leading figures.

“They are not like us. They did not belong to us,” added Dahmoune.

Algeria’s military commander, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, de facto ruler of the country since long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted April 2, described the December 12 elections as the continuation of Algeria’s independence war against France’s colonial rule.

“If November marked the liberation of our dear homeland from a brutal colonisation of 132 years, December will have the honour of completing the construction of Algeria as state of law,” said Gaid Salah, referring to the independence struggle that began November 1, 1954.

He urged a massive electoral turnout to “deliver a slap on the face of all those who are plotting against Algeria at home and abroad.”

“That slap will come as strong as the blows delivered by the Algerians during their successive battles against colonialism during 132 years of resistance and fight,” Gaid Salah added.

Algeria has been without an elected president since the overthrow of Bouteflika and authorities scrapped planned elections twice because of protests.

Protesters’ hostility cast a pall over the election campaign with Algerian analysts saying the vote would not dampen the momentum of the protests, which have been going on for 42 weeks.

The elections are widely seen as designed to end the protests without recourse to brutal force. Candidates insist that “elections are the only way to determine the wishes of the people not the marches in the streets” and “the next elected president will satisfy the demands of the protesters.”

The presidential candidates — two former prime ministers, two ministers and a former leader of the ruling party’s youth wing — are veteran regime loyalists and remain firm in their support of the military. They have not had much success in changing the mood of the protesters, who marked their rallies with noisy demonstrations calling the presidential hopefuls “traitors of the Hirak (pro-democracy movement).”

Approximately 150 anti-election campaign protesters have been arrested, some of them sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The EU parliament passed a resolution backing the protesters’ demands for a political transition, opposing elections under the current government and condemning the arrests of protests’ activists.

The resolution’s approval prompted anger from Gaid Salah and other government leaders and the ire of some Algerians who accused the Europeans of meddling in Algeria’s internal affairs with thousands of pro-government supporters taking to the streets to support the elections.

The candidates have been varied in their approaches to convince voters of the necessity of the elections as the way to pull the country out of its “political impasse.”

They warned that the only alternative to the elections would be “another Black Decade” an allusion to the brutal civil war in the 1990s that followed the annulling of the first free parliamentary elections, which were won by the Islamists.

The warnings rang hollow among the protesters, who chanted: “You will not frighten us with the Black Decade. The misery had

hardened us.”

Even when the candidates campaigned in towns where the protests appeared not as strong, activists trailed them with noisy gatherings posted

 to social media.

Candidate Abdelkader Bengrina, a former Muslim Brotherhood official who switched sides to be Tourism minister under Bouteflika, was confronted by protesters in his hometown Ouargla in southern Algeria. They called him “thief and traitor of the Hirak.”

When he tried to reach out to voters in the northern city of Bouira, Bengrina was hemmed in by protesters who heard him claim: “I’m with the Hirak but the elections are the only alternative.”

Former ruling National Liberation Front chief and ex-Prime Minister Ali Benflis was jeered and shouted down by protesters in Tlemcen in the west, Annaba, Guelma and Oued Souf in the east. He called off a rally in Maghnia, near the border with Morocco.

Algerian media close to the government suggested that Benflis and former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune were the favourites of the army command to succeed Bouteflika. However, as the elections drew nearer, pro-government media speculated that former Information Minister Azzedine Mihoubi, a poet, had become the first choice of the military.

Mihoubi was the only candidate who met with ambassadors of main European countries and Arab countries, including Germany and Saudi Arabia.

Tebboune, who was initially deemed the favoured candidate of Gaid Salah, saw his campaign manager stepping down without explanation and one of his campaign funders jailed on corruption accusations.

The army command announced it “had no preference for any candidate” but its concern is to ensure that protests will not be a deterrent for voters.

“I have given strict order to the Algerian People’s National Armed Forces troops and members of the security forces to observe the highest degrees of alertness and cautiousness to foil any malicious attempt or machination to undermine the evolving of this significant event and stop anyone disrupting this electoral process in any way, shape or form,” said Gaid Salah.

Analysts, however, said the protests would continue whatever the outcome of the vote.

“All indications point to the continuation of the movement with or without the elections of December 12 to press with the main claim to rebuild Algeria into a civil state with the genuine power handover to civilians after a transition period,” said sociologist Mohamed Ben Ahmed, who is managing director of Social Sciences magazine.