Algeria drifts toward a darker future

Published 26.02.2019 21:40
Updated 27.02.2019 00:45
A protester holds up the Algerian flag during a rally against the Algerian president's bid for a fifth term in office, at the Place de la Republique in Paris, February 24, 2019.
A protester holds up the Algerian flag during a rally against the Algerian president's bid for a fifth term in office, at the Place de la Republique in Paris, February 24, 2019.

Thousands of people have come out on the streets in Algiers and other cities to protest vehemently against the nomination of Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term in the upcoming presidential elections.

Some of the reasons behind the protests against Bouteflika's nomination have to do with his health. The president has seldom been seen in public in the last seven years. He has been in constant medical care and mostly outside of Algeria. He has had cerebral vascular accidents and nobody has heard his voice in the last seven years. In official public ceremonies, only his photo is present and homages are paid to the picture instead.

Bouteflika is not just any politician. He was among the political elite that fought the French for independence starting in 1956 and onward with the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). As a young man, he would then become a right arm to Houari Boumediene, the politician who presided over the destinies of an independent Algeria. While Boumediene ejected Ahmed Ben Bella, who was the historic leader of the independence movement, from power, Bouteflika has taken the opportunity to consolidate his position as the "visible face of the Algerian revolution."

Boumediene, who thought that Bouteflika was not experienced enough, destroyed his political career before his death in 1978. He died despite the efforts of Soviet doctors to cure him and most likely fell victim to undiagnosed cancer. Bouteflika did not succeed him, instead, Chadli Benjedid, a non-FLN elite figure who served as a minister of defense after independence, took over the presidency. The military was virtually in command and they opted for Chadli as a compromise candidate. The end of Chadli's period coincided with the most violent and tumultuous era of independent Algeria. In 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party under the guidance of Abbasi Madani and Ali Belhadj won the first round of parliamentary elections against all odds. They were poised to obtain a landslide victory and absolute majority in the second and final round of the elections. An army intervention forced Chadli to resign, declaring a state of emergency and dissolving the parliament and disallowing any democratic transition that would have favored an Islamist movement. This would result in a very long and violent civil strife in Algeria, and would claim more than 100,000 victims.

Following this Mohamed Boudiaf was nominated as president, a controversial figure of the Algerian revolution he would go on to be assassinated by his own bodyguard.

Liamine Zeroual, a former army officer, was then nominated as the head of the ruling Higher State Council. In 1995, he would comfortably win the presidential elections which took place under high-security conditions. Since then Algerian elections have mainly been "pre-prepared" and the secular opposition, like the Islamist opposition, don't stand much chance.

Civil strife further divided the eastern Algerian regions mainly inhabited by the Kabyle and Berber populations, while western Algeria remains deeply Arabic. The regime was victorious at the end of the civil war, but very much like the Soviet ruling elite, the ruling nomenclature more and more looked like gerontocracy. In 1999 Bouteflika was elected as a moderate figure after Zeroual's period and which led to a great reconciliation. A referendum approved President Bouteflika's law on civil concord, the result of long and largely secret negotiations with the armed wing of the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS). Thousands of members of the AIS and other armed groups were pardoned. There were also steps by Bouteflika for the recognition of the Berber's native language, Tamazight, and promises to invest more in the Kabyle areas.

Despite the liberal steps taken by Bouteflika and his regime, terrorism would never be eradicated from Algeria and continue under the name of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and then al-Qaida. The constitution was amended to allow Bouteflika to get a third then fourth mandate through very non-transparent elections. In 2013 President Bouteflika suffered a stroke and was taken to France where he received intensive care. He has never recovered fully and remains a straw man for the army and the ruling elite.

Now he will be a candidate for a fifth time, although he should be under constant care in a hospital. This shows the deterioration and fragility of the regime, who cannot produce a compromise candidate to replace Bouteflika. The French paper Liberation called the coming Algerian presidential elections "The return of the Mummy." The secular opposition is divided, weak and under pressure. It is a real pity to see the future of such a beautiful, rich and important country of the Maghreb in such a desperate state.

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