In Algeria, Tensions Flare Up as Unwanted Elections Approach
The protesters’ efforts in Algiers and other Algerian cities and towns seem to grow in the face of the approaching presidential elections, which the military vehemently backs, and which people in the streets now march against in their months-long weekly protests.
Last Friday, November 29, marked the 41st time Algerians took to the streets in peaceful defiance of the country’s ruling elite. The protests, colloquially called “Hirak”, began during the second half of February 2019, after the former president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced he was to run for a fifth presidential term.
Once backed by the army, Bouteflika, who had been the country’s president since 1999, was soon compelled to resign early in April, some six weeks after the Hirak started. The protests were expected to peter out after the former president’s departure.
Yet people still took to the street in dissatisfaction with the new caretaker government and the interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah. The elections that were to be held on April were postponed to July following Bouteflika’s departure.
Amid further demonstrations, though, the Algerian Constitutional Council postponed the elections again to December. But people are still taking to the streets every Friday afternoon and in other days, such as Tuesday for students, as the December 12 elections approach.
Although seeking a “true democracy,” the protesters have objected to the upcoming elections, as they see in them an opportunity for the ruling elite to remain in power. They demand a thorough purge of the ruling hierarchy. The “they should all leave” catchphrase is still one of the demonstrations’ most recurrent.
Five candidates were promptly presented on the ballot, with the campaign having officially started by mid-November. But each of these candidates had been either prime minister or minister or senior official under Bouteflika.
“There will be no vote with the gang,” the people now chanted, deeming the candidates’ run but another ploy of the regime to save the status quo.
The protesters say the elections cannot be fair and free as long as the military and senior officials from the old ruling hierarchy, once represented by Bouteflika, remain in power.
The Hirak is leaderless and only aims at a radical change within Algeria’s politics, demanding that corruption ends and that the military quits politics.
The army, now the main actor in the country’s affairs, said the elections were the only way to restore normality, by making an end to the protest movement, and to escape the constitutional limbo that followed Bouteflika’s departure.
With only a few days ahead of the elections, the protesters appear to be stepping up demonstrations, even as the authorities ramp up the number of arrests. Late in November, protesters in Algiers and other cities took to the streets at night, defying the repression that has recently grown in regular daytime protests.
An alarming number of individuals were recently arrested in links to the Hirak, many of whom were detained after they protested against the upcoming elections or the army’s ever more patent interference in Algerian politics.
While some protesters hang garbage bags in places reserved for electioneering, others vandalized those spaces with anti-government graffiti or hanging posters of opposition figures who currently stand behind bars. Many were sentenced to 18-month prison terms on accusations of “disrupting the elections.”
Causing a sweeping controversy in Algeria, the European Parliament recently said it worried about issues of human rights and freedom in Algeria. (An overwhelming majority of Algerians on both sides – anti- and pro-government – agreed that there should not be any foreign interference in such tense times.)
Other protesters were arrested after they held Berber – an Algerian ethnic group – flags during demonstrations, and were detained on accusations of “undermining the integrity of national territory.”
Many others, coming from other cities to the capital Algiers, were often deprived of their freedom of movement, as they were denied access to Algiers during days of protests so that they would not add to the capital’s massive rallies.
The Human Rights Watch and other NGOs also said that the growing number of recent arrests aimed at weakening the people’s aspiration for democracy. The army and the establishment hope for enough participation to legitimize the new president, who would then act to bring an end to the Hirak.