Algerians, now's the time to finish what you started

Algerians, now's the time to finish what you started
Comment: The time has come for Algerians to outmanoeuvre their corrupt regime once and for all, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
06 Dec, 2019
Algerians reject upcoming elections as a sham, as all five candidates have links to Bouteflika[Getty]
Just as the UK goes to the polls on 12 December in the hope of electing the most progressive government in (at least a generation), the people of Algeria are set to boycott their own general election, in what is likely to be the third popular rejection of its kind in a row.

Yet, far from a positive development, this election is set to be boycotted by the vast majority of Algerians.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have continued to march in rejection of what they consider to be a regime-led set-up. The vast majority of civil society organisations have also supported the calls to refuse to participate, and thereby legitimate what they argue, is a stitched-up process. 

However, while the protest movement is likely to massively damage the credibility of the vote, it is also rapidly facing a looming crisis. For while it can outmanoeuvre the regime over and over again, it has not yet been able to force it back decisively, and achieve real, fundamental and lasting change.

Its strategy has been centred on regular mass demonstrations. These have been very effective at showing popular discontent and unifying protesters.

These demos have also allowed the movement to remain energetic for about 10 months. But now, the government is gearing up its repressive measures, attempting to decapitate the movement by locking up leaders. The time for the movement to make the country and the economy ungovernable through continuous mobilisation and strike action, is increasingly urgent.

The Algerian regime has faced sustained pressure and calls for democratisation from its population since - at the very least - the late 1980s. At the time, after originally giving in to popular pressure, the regime, when faced with its potential loss of control over the state institutions - and by extension the vast oil and gas revenues of the Republic - turned to massive repression that precipitated a decade of brutal and bloody civil war.

In the aftermath of this violence, the regime looked to increase both its local and international credibility. It instituted a system of regular election cycles, in which officially sanctioned parties could stand. These highly controlled elections also repeatedly led to the re-election of the president with massive majorities.

These highly controlled elections also repeatedly led to the re-election of the president with massive majorities

If the elections were broadly recognised as a show of democracy, they became insufferable after socio-economic conditions worsened considerably in the aftermath of the global economic downturn.

To add insult to injury, the regime continued to put Bouteflika forward as their presidential candidate, even after he suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him completely. The result, was the explosion in February and popular rejection of his candidacy.

Since then however, the demands of the movement have broadened. Having learned from their own past, as well as the experiences of other revolutions across the region since 2011 that have seen changes at the top without any fundamental transformations in the political and economic regime, the movement has refused attempts by the regime to offer controlled and limited change.

Week after week, mass mobilisations have hit the streets of all cities and towns. Strikes have taken place across both the private and public sectors, and students have mobilised and occupied weekly.

The demands of the movement have been consistent and clear: there can be no meaningful electoral process unless  corruption is ended, regime officials are brought to trial, and current political figures are barred from future office.

It is undeniable that the movement has learned and sharpened its demands throughout these months of struggle. The same, however, is true of the regime.  

In the face of this resistance, it has been forced to cancel attempts at controlled elections twice already. This time however, things seem to be taking a different - and nastier - turn.

The government is attempting - for the first time since February - to bring out its own base of support. In order to do so, it is using the pro-regime trade union federation: the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA). Last week, it called for pro-election demonstrations and brought out thousands of people across a number of cities.

While these mobilisations have undoubtedly been the largest in support of the regime to date, they also pale in comparison to the gigantic crowds that continue to mobilise week in week out in opposition to both the elections and the regime, which is attempting to force them onto the country.

Ironically, since the beginning of the uprising, the union's officials, under the leadership of its general secretary Abdelmajid Sidi Said, have resisted demands from grassroots workers for free internal elections and a change at the top of the federation.

Similarly, the five candidates standing in the presidential elections - all closely associated with different sections of the regime, including with General Gaid Salah who is widely regarded as currently guiding the regime - have attempted to hold election rallies to project an image of normalcy and galvanise supporters to participate.

The demands of the movement have been consistent and clear: there can be no meaningful electoral process without an end to corruption

These attempts have had very mixed results, however. Some had to be cancelled altogether due to poor turn out, while others depended on a massive police presence to take place at all.

The other aspect of the regime's strategy has been to ratchet up repression across the board. Local movement leaders and journalists have been targeted specifically at an increasing rate since September, and most markedly in massive country-wide sweeps that took place last Friday.

These figures, openly critical of the regime and in support of the demonstrators and their demands, are facing ludicrous charges, dignified of the most theatrical of repressive regime.

Human Rights Watch for example,
has reported that these range from "harming national unity", to "undermining the morale of the army."

The scene is therefore set for a direct confrontation in the weeks ahead. While turnout is likely to be extremely low, the regime is clearly wedded to holding the election and using its outcome to legitimise a 'return to order' through repression and subterfuge - a cocktail that has served it well in the past.

The regime is clearly wedded to using the election outcome to legitimise a 'return to order' through repression and subterfuge

While history shows the regime's absolute commitment to power and it's lack of hesitation when it comes to using violence against its own people, the stakes are higher and the situation more complicated this time round.

Indeed, so far the regime has been unable to divide the Hirak, demoralise it, or allow it to tire out. Every attempt has been met with greater mobilisations, unity and demands for a fundamental transformation.

12 December will undoubtedly be a crucial test of the resilience and power of the movement, but the 13th will be all the more important.

The movement will need to decide whether it is prepared to take on the regime more directly and consistently, through moving from weekly demonstrations to mass strike action and continuous mobilisation. It has brilliantly demonstrated the regime's weakness and lack of legitimacy at every turn. It will do so again next week.

Now, it is time to finish what it started 43 weeks ago.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.