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Saturday, May 12, 2012
Elections And Instability In Algeria
By Wided Khadraou
Self-immolation in Algeria
instability claimed another self-immolation victim, Rechak Hamza, on April 29.
Hamza set himself on fire in Jijel, in eastern Algeria, suffering third-degree
burns. He was airlifted to a hospital in Constantine before succumbing to his
injuries. His funeral was held on May 2.
was a 25-year old cigarette vendor working in the densely populated Moussa
Village district of Jijel. He committed his desperate act following an
altercation with local police, who forced him to dismantle his stand and only
means of livelihood. For local residents, it was yet another instance of hogra
— an Algerian term for the “contempt” of the ruled by the rulers. Hogra
arrogantly condones the violence of a selected few against the many.
protests broke out in Jijel once the news broke of Hamza’s death in
Constantine. Police attempted to barricade Moussa Village to contain angry crowds
of 1,000 or more people as youths marched on the provincial capital. Tensions
in Jijel remain high, and a police inquiry into the incident is underway.
has seen hundreds of such self-immolations this year, including at least 60 in
the coastal city of Doran alone. Yet unlike in neighboring Tunisia, these
sparks have yet to set Algeria aflame. Many Algerians feel that the country
already had its “Arab Spring” when Islamists won the first round of the
national elections in 1991, leading to a fierce state crackdown and a civil
not likely that the parliamentary elections on May 10 will resolve the deep
divisions in Algerian society. Even before the announcement of the official
results, the Islamist coalition began accusing the authories of election fraud.
The Islamists are shown to be coming in a distant third, behind two
pro-government parties. El Watan and other independent newspapers, citing
country-wide disaffection, have expressed skepticism over the governmen’t final
voter turn-out count.The final report
from international election monitors is not expected before July. Algerians may
not wait that long before resuming their protests.
Bread before Ballots
National Liberation Front (FLN) has ruled Algeria since 1962, surviving the massive
riots in 1988, a decade-long civil war in the 1990s, and more recently the wave
of revolutions in the region. Following an outbreak of protests in Algeria’s
major cities last year, the government instituted a handful of unimpressive
reforms, including a call for parliamentary elections on May 10.
may have other things on their minds. The prices of consumer goods have
steadily increased since late February, leading many to accuse the government
of manipulating food prices ahead of the general elections. The use of food
prices for political leverage is not new in Algeria; analysts seem to be of two
minds about their precise utility. The first camp believes that the government
covertly drives food prices up by controlling the amount of produce available
in the market, then exploiting the rising prices as an electoral issue. Another
school of thought is that rising food prices create a distraction for citizens,
leading them to abstain from the political process (and the opposition) by
forcing them to worry about “le pain quotidien” (daily bread) instead of
opaqueness, corruption, and straightforward hogra of those in power make it
difficult to fully unravel the level of political manipulation in food prices.
But the basic fact remains that Algerian citizens end up footing the bill when
the economy is used in the political struggle to maintain power.
Belkhadem, the secretary general of the FLN and personal representative of
President Bouteflika since 2008, perfectly exemplifies the hogra in Algeria.
Belkhadem is part of a rotating cast of elites in President Bouteflika’s
cabinet who reshuffle themselves among ministries and roles to give the
illusion of change. Belkhadem said in a conference on May 1 in the city of
Boumerdes that the “multiparty and democratic system has not responded to the
aspirations of the Algerian people,” citing the failure of political parties
created since the “opening” of the political field in the late 1980s to create
any alternative programs or offer social solutions. He continued by accusing
certain parties in the opposition of promoting a false platform and unattainable
current political system, which is entirely dominated by the FLN, allows almost
no room for any type of genuine democratic practice. Belkhadem’s comment, a
disingenuous broadside from one of the country’s privileged elites, exemplifies
how far the leadership has strayed from the masses.
suggestion that the FLN — the self-described “party of the mujahideen” — is the
only party that cares about the interests of the nation is insulting to those
who have witnessed the ongoing suppression of genuine popular appeals. Despite
the “opening” of the political field and the broader regional upheavals,
censorship on information in Algeria continues, so most of the population is
forced to get domestic news from foreign new sources. ENTV (the state’s
official television channel) all but blacklisted the opposition parties in the
run-up to the elections. Silencing the opposition in every conceivable way
supports the parody of the democratic system in Algeria.
political parties, nearly half of which are brand new, and numerous independent
candidates are vying to win the newly enlarged parliament’s 462 seats. Yet as
Hadda Hazzam, a columnist for Algerian daily El-Fadjr, wrote, “The majority of
the participating parties have neither platforms nor charismatic figures
capable of promoting change or of creating a powerful opposition against the
authorities.” Average citizens in Algeria are both overwhelmed with the number
of unknown candidates and skeptical of the entire “democratic” process. The
profusion of parties without tangible future plans, as well as a disconnect
between the general populace and the leaders of the parties, all work in favor
of ensuring the existing state of affairs and all of its associated fraud.
of the differences between this election and previous elections is the
delegation of some 200 international monitors. The delegation will remain in
Algeria until June to observe the entire electoral procedure and produce a
report expected in July. But even before election day they ran into problems as
the authorities denied the EU mission’s access to the national voters registry.
Patriots on Fire, one of the rare blogs on Algeria in English, opined,
“Algerian rulers have missed another opportunity and are playing with fire.”
the public’s present lack of interest and cynical attitude toward the
politicians’ empty promises and rhetoric do not detract from the power they
have to dismantle the status quo. Belkhadem did not neglect to urge young
people “not [to] hear those who incite rebellion.” He continued, “I know there
are gaps. But we must protect our country because it is inappropriate to go
back to square one.”
A Missing Link
50th year of independence is this July. It has been 50 years of manipulation
and exploitation by the government. Algeria’s rulers may have evaded the first
wave of regional revolution, but it would be a fatal mistake for them to think
they are now in the clear. Only genuine democratic reform and a rollback of the
hogra-based system can deter more extreme approaches to change in the future.
Cosmetic changes to the political system will only strengthen the hand of
still do not identify with their leaders. According to El Watan, Algeria’s
youth, who make up roughly three-quarters of the country’s 37 million
inhabitants, planned on abstaining en masse in protest of the vote’s
credibility. In order for the country to progress any further, there is a dire
need to start by finally connecting the leaders and the masses. Despite the
hype of reform,the latest election will
not accomplish that goal.
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy In Focus on
-Wided Khadraoui graduated from the London School of Economics with an MSc in
conflict studies. She is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus