Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A new Algeria in the making

The re-election of President Bouteflika is to be welcomed, and could light the way for other Arab states to find harmony between the nationalist revolutions of old and the challenges of modern times, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Algerians went to the polls 17 April to elect a new president, and they voted for the incumbent, President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika who would lead Algeria for the next five years in the context of popular uprisings across the Arab world, including in Tunisia and Libya, two countries that share borders with Algeria. Within the country itself, there have been movements calling for change and to break with the past. These movements have not enjoyed widespread popular support until now, and I doubt if they will gather steam in the foreseeable future.

Six candidates were running for the post, all of them someday members in the historic National Liberation Front. The decision to run for a fourth term on the part of President Bouteflika gave rise to a wave of limited protests on the part of a burgeoning youth movement as well as some associations of the Algerian community living abroad, especially in France. One such movement was called “Barakat” which means, “That’s enough.” The objections stemmed from his ailing health because of a stroke that he suffered last year, in addition to reasons having to do with the desire for change among the youth movements. This movement has been active on social media, but failed to gain popular traction whether in big cities or in the deep country.

One of the serious opponents facing the incumbent president was Ali Benflis, a former prime minister, and a former presidential candidate in the 2004 elections, in which he had won only 6.4 per cent of the votes. This time he got 12.6 per cent of the votes cast against 81 per cent for the incumbent. Benflis refused to concede defeat and accused the government of wide-scale tampering with the results for the benefit of Bouteflika. It is interesting to note that some political forces set up a front against rigging, before the 17 April elections. Most candidates and their supporters had raised the alarm bells and accused the government of making sure that the incumbent president would win the elections.

According to opinion polls conducted before the elections and most knowledgeable observers of the Algerian political scene, the chances of President Bouteflika winning the elections were greater than losing it. Of course, the percentage of those voting for the president is lower this time than it had been in the last presidential elections in 2009 when he got almost 90 per cent of the votes. The score he reached in 2014 remains higher than the one in the first elections he participated in back in 1999. That year he got 79 per cent of the votes. Admittedly, the rate of participation this time was low, at 51.70 per cent; only 11 million voters cast their ballots out of 23 million voters on the electoral lists. The results of the 2014 presidential elections in Algeria testify to the political polarisation that has beset Algerian politics lately. And also to the fact that the boycott movement had a perceptible effect on the Algerian people, particularly among the younger generations.

Why was President Bouteflika the favourite in these elections?

For most Algerians who lived the Black Decade of the 1990s, Bouteflika is the one credited, and rightly so, with putting an end to the atrocities and massacres of the religiously inspired terrorism that cost Algeria 200,000 lives and untold billions of dollars in lost revenues. He also reminds the Algerian people of the golden years of post-independent Algeria under the charismatic leadership of Houari Boumedienne, when their country had been a leading force in Third World politics and affairs. Moreover, the toll, both in terms of human lives and material destruction, let alone the near disintegration of state structures in most countries of the so-called Arab Spring, convinced a majority of Algerians that these times are not years of trial and error.

The next five years in the history of Algeria will determine whether the Algerian people will be able to steer the country on the road of gradual change towards a more open and democratic system away from the threat of falling once more under the influence of Islamic radical forces.

When the Algerian people preferred Bouteflika to other presidential candidates, they were actually voting for a responsible and nationalist leader who could manage change without compromising the stability and security of the Algerians. I think history will ultimately judge him on his success or failure in meeting this historic challenge.

Another challenge facing him will be how to integrate Algerian youth into political life. In other words, how he can channel the energies of the rising generations, who represent more than half of the nation’s population.

A third challenge, no less important than the previous two, is to lessen the dependence of the Algerian economy on petro-dollars. In other words; to diversify the Algerian economy so that oil does not remain the sole source of national wealth in the future.

Whether time will be on his side in tackling these challenges remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: President Bouteflika has the trust of his people and enough historic and political legitimacy to adopt policies that would ultimately modernise Algeria, both politically and economically.

The main obstacle remains the obscurantist forces in Algerian society and politics, the same as in Egypt and the Arab world. How Algeria will contain these forces and start the process of modernisation will have a telling effect in the process of modernisation in the Arab world. This is the reason why I welcome the free choice of the Algerian people in re-electing President Abdel- Aziz Bouteflika, a living symbol of the Arab national revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s. What we badly need in the Arab world today is to reconcile the ideals of those historic revolutions with the modern world.

The Algerian experience in this respect, in the fourth term of the Algerian president, will determine, to a large extent, whether the Arabs are capable of renewal and modernisation without compromising their independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

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