Faced with a loss of leverage after elections or jail for opposing it, Algerians feel the country is not ready for elections.
Only a day after Algerian protestors nearly stormed current Defence Minister and Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah’s private residence, elections were announced by the interim president for December 12.
Feelings are mixed about the elections.
“I think too many people are seeing this as an immediate process. It’s not. The next elected president may not be ideal, but if we could get Bouteflika to step down, we can get him to do what needs to be done too. This will take many, many years of reform. My only fear is that the public attention span may be exhausted well before that,” says Zinou Idrisi, a law student in Setif, Algeria.
Bread and games
The older generation is more cynical.
“It’s not that simple. They could employ ‘Talhiyat al-Sha‘b’. It’s a classic counter-revolution move”, says an Algerian student based in Malaysia who requested to remain anonymous. ‘Talhiyat al-Sha‘b’’ literally means public distraction.
“Not too long ago,” he continues, “whenever the regime saw signs of public discontent, we’d suddenly find the gas stations ran out of diesel, or there was a major seizure of drugs and weapons. In one protest in Setif, just two years prior, everyone got text messages saying subsidised flour was being handed out on the other side of town. The protest broke up.”
Enough is enough
Weeks ago, Gaid Salah publicly declared that the demands of the protest movement were met. That he was able to make the statement without invoking popular wrath speaks much of the concessions he made, and even more of the entrenched power he still holds.
The attempt to storm his house comes days after he issued an ultimatum to the opposition and parliament following changes to election laws, while pushing for an early election.
“You are either clearly siding with Algeria or with its enemies,” Gaid Salah said last week on national television. “Algeria will overcome the crisis and no one will be able to stop this.”
Having styled himself as a saviour of the revolution, Gaid Salah has not stood in the way of change, for the most part, instead opting to take credit for protecting the people’s revolution.
But in spite of public discord and a general unwillingness to rush to elections, it seems Gaid Salah is willing to gamble with further public discord.
Crossing the rubicon
“He’s rushing for elections and risking the public’s anger because for the first time, there’s a collective target on his back. He can’t hide behind platitudes anymore, and the best he can do is ensure an election with his man in office before he gets pulled down under waves of protestors,” says Mohammed El-Eulmawi, a software engineer who spoke to TRT World.
Protestors in Algeria have maintained they are not opposed to elections. They simply believe that any leverage they have against the current regime will disappear after a transitional period is over, compounded by the belief that the ‘Old Guard’ will not withdraw from politics without a fight.
“They’re still in there, you know? Look at the recently passed law that gives between six months and three years of prison time for anyone who opposes the election decision. That’s a trademark move of ‘Le Pouvoir’ [The Power],” says Khaled Djmeli, an associate professor of political science at Batna University, speaking to TRT World.
“That’s how they operate. Can you tell me Algeria has really changed, if you can still get sentenced to jail for disagreeing? Where are our freedoms?”
Responding in force
Algiers saw hundreds of protestors marching against elections, chanting: “We will not vote until the regime men are all removed.”
To date, the Algerian government has detained a number of senior figures on charges of corruption. They’ve also ramped up pressure on protesters as well, arresting leaders of opposition groups, with police coming out in force at protests.
Two former prime ministers, two former intelligence chiefs, eight ministers and several notable businessmen have been taken into custody and questioned by judges in anti-corruption investigations. Two prominent opposition figures, namely Karim Tabou and Lakhdar Bouragaa, were also detained recently on charges of “contributing to weakening the army’s morale”.
It remains to be seen whether Sunday’s announcement of elections and a stronger police presence at demonstrations will dampen protests or lead to civilian disobedience.
For now, ahead of a major planned protest on Friday, protestors continue to chant “We will not stop our protests” as they call for the resignation of Interim President Ben Salah, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui.