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The death of politics in Algeria

Less than a year before the 2019 presidential election, many are worried that a lifetime presidency for Bouteflika is inevitable

In early 2014, a political protester in Algeria made a sensational entrance. A gynaecologist from Algiers and mother of two, Amira Bouraoui organised, with a very small group, the first sit-in protest against the announcement of the candidacy of Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fourth term.

As a weakened president who had not spoken to his people in two years, he could not even campaign for his own re-election.

An anti-Bouteflika icon

Bouraoui became a kind of anti-Bouteflika icon and the spokesperson for a movement gaining momentum, Barakat ("Enough"). Week after week, she went to the streets to demonstrate, and got hauled off to all the police stations of Algiers in the company of her fellow activists.

The violence of the smear campaigns - both on social media and in the pro-regime, private press - against members of Barakat at the time was unprecedented. Arrests and administrative harassment, insults, and threats of all kinds failed to slow the momentum of those opposed to the president's fourth term.

But in mid-April of that year, Bouteflika crushed his opponents in a strange election for which he had not even campaigned.

Amira Bouraoui is pictured at a rally in Algiers protesting Bouteflika's fourth term in 2014 (Facebook)
Mobilised against the idea of a fourth term, the partisan opposition, secular and Islamist, found themselves on the same anti-Bouteflika front, overcoming the ideological divisions that had persisted since the outbreak of war in the 1990s. The atmosphere allowed for the detection of future possibilities, where politics is rebuilt on the ruins of soft and dying authoritarianism.

Despite the heaviness of the recent past and of obsolete figures clinging to the present, the relative hope of renewing Algeria's political options contrasts sharply with the Martian landscape preceding the 2019 presidential election.

Hope for renewal

On 12 March 2018, after four years of fierce activism on the ground and via social media, Bouraoui said she wanted to throw in the towel, faced with the inevitability of a fifth term for Bouteflika.

"I fought against the rape of the constitution in 2008, I fought against a fourth term in 2014, and I will fight against a fifth term for 2019 ... That said, if there is a fifth mandate in spite of everything, I will leave Algeria," she said. "I believe that if a people accepts such contempt, you need a new people, a new country.

"Not to recognise yourself among your own means you need to find a new place. Submissive people are not my cup of tea. I will never speak again about Algeria. That's a promise."

This game of shadow puppets surely affected the subconsciousness of the political scene, which allowed itself to imagine alternatives, openings, and divisions at the heart of the decision-making core

In Algiers opposition circles, this tirade went off like a bomb. Some observers have criticised Bouraoui for dismissing what she calls the "people" without understanding that Algerians are more disillusioned than submissive vis-a-vis a system that refuses to change.

But at its core, Bouraoui's attitude is not the expression of an individual burnout or an isolated disenchantment: The sense that a lifetime presidency for Bouteflika is inevitable shows that politics is dead in Algeria.

The opposition that united in 2014 - including Sofiane Djilali, president of Jil Jadid (left), Noureddine Bahbouh, former minister and president of the UFDS (centre) and Abderrezak Makri, president of the MSP (right), has shattered (Adlène Meddi/MEE)
Biological fatality remains the only possible plan for everyone, including the opposition. Over the past four years, it seems the only strategy has been to accept the long wait for a "divine" denouement - reducing to nearly nothing the impact of the wide swath of opposition after the 2014 election, the activism of certain media and civil society actors, and the criticism of former senior military officers and state officials.

Counter-powers within the system

In the months leading up to the 2014 election, there was a dynamic movement in the streets and in living rooms: the choices of the presidential inner circle were being challenged because somewhere - and many firmly believed this - counter-powers within the system would never let "this" happen.

Take, for example, the former DRS security services chief Mohamed Mediene, aka General Toufik, who was the most powerful regime figure among those opposing a fourth term: Bouteflika had him retired amid a massive purge of the security services.

Only the disappearance of the head of state, before or after the next presidential election, will change the situation

This game of shadow puppets surely affected the subconsciousness of the political scene, which allowed itself to imagine alternatives, openings, and divisions at the heart of the decision-making core.

Even the more combative media outlets that had emerged as major players over more than 20 years had to tone it down after April 2014, as the system worked to amplify the consequences of the drying-up of advertising revenues following the collapse in energy prices on which the economy floats.

Inevitability was imposed by a system that destroyed itself, reducing the options to one: renewal, for eternity, of the lease to El Mouradia palace to the regime's sole candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

State of aphasia

It is a candidacy by default - a candidacy imposed by the choice of a man who has decided to place a high price on his succession that no one can outbid. This price is his own life, with the conviction of having "dedicated it to the country", to use the words of the head of state, whispered to an African host in 2013.

Within this power structure, the other decision-makers – army staff, special services, and the central administration – have validated Bouteflika’s mandate for life by default, but the majority of the opposition actors have also complied with this, without openly or frankly saying so.

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The state of aphasia characterising the Algerian political scene – with the exception of a few inflexible outsiders – is the result of this profound belief that nobody wants to express in public: only the disappearance of the head of state, before or after the next presidential election, will change the situation.

It is a kind of taboo opinion that everyone shares, both the opposition and the regime, without anyone daring to proclaim it clearly.

This also partially explains the fatalism demonstrated by wide sections of Algerian society, convinced that it is useless to struggle against the biological agenda, or the will of God, who holds all lives in his hands according to the Muslim faith.

- Adlène Meddi is an Algerian writer and journalist for Middle East Eye. Former editor-in-chief of El Watan Week-end in Algiers, the weekly version of the most influential francophone Algerian daily, and contributor for the French magazine Le Point, he has written three political thrillers about Algeria and co-wrote Jours Tranquilles à Alger (Riveneuve, 2016) with Mélanie Matarese. He is also a specialist in Algerian internal politics and secret services.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye .

Photo: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 80, could run for a fifth term in spring 2019 (AFP)

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