The Algerian people and their republic are about to be hijacked again. After almost two years of silence that included a stroke, two visits to Val-de-Grâce and one to Les Invalides military hospitals in France, Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his candidature for a fourth term in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled to take place on the 17th of April 2014. “Announced” by proxy that is, given that the old president doesn’t seem able to put together a single sentence without editorial intervention. His prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal made the announcement for him at a press conference on the margin of the African ministerial conference on green economy last February.
The announcement divided a barely existing, weak and fragmented political class, with reactions ranging from the usual supporters hailing the news with an equally old and absurd discourse of stability, to those declaring it as a continuity of a fraudulent process that will ultimately amount to a coup on the republic. The Algerian street is expressing growing contempt and frustration with this announcement too, particularly in the capital, but in a police state, peaceful sit-ins continue to be swiftly and heavily repressed.
With his typical indifference to the will of the people, the old president went ahead and made his announcement concrete, officially signing his application for a potential fourth term of presidency a few days ago at the Constitutional Council.
Beyond the masquerade of a sick, immobile and inarticulate president postulating to lead a country by proxy lie a number of issues. First, despite guarantees of the neutrality of administration, state institutions have been hijacked by Bouteflika’s clan. His prime minister does not hesitate to use publicly funded institutions and activities to drive Bouteflika’s presidential campaign prior to officially resigning and leaving his position to an interim PM. This included touring 40 of the 48 Wilayas, which was unprecedented – never in the life of independent Algeria has a prime minister managed to cover so much ground consecutively – and hijacking the opening of Bouteflika’s parliament. Then again, Bouteflika is no stranger to marginalising the Algerian people and treading on their constitution. He was only able to “serve” a third term by meddling with the constitution in the first place, having managed to pass a law abrogating any limits on presidential terms that many deemed illegal and unconstitutional. Back then, Bouteflika preferred to pass this law through a parliament vote rather than a popular referendum – as originally promised – and with deputies’ salaries rising ever so high, it’s easy to see why he chose the former option. Today, we are indeed paying the price for letting the 2008 amendment pass by without making more fuss about it.
Second, with too much emphasis being placed on Bouteflika’s potential fourth term, both by the majority of the “opposition” and the movement on the streets, there is a real danger in reducing the Algerian problem to the person of the president and his entourage. While perhaps necessary, given the current context of the elections, such emphasis must not lead us to forget that Bouteflika was brought into power by a regime and that, over the past 15 years, the two have learned to work with each other and sustain one another. Focusing too much on Bouteflika means ignoring the very roots of the Algerian problem and hence potentially hindering any long term solutions that could redress it.
In fact, focusing on Bouteflika alone at this crucial point might just be playing right into the regime’s hand. The physical and mental fitness of this old president is so questionable that the masquerade of his candidacy seems more likely to be a smoke screen through which the regime could establish its new façade. Placing emphasis on Bouteflika’s candidature could therefore be the very distraction the regime needs to eventually give the Algerian people, at least those who are expressing appall at a potential fourth term, an illusionary sense of achievement, victory and relief when the results of the 17th of April announce a different winner. We could be witnessing the regime’s new approach to anticipating containment of the growing dissent, a dissent that could shake its stature in the international scene and see its final demise. The Algerian regime has certainly shown it’s capable of realising more incredible scenarios than this.
What is likely to refute this hypothesis, however, is the very ego of this old president. Bouteflika is a relentless seeker of grandeur, with his ambitions to win the Nobel Prize for peace, despite disastrous injustices that resulted from the so called reconciliation program, and incredible expenditures on such things as a gigantic mosque that will bear his name in the midst of souring levels of poverty. Bouteflika started his presidential journey having won an election for which he was the only candidate. He’s likely to do anything to finish this journey and die a president regardless of how this might impact the country’s already shaken sovereignty and stability. It is quite fair to say that he is unlikely to stand for entering a presidential race without guarantees of a win.
What is certain is that the regime is running out of options. Now is therefore the right time for innovation, both in terms of coming up with creative tactics to defeat it, and in terms of drawing an outline for a peaceful period of transition that would hopefully lead us to revolutionise the way we run this country. That is, constructing an alternative paradigm of governance where we build a transparent system that redefines the relationship between the people and their state institutions and between the government and its opposition. The Algerian people should take heed, the problem is not Bouteflika, even though he is one of its worst manifestations, but the regime that sustains/ed him, and which is currently trying very hard to save face. It’s as a tough task as ever, but we desperately need to change this regime that got used to choosing presidents for us and cares for nothing but its interests, once and for all, right now is a golden opportunity to stand up and do so.