Wahid Megherbi moved to Canada from his native Algeria 11 years ago. Earlier this week, the 44-year-old said the Algerian community in his adoptive home of Montreal is “unanimous” in its opposition to Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s push for a fourth term as Algeria’s president.
“The people are living in a democracy in Canada. They know what political change means… The people want the power to change hands, especially since the president is 77 years old,” Megherbi told Al Jazeera.
Megherbi is the Canada-based correspondent of the Algerian newspaper Le Soir d’Algerie, and he moderates a Facebook page called “Algerians of Montreal”, which counts over 16,500 members. In 2006, the Montreal metropolitan area was home to about 16,200 registered, Algerian-born new immigrants. This figure represented 88.6 percent of the total Algerian population in Canada at the time.
According to the Algerian press service, 11,000 Algerians in Montreal were registered to vote in this week’s presidential elections from abroad. Megherbi said conversations within the Algerian community have been dominated in recent weeks by the vote: “The diaspora has a considerable role to play, and they feel very concerned by this election,” he said.
Algerians will head to the polls to vote for the country’s president on April 17. But Algerians living abroad have already begun casting their ballots: There are an estimated one million eligible voters abroad, making up about five percent of the total Algerian electorate.
Approximately 815,000 Algerian citizens and double-nationality holders have registered to vote in the upcoming elections from France, according to French newspaper Le Monde.The Algerian embassy announced last Saturday that voting was open at 18 different locations across the country between April 12 and 17.
Many of the presidential candidates have made campaign promises specifically targeting expatriate Algerians. Bouteflika, for instance, has vowed to make public housing accessible to Algerians based outside of the country, open Algerian banks outside of the country (especially in France), lower the cost of airline tickets to Algeria and improve Algerian consular services.
For his part, Ali Benflis, the former Algerian prime minister and Bouteflika’s main challenger, has promised to create a High Council for Algerians living abroad, facilitate investments in Algeria for those living outside the country, and ease the return of Algerians wishing to come back home.
“I’m also thinking about the youth that have grown up and studied abroad, notably in France. This youth has competencies and represents tremendous potential for Algeria. I want to say to this youth that it has its full place in Algeria,” Benflis said.
We want the country to become a democratic country. But on the other hand, after having lived through the war of Algeria, we want the country to preserve its calm and security.
Algerians currently make up the largest immigrant population in France. While official government tallies put the number of Algerians in France at approximately 900,000 (half of whom are double-nationality holders), the Algerian International Diaspora Association (AIDA) estimates that France is home to about five million Algerians – the largest Algerian diaspora community in the world.
Algerian immigration to the country dates back several decades, to when Algeria was colonised by the French. Immigration from Algeria came in several waves, including during the Algerian war of independence and during the country’s civil war in the 1990s.
Mohamed Nehad is the co-author of the newly-released book Algeria Today. He lived in Algeria between 1987 and 1998, in the midst of the country’s civil war, which lasted 10 years and left at least 200,000 people dead.
Holding both French and Algerian citizenships, and now living in Paris, Nehad explained that many Algerians in France view the looming elections hesitantly, and fear that opposition to Bouteflika’s fourth term may lead to a return to past violence.
“The most important [thing] for the Algerian community is that the country keeps its calm and security,” Nehad told Al Jazeera. “[The community is] not divided, but rather split. We want the country to become a democratic country. But on the other hand, having lived through the war of Algeria, we want the country to preserve its calm and security.”
Protests have been held against Bouteflika’s fourth mandate in several French cities, including Paris and Marseille. But according to Reda Maadi, president of the Union of the Algerian Community in Paris, the Algerian community in France is firmly behind the incumbent president.
“It’s absolutely natural [to have protests] ahead of a presidential election… It doesn’t bother us that they go out into the streets and demonstrate. It’s their right to go to the streets,” he said.
|Algerians in Paris have protested against Bouteflika’s bid for a fourth term as Algeria’s president [EPA]|
Like their counterparts in Algeria, some members of Algerian communities abroad have called for a boycott of the upcoming vote. “For us, it’s a spectacle. It’s a farce,” said Hamza Hamouchene, an Algerian living in London and a founder of activist group Algeria Solidarity.
There are approximately 250,000 Algerians living in the UK, according to AIDA figures. “It’s not just being opposed to Bouteflika… These elections are happening in a political framework. These elections won’t be transparent, fair or free. What’s the point of voting?” Hamouchene told Al Jazeera.
He said that Algerians outside their home country need to mobilise in their adoptive countries, since the government of Algeria receives backing from many Western governments, including the UK, the United States and France.
He pointed to a recent visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Algiers in early April, where he met with Bouteflika. “The minimum we can do is [act] in solidarity with the democratic forces in Algeria, amplify their voices [and] put more pressure here in Europe and the US.”
Karim Amellal founded Chouf Chouf, a video-sharing website, in early 2013. Users post videos related to political and cultural events impacting Algerians around the world. In the lead-up to the elections, traffic to the site has increased dramatically, with 350,000 visitors last month alone, Amellal said.
“We are interested in the meta-political, meaning everything that’s happening around the [presidential] campaign, like the absurd things that happen,” Amellal, who lives in Paris, told Al Jazeera.
The Internet, he explained, is a “bottle of oxygen” in Algeria, and North Africa as a whole, and is especially powerful for youth. “It’s the way to get out, to travel… It’s a way to meet people and to have a dialogue.”
According to Wahid Megherbi in Montreal, the younger generation of Algerians in Canada has taken a marked interest in the April 17 elections. This increased interest in Algeria has been influenced, he said, by a recent push by the former Parti Quebecois government in Quebec to ban public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work. The move was seen by some as a targeted campaign against the province’s Muslim community.
“They have realised that they will always be considered Algerian. Young people say to themselves, ‘We are still seen as immigrants, so we will always be Algerians in the eyes of the [local] population,'” Megherbi said. “So they are interested in that, in their country of origin.”
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