Algeria: The challenge of poor choices

New leaders are needed for Algeria’s problems to be resolved.

The Islamists saw an opportunity to appeal to the conservative nature of Algerians and promised a better country and future, writes el-Kikhia [AFP]

Algeria is an enigma lodged at the bottom of a Pandora’s box. It is a society of contradictions that have come to dominate its social and political evolution. Quite unlucky when compared to its neighbours, it is ideologically progressive but culturally conservative. This combination served the country well in its struggle for independence but hurt it terribly after achieving it.

The National Liberation Front (FLN) which led the fight against France, never relinquished the Algerian version of doctrinaire Socialism. The result was to nearly bankrupt the country and push many of its sons and daughters to emigrate to Europe and the Americas in search of a better life.

The so-called Arab Spring and the move towards democracy did not begin with the Tunisian uprising in 2010 but with the free elections initiative introduced by Chadli Bendjedid, president of Algeria in 1991. That was the second instance of a voluntary relinquishing of power by an Arab ruler. The first was by Sewar Adahab in Sudan. In both these instances, free elections were held but the winners were not up to handling the immense responsibility placed in their laps, that of guiding their societies towards a new democratic direction.

Inside Story – Bouteflika: Down but not out

In Sudan, Sadeq al-Mahdi got it and soon messed it up. In Algeria, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, leaders of the Islamic Front (FIS), scared the country’s progressive institutions and prompted the military to intervene.

The Islamic Front was poised to win the December 1991 first round elections by a wide majority. Algerians were fed up with the FLN and its economic policies that impoverished them and provided little vision for a better life. Indeed, in the first round of the 1991 parliamentary elections, the FLN received only 15 out of 429 seats.

For their part, the Islamists saw an opportunity to appeal to the conservative nature of Algerians and promised a better country and future. However, they did not commit themselves to the democratic process that propelled them towards power. It soon became apparent that the FIS believed in the democratic process only insofar as it brought them to power. Democracy and voting would have ended once the FIS achieved power. The Algerian military intervened on January 11, 1992, forced Bendjedid to resign, cancelled the second round of elections and established a High Council of State to govern.

A civil war raged in Algeria and consumed thousands of Algerian lives until 1999 when it began to subside after the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika who was relatively successful in initiating national reconciliation and eliminating radical and violent jihadist groups in the country. He was elected three times and is highly respected as an elder statesman. But Algeria continues to suffer from a devastated economy that relies on hydrocarbons and remittances from Algerians living abroad as the major sources of income. Hydrocarbons account for roughly 60 percent of budget revenues, 30 percent of GDP and over 95 percent of export earnings.

Algeria has a disproportionately young unemployed population and a poor and difficult quality of life. More than 10 percent of those under 24 are unemployed and a little over 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Yet the trauma the country experienced during the civil war and Algerian yearning for stability has kept Bouteflika in power. More importantly, he is the military’s choice for president.

In the current elections, the 77-year-old Bouteflika is expected to win a fourth term but he is facing stiff competition from his most serious rival, former Prime Minister Ali Benflis. The main charge lodged against the incumbent is fraud and silencing opposition. Indeed, even Amnesty International has accused the Algerian government of clamping down on the press and limiting criticism of the government. Bouteflika’s election campaigns have been marred by fraud accusations since 1999, when all his opponents withdrew, and this election seems to be no different. Most of his opponents have withdrawn, including the Islamists, charging fraud.

Algeria’s economic and political problems need new leaders with new visions and no matter how much Algerians respect and revere Bouteflika, he is old and his poor health has made it difficult for him to actively participate in the election process.

In the current campaign, he has shown up only twice and he did not appear to be in good health. The mini strokes that landed him in a French hospital for three months last year, seem to have taken their toll on the old warrior. He is slow and his speech is slurred. Most probably he will win the 2014 elections and get a fourth term, but Algerians will continue to rely on oil and gas for income that will be spent on subsidising the horrendous poverty and the poor quality of life Algerians have been living, in spite of all the promises of prosperity from the political elite.

Dr Mansour O El-Kikhia is a columnist, educator, and writer on International and Middle Eastern affairs.