Algeria holds a presidential election on Thursday which protesters say offers no real choice and will keep in power the ruling hierarchy they have been trying to oust in 10 months of demonstrations.
Student demonstrators again surged through Algiers on Tuesday, chanting “We will not vote” and “we want freedom”, and two former prime ministers and other senior figures were jailed for corruption in an apparent effort to mollify protesters.
Although the election is unlikely to bring political change, it could become a pivotal moment in the struggle between the protesters and the army, testing the patience of both sides in Africa’s biggest country, an important gas supplier to Europe.
The protesters forced out veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April, but view their uprising that began in February as only half-complete. They want the old guard to quit power entirely and the military to abandon politics.
With no sign of the protesters backing down and the military trying to use the election to restore order, the political system is paralysed at a time when urgent action is needed to revive the economy, hit by a fall in vital oil revenues.
“We will see if a bad election is better than no election,” said political analyst Farid Ferrahi.
The five presidential candidates, approved by the state, are former prime ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, ex-culture minister Azzedddine Mihoubi, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine, and Abdelaziz Belaid, a party leader.
All are familiar faces regarded by the protesters as part of the old guard that has held power since lgeria won independence from France in 1962.
The protesters believe the army will continue to wield power behind the scenes after consolidating its position in the hierarchy by purging once untouchable rivals.
Its chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah, is now Algeria’s most powerful figure and sees the election of a new president as the best way to draw a line under a year of tumult and refresh the enduring political order.
The army has long been a core component of the “pouvoir” – or power – ruling the North African country of more than 40 million but previously had to reckon with other powerful bodies including an internal security department.
As protests gathered momentum, Gaid Salah went on television to urge Bouteflika to step down and many of the old president’s former allies were detained on corruption charges.
On Tuesday, former prime ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal were among several people jailed on corruption charges which they denied.