Millions of Algerians cast their votes on 12 December and chose 74-year-old former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune as their country’s first freely-elected President since independence from France in 1962. The turnout was said to be around 40 per cent, and Tebboune won with a little over 58 per cent of votes cast. The new president is not an outsider, but he seemed to project an image of a technocrat with an open mind even though he came from within the hated regime itself.
Concurrently, huge numbers of Algerians took to the streets around the country protesting about the same election and even attempting to disrupt voting in at least two polling stations in the capital Algiers. Since 22 February, in fact, thousands of Algerians have been on the streets demanding the departure of the entire political elite, political reform and the rooting out of corruption. That has not happened, at least for now.
Despite keeping its momentum for ten months the popular movement failed to achieve anything other than keeping the weekly ritual of protests going across the country. What was expected to be another episode of the so called “Arab Spring” turned out to be the collective failure to change Algerian politics and free it from the army’s grip. From the start, people power lacked leadership and did not produce any national agenda around which the thousands of angry, ordinary people could rally. Setting the ceiling so high with the protests made many Algerians realise that their goals were unattainable as they risk Algeria’s stability and social peace, which is something that the army — the real power behind the scenes — would not allow; its cadres still remember the dark years of the 1990s civil war.
As the weeks went by and the protests became routine— almost an end in themselves — the authorities kept calm and dealt in a peaceful way with the equally peaceful protestors. The strategy seemed to hollow the goals out of the protest movement even though the impetus appeared intact and able to push forward. Even though the protests are continuing after election, they are not enjoying the earlier media coverage that they had before.
What happened in Algeria over the past 44 weeks is a classic example of the failure of leaderless protests. People have many wide-ranging issues in mind, but the lack of leadership hindered the prioritisation of legitimate complaints into a clear national manifesto with which people can identify. The call for the departure of the entire political elite without offering a workable alternative was and is insufficient to change the country.
Despite such a failure, the protest movement has undoubtedly shaken the country. For the first time since independence Algeria’s political elite found itself forced to act. A number of high-profile figures and former officials were put on trial for corruption and jailed, including two former prime ministers and the former president’s brother, Said Bouteflika, thought to be the real power behind his wheelchair-bound sibling, Abdelaziz, before the latter was forced to resign on 2 April.
Moreover, on 23 December, just a few days after the new president’s inauguration, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the head of the armed forces, died suddenly. While no foul play is suspected, his death came at a critical juncture. Salah came to symbolise the army’s grip on power and was seen as the last strong general with such status. However, he is also credited with forcing Bouteflika out of office when he called for his replacement due to the president’s ill health, in accordance with the constitution. The late general, despite being against the protests and supportive of former President Bouteflika earlier on, realised the seriousness of the situation in Algeria and chose to side with the angry citizens. This move deprived the political elite, including the president, of any guarantees that the army would continue to support the regime, as it has done for decades.
Many Algerians saw Salah as a kind of guarantor of stability, particularly when he adopted a clearly nonviolent policy towards the protest movement, allowing it to continue without the widely expected state violence. In fact, holding the election on time without any serious disruption is a victory for General Salah and the army. Will this be translated into the military’s continued hold on power behind the scenes? That’s a question for the coming months. The army will continue to play a major role in politics for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, President Tebboune must now deal with the protests along the same reconciliatory lines as Salah followed. Doing this will guarantee two things: it will continue to weaken the protest movement, which is already exhausted but still able to get people onto the streets; and the government will attempt to launch a national dialogue to address the many serious grievances of the Algerian people. Indeed, Tebboune has already called for dialogue with the protest movement. “I address the Hirak [protest movement] directly,” he said straight after his election victory, “which I have repeatedly blessed and supported, to extend my hand for serious dialogue.” This conciliatory tone is welcomed in the country after months of unrest and uncertainty.
The ball is now back in the protest movement’s court, but can it deliver? While it carries on as before, without any clear leadership and lacking a precise political agenda, it remains weakened. The need for the protests is still there though, so it has to be a top priority for the new president to bring about stability and tackle Algeria’s more serious issues, like corruption and power-sharing. In the meantime, it looks like business as usual.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.