A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Algeria on the Eve: Some Thoughts

Algerians go to the polls tomorrow. There will be six candidates on the ballot, five men and a woman, of varying ideological orientations and ages. Then they will elect an ailing 77-year-old man who made no public campaign speeches.

But you knew that already.

Some analyses seem to see the Algerian situation as a reminder of the worst features of Arab authoritarian republics: the lack of a mechanism for succession and the unwillingness of autocrats to give up power, despite increasing disabilities. Those are no doubt factors. Others see it as a symptom of the fact that Algeria did not go through the ferment of Arab Spring. That's true, too, no doubt, to some extent.

But I also think that whether or not tomorrow's polls are freely held and fairly counted, Bouteflika would win anyway. One reason is that the Algerian establishment, from the military and security service generals Algerians call le pouvoir to the two big parties, the government bureaucracy, and the business and energy sectors, don't have anywhere else to go. Lately profound fissures have been visible within the establishment, but there is no agreed alternative to Bouteflika.

That is one side of the "stability at all costs" argument. The other side is the risk aversion of Algerians who fear  repetition of the violence of the 1990s. Even the half of all Algerians in their 20s and younger bear some scars of the troubles of the 1990s, when some 200,000 died. Older generations remember the eight year war of independence from 1954 to 1962, when perhaps a million died.I suspect this, and the sobering memory of the civil war in Libya next door, are one reason why there has been  so little turbulence in Algeria.

Bouteflika did not end the troubles single-handedly, but he presided over reconciliation, and the absence of any obvious successor means the alternative to another term might be renewed carnage.

Bouteflika will win, though perhaps not by the 90% he got in 2009 or the 85% in 2004. But we can hope that he, or at least le pouvoir, can find a solution to the succession question before Bouteflika is even less able to govern than now: a Vice President with real power perhaps, and a clear succession mechanism.

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