This Election’s No Cause for Celebration

CCAS Carnegie Centennial Fellow Lahouari Addi critiques Algeria’s political system as it holds what is essentially a rigged presidential election.

Interview by Steven Gertz

Since September 2013, CCAS has had the privilege of hosting Dr. Lahouari Addi as a Carnegie Centennial Fellow. Dr. Addi is a professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques at the University of Lyon, a researcher at the Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle (CRASC) in Oran, Algeria, and an authority on North Africa and political Islam. As Algeria holds its presidential elections today (April 17, 2014), CCAS interviews Dr. Addi about Algeria’s recent political history, and what is at stake in these elections.

While many of the Arab uprisings have occurred in North Africa (namely, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt), Algeria has remained fairly quiet over the past few years. What accounts for this, and what does it say, if anything, about the people’s opinion of and relations with their government?

To answer that question, let me go back a couple of decades and review some of Algeria’s political history. In October 1988, Algeria experienced a nationwide uprising during which more than 500 people were killed. Young people were protesting, among other things, the slow pace of economic and political reform, and so the government abolished its single-party system and allowed opposition parties, and notably al-Jabhah al-Islamiyya lil-Inqadh (the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS), to participate in elections. When it became clear, however, that the FIS was positioned to win parliamentary elections in 1991, the military stepped in and canceled the elections and jailed members of the FIS. That in turn ignited a civil war that lasted for about a decade and which killed more than 200,000 people out of a population of about 35 million. So in 2011, older generations of Algerians who remembered what happened viewed with alarm the uprisings taking place in neighboring countries and refused to join what they thought could lead to more carnage.

There is another reason Algeria has not witnessed uprisings, and that is that the Algerian government has enjoyed a financial bonanza that it is sharing with its people. Algeria is the largest natural gas producer and second largest oil producer in Africa, and the government has used these resources to accumulate a surplus of $200 billion in its reserves. While Algeria continues to have its economic problems—it has a high unemployment rate, for example, especially among youth—the government is giving money to banks and young people to set up businesses. In this way, entitlements have become a means of preventing unrest, though it also has delayed political and economic development.

How often has Algeria had presidential elections since it gained its independence in 1962, and what is at stake in this election?

Even though Algeria gained its independence in 1962, the country did not begin holding presidential elections until the late 1970s. Even so, the elections were hardly legitimate, since Algeria had a single-party system, and its presidential candidates were supported by the military. After the October 1988 riots, and Algeria’s aborted experiment with genuine democracy, the nation has continued to hold presidential elections every five years. The current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was elected in 1999, and even though the 1996 constitution mandated that the president cannot run more than twice for office, Bouteflika is now running for a fourth term. What makes this particularly ridiculous is that Bouteflika is a very sick man. In a recent meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Bouteflika could hardly move and speak. The Algerian military is simply using Bouteflika as a figurehead who is malleable to its own purposes, and it has been people in his administration that have actually been running his presidential campaign.

Let’s talk a bit more about the scope of the military’s influence on the government. Other than manipulating the nation’s president, how has it controlled Algeria’s politics?

Algeria’s military officers appoint the civilians who then run the government. The military also controls the government’s income from oil exports and takes huge commissions from contracts with foreign companies. Also, Algeria’s intelligence service, which depends on the army, has infiltrated all segments of what is essentially a fake opposition party in the country’s parliament. That said, even “moderate” Islamists who do not as a rule contest the regime are boycotting these elections, which they view as rigged. Moreover, high-ranking officers have recently begun criticizing the corruption rampant in the regime (particularly the military’s embezzlement from the state), and some are now saying that division at such an elite level could lead to civil war.

Do you hold out any hope that Algeria may hold peaceful elections that genuinely represent the people’s vote?

There is always hope, but I don’t think there’s much of a chance as long as the price of oil remains high and the regime maintains control over its people through entitlements. I think that as long as the price of oil remains above $100 per barrel, the regime as it stands will continue to survive. It was when the price of oil fell to $10 per barrel in 1988 that the government no longer had the means of importing food and people demanded change from the government. Were that to happen again, the regime could no longer continue with business as usual.