Algeria: Reasonably Good Is Often Not Good Enough

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January 13, 2020: There is a new president and so far he has been doing things protestors have demanded for nearly a year. Most Algerians opposed the recently replaced interim military government and its decision to hold presidential elections on December 12th. This was not an instant disaster because the candidate elected, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister, formed his new government by appointing new government ministers that most protesters approved of, or could not criticize. None of the new ministers had opposed the weekly protests. Tebboune has also met with protest leaders and simultaneously organized an effort to create a new constitution that would make it more difficult for him, or any future president, to again become a corrupt “president-for-life”. The new president, as a former senior official himself, knows that there are many senior people in the government, military and business community who oppose such changes. Such opposition has to be expressed quietly but it is still there and it will be a year or more before it will be clear if a new, dictator-proof, constitution is possible or not.

Most Algerians felt that rushing elections favored the election of another corrupt politician who will act like all the previous ones. In other words, there would be a few token prosecutions for corruption but the majority of the corrupt bureaucrats and business owners would return to their outlaw ways. This is seen as the reason why 70 percent of the Algerian unemployed are job-seekers in their late teens and 20s. Many have never been able to get a job. The unemployment rate is about 15 percent, up from the 12 percent is was stuck at for several years. The weekly nationwide protests have been going on since February and it is clear that Algerians could turn to violence if they feel they have exhausted peaceful options. So far there has not been any shift to violence and the new president is keeping the peace.

Opposition to the presidential race was active but not violent. There were five candidates and all of them encountered lackluster crowds (including hecklers) or no people at all when a candidate would normally expect some supporters to show up. Campaign headquarters were sometimes attacked, but not in a violent way. Usually just pelted with eggs or defaced with anti-election slogans and posters. Three of the candidates (including the winner) had close ties to the disgraced FLN party that was led by deposed president-for-life Bouteflika. A fourth candidate (Abdelaziz Belaid ) was a known reformer who was willing to work with the FLN/Bouteflika government to achieve change. The fifth candidate was the head of an Islamic party that has cooperated with FLN in the past. The electoral commission disallowed 17 other candidates for various reasons. None of the five candidates had a lot of popular support and the three associated most with the FLN were thought to have the least of all. Most Algerians feared that the interim military government would declare the candidate with the most votes, no matter how few were cast, as the winner and new president. That might have required a second round of voting if none of the five candidates got a majority of the first-round vote. That would mean a new president with little popular support and facing continued weekly protests or worse. It did not work out that way. One of the former FLN loyalists did have a lot of support among those who did turn out to vote and is now the new president.

Continued protests are prompted by chronic problems that are felt by the majority of Algerians. Corruption and mismanagement of the former government are seen as major reasons for the high unemployment, especially among younger Algerians. The majority of voters wanted a new president who would make a serious effort to deal with corruption and mismanagement. The newly elected president appears to be doing just that. Another incitement was how the interim government used its control over mass media to criticize the protestors at every opportunity and block any criticism of the interim government. A small but growing number of journalists were arrested for reporting what is seen and heard in the streets. This offended younger Algerians most of all because they are the most media savvy. They may be poor but most have cellphones and know how the media works. The new president quickly released most of the arrested journalists and prominent critics from jail. Further arrests have not occurred. So far so good but it will take a year or so to know for sure if the new government is the real deal or the corrupt old one repackaged to appear less threatening.

There are other threats that have remained out of sight during the election crises. This includes Islamic terrorists, who continue to regard Algeria as unsafe for them and stay away or, if in the country, stay out of sight. That means more of these Islamic terrorists move north via Libya. That is still a problem for Algeria, especially because the Libyan civil war, which seemed almost over has now been extended with the intervention of Turkey to support the weaker side that relied on Islamic radical and Islamic conservative groups for its support. All this is not an immediate problem for Algeria, but will be eventually.

January 10, 2020: For the 47th week there were mass protests demanding a new constitution and government that would not seek to perpetuate itself and the many corrupt practices that still exist. The crowds were noticeably smaller this week and there were several good reasons for that. President Tebboune, newly elected a month ago, had quickly acted on many of the items that had kept the protests going for nearly a year.

January 9, 2020: Senior officials from Egypt and Algeria met once more and affirmed that both nations opposed any foreign intervention in the Libyan civil war. This was directed at Turkey, which was now openly intervening in Libya. Egypt also wanted to establish good relations with the new Algerian president. The new Algerian president had a good reputation in Europe and he has already been invited to visit Germany and Italy and discuss new economic and diplomatic efforts. The Algerian economy is stable but new projects have been on hold for over a year until elections were held and a new government formed. That has been done and the Europeans, who have long done a lot of business with and investing in Algeria, want to talk.

Relations with neighbor Morocco are less friendly. Algeria is continuing to disagree with Morocco over how to handle the growing unrest in the Algerian refugee camps the government maintains for people who fled southern Morocco years ago because of the Moroccan separatists (Polisario) efforts to turn that part of Morocco into an independent state. In mid-2019 Algeria confirmed that these camps were becoming increasingly dangerous for residents and foreign aid workers as well as Algerians in the vicinity. There has been more crime in the camps, some of it common stuff but also more serious offenses committed by Islamic terror groups and organized criminal gangs that have established themselves. Foreign aid workers have been kidnapped, in part to persuade the foreign aid organizations to cooperate with the extortion and theft of relief supplies the various outlaw groups engage in.

Before the recent presidential elections, Morocco sought to improve relations with the new Algerian government but so far, with the new president in power, the hostility between the two nations will apparently continue.

Algeria has been a threat to Morocco in the past but during the last few years have been sharing concerns about growing problems with Islamic terrorists and criminal activity in these refugee camps. In early 2018 Algeria assured Morocco and the UN that it no longer had anything to do with Polisario, a group of Moroccan terrorists that Algeria helped create decades ago. But soon after that concern was expressed an Algerian Air Force transport crashed on takeoff and among the 257 dead were 26 Polisario members. The transport was taking off from a base near the Algerian capital carrying mainly military personnel. This was more than an embarrassment, it confirmed the accusations that Algeria could not be trusted when it came to Polisario, and perhaps other matters as well. For example, Algeria is one of the few Sunni majority Arab countries that supports the Syrian Assad government. Morocco hoped there might be some changes in Algerian attitudes but that does not appear to be happening when it comes to Polisario despite the threat these Moroccan separatists now pose for both Algeria and Morocco.

December 28, 2019: The new president ordered the release of 70 people who had been arrested or prosecuted for demonstrating or reporting on the demonstrations.

December 23, 2019: General Ahmed Salah, the military supreme commander who persuaded long-time president Bouteflika to resign last April, died of natural causes; a heart attack. Salah was thought to be in reasonably good health for a man of 79. At that age reasonably good is often not good enough. He was buried two days later and left the newly elected president with one less potential obstacle to the fundamental political changes most Algerians want. Salah’s successor, Said Chengriha, was appointed by the new president and is seen as loyal to the goals of the new government.

December 12, 2019: Former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected president. He had served under president Bouteflika as a prime minister, for three months, in 2017. Bouteflika dismissed him because Tebboune, who had served in Bouteflika government 15-20 years ago the two had moved apart on how Algeria should be governed. This gave Tebboune enough credibility in the presidential elections to win against four other candidates and get 58 percent of the vote. Only 40 percent of potential voters participated. So far he had made the right moves, at least according to the diminishing number of weekly protestors calling for a truly democratic and just government. The protestors had dismissed the elections as an effort by the Bouteflika era establishment to retain their power and corrupt practices. That may still be true but so far Tebboune seems to be siding with the protestors. He took office on December 19th.

 

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