Algeria – Resisting the Arab Spring: the re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Whilst the wind of the Arab Spring is still blowing against the “presidency-for-life trend” that has characterized the Middle East for decades[1], the Algerian regime is resisting. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 77 year-old President of Algeria, in power since 1999, was re-elected on the 18th of April for a fourth-term and with 81.5 % of the popular vote. Such a staggering voting share does not, of course, reflect real popular support, given the documented history of rigged elections in the country. Besides, in 2008 Bouteflika amended Article 74 of the Constitution allowing the Presidents to be elected for more than two terms. Obviously, he was bent on securing the perpetuation of his power. Once he successfully faced the pressure from the Arab Spring without major challenges, his re-election was certain, although this time he won with 4,579,107 fewer votes than in 2009, which represents the lowest level of support in his long political career.

There are two key reasons that help explain Bouteflika’s stability in the face of the Arab Spring and as a consequence his stay in power. First, the long and bloody Civil War between the Military and the Islamists – the “dark decade” of the 1990s [2] – which resulted in more than 100,000 casualties, had lead to widespread disillusionment among Algerians about the feasibility of regime change. Second, in a pre-emptive move to avoid massive protests, in 2011 Bouteflika took unprecedented measures to appease or discourage Algerians from raising their voice against the regime. He spent some $ 10 billion in subsidies (public housing, loans, salary increases, parks, etc.), and rewarded the brutal security apparatus upon which the “deep state”[3] depends.

Despite all the disillusionment about the 2014 election, the road to Bouteflika’s presidency-for-life-consecration was not smooth. In recent years, an urban middle-class movement, Barakat! (‘Enough’!), has emerged, and has started a media campaign, styled in the Arab Spring social networks’ fashion, against the raìs. A few weeks before the election, clashes between anti-Bouteflika rails and the Police blew up in Algiers and in other parts of the country. In addition, with an unemployment rate of 30%, there is growing discontent about the regime, especially among rural and young population who are increasingly sympathetic towards the Islamist opposition.

After Bouteflika’s election, on 22 April 2014 a coalition of 13 political parties, “Forces for Change”, contested the election results and declared that they would not accept any political activity that offends what they call “popular legitimacy”. Nonetheless, such attempts by the democratic opposition seem unlikely to truly challenge the deep-rooted strength of the Algerian “deep state”. Yet, the rising level of violence in the country poses a serious challenge to the regime. The 20 April ambush in the Eastern Mountains of Algeria, which killed 14 soldiers involved in securing the polling stations for the presidential elections, is only a first sign of this growing threat. The secular authoritarian apparatus, which has dominated Algeria since 1991, must now confront the resurgence of Islamism across the region. Indeed, if the power of the democratic forces that emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring, has been limited if not neutralized, this is certainly not the case for Islamist terror groups which also flowed from the derailment of the Arab Spring, as their current role in Syria and Libya may testify.

[1] Roger Owen, The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, Harvard, University Press, Harvard, 2012.

[2] Following the 1991 elections cancelled by a military coup which prevented the Islamic Salvation Front to come to power.

[3] The expression “Deep State” connotes the most influential political-military elite of State power.

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