As Algeria heads into a potentially epochal presidential election on Thursday, the role of the military is emerging as a flashpoint. A series of street protests this year toppled President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, leaving a caretaker government in place. How Algerians vote this week could determine whether this country of 43 million people will set a course for democracy — or revert to the authoritarianism of its past.
While carrying out interviews in the streets of Algiers recently, I encountered a crowd of trade unionists clad in medals and camouflage smocks. The mainly male activists from the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) loudly declared that the army is the only guarantor of a transition to democracy. One worker told me that “the fighters are our brothers and sisters” and that “only they can guide the country forward” by securing the legitimacy of the election.
The notion of the army as a custodian of the national destiny has a basis in the country’s recent history. The Algerian People’s National Armed Forces are the successors of the ALN, the National Liberation Army, which won independence from France in 1962. The eight years of bitter war that preceded that triumph sealed the mythical reputation of the men and women who fought against the French. It assured them a revered place in the national consciousness — not least because so many of them became leading politicians.
That’s why groups such as the UGTA — the 2-million-strong union whose members I saw in the capital city — envision a leading role for the army in the country’s evolution toward democracy. Yet the union, which has historical ties to the security apparatus dating back to the independence struggle when it mobilized workers against French colonialists, represents a declining force.
The real momentum for change in Algeria lies with young people. (Seventy percent of the population is younger than 30.) The union members I met contrasted with the hundreds of thousands who are protesting peacefully against entrenched Algerian institutions, including the military. It is the youth-driven Revolution of Smiles, not the army, that prompted the resignation of Bouteflika, the former National Liberation Army officer who served as president for two decades starting in 1999. He also brought the country’s decade-long civil war to an end in 2002 and personified the reactionary postwar consensus.
Even at age 82, and despite his extremely poor health, Bouteflika had wanted to stand for a fifth term. He was the figurehead of “le Pouvoir” — the Power, as Algerians refer to the political establishment that continues to run the country. The military and the security forces were crucial to the regime, and they still dominate society even after Bouteflika’s downfall.
Armored cars and squads of riot police supported by soldiers have been everywhere during the election campaign. Yet the vast majority of Algerian citizens clearly have no interest in seeing their country being defined by its bloody past.
“There are millions of us who don’t remember the civil war, let alone the war of independence,” said Aisha Bekhti, a 20-year-old university student. “We’re all brought up to love the army, but that doesn’t mean we want to see them playing such an important part in running the country anymore.”
Protesters accuse Ahmed Gaid Salah, the armed forces chief of staff, of misreading the national mood. He insists he can ensure the fairness of the election while overlooking the fact that most consider it to be a masquerade anyway. The Revolution of Smiles is an overwhelmingly peaceful one, but candidate posters have been defaced with the same eggs and rotten tomatoes that have been used to pelt their supporters.
The five men aiming to succeed Bouteflika include four of his former ministers. The lone exception is also extremely close to “le Pouvoir” and everything else that Bouteflika represented. All are widely viewed as stooges who have turned a blind eye to deepening repression as the election approaches.
Amnesty International’s Heba Morayef put it bluntly: “Algeria’s authorities have stepped up their assault on freedom of expression and assembly, signaling that they have little tolerance for Algerians calling for a change to the system.”
Beyond a few vocal groups such as the UGTA, most campaigners and political organizations have encouraged a boycott of the election. They believe the days when a “Pouvoir”-backed choice such as Bouteflika could routinely win such polls with shares of the vote surpassing 80 percent should be over.
Such demonstrators are part of the “Hirak,” or Movement in Arabic. The word is meant to encapsulate their grass-roots appeal, their vitality and their optimism about the future. A strongman supported by a heavily armed military is by no means acceptable to them. They want to be part of a modern democracy instead, which they see as essential to the fair redistribution of the immense wealth from Algeria’s oil- and gas-dominated economy. This is precisely why they are demanding the end of unquestioning deference to the country’s authoritarian establishment.
Nabila Ramdani is a French-Algerian journalist and commentator who specializes in French politics and the Arab world.