Stirrings in Algeria

With the ailing and largely invisible President Bouteflika newly re-elected for a fourth five-year term, there are signs that the Algerian opposition is finally getting its act together.

In the article below, Anna Jacobs, a researcher specialising in the politics of the Maghreb, takes a look at recent developments. The article was first published by Muftah, a website which aims to cover issues and views that are under-represented in mainstream media.   

The Algerian opposition is on the move

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was officially reelected to a fourth term this April. The ageing president is credited, by some, for helping manage Algeria’s transition from the “Black Decade” of civil war to a period of relative stability with slow but steady progress toward a gradual political opening. The April elections, however, point to a different set of realities and perceptions about the long-serving president.

The contest itself was marred by accusations of voter fraud and corruption, as well as historically low turnout levels. There was also a wave of criticism regarding Bouteflika’s health and ability to actually govern. The president has had an almost nonexistent public presence since suffering a stroke in 2013. These realities and perceptions have helped feed a common narrative in Algerian politics, namely, that real political power remains in the hands of the military.

Yet the dreary reactions to these elections cannot hide the very real political mobilisation currently happening inside Algeria. Since President Chadli Benjedid introduced a formal multiparty system in 1989, the opposition has had a difficult time uniting its various factions. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) became the face of Algerian discontent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, until a military-led coup stopped the electoral process and forced Benjedid to resign in 1992. After a successful first round in municipal elections, the FIS was seen as a threat to continuing military power in the country. As a result of the coup, a decade long civil war began between Islamic militant groups and the Algerian military, in which more than 150,000 civilians were killed.

The FIS was often criticised for its unwillingness to work with other political groups in the opposition.[1] During the civil war, these various parties failed to unite and publicly address the violence plaguing the country until the 1995 Rome meeting, where they attempted to broker a cease-fire between the military and the Islamists. The gathering included opposition groups, such the FIS, the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Front for Socialist Forces, and various human rights groups. While the Algerian government and two key Islamic militant groups rejected the proposed ceasefire, the meeting was a historical one, featuring a united opposition platform for ending the violence.

On June 10, 2014, after a near-twenty year hiatus, Algeria’s opposition forces united again. This time, their agenda was to demonstrate shared frustration with President Bouteflika and a desire for transitioning toward real political pluralism, human rights, and greater freedom of expression. The opposition conference was organised by the Coordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition, a group composed of five opposition parties: Hams, Jil Jadid, RCD, El Nahda, and El Adala. The meeting included a range of guests representing various ideological perspectives and backgrounds, such as former Algerian prime ministers, human rights activists, academics, and journalists.

Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal immediately responded to the conference’s recommendations for a democratic transition, stating, “The government is open to serious dialogue, but it does not share the idea of transition. A transition to what?” Other activists and opposition members also reacted with concern about the presence of FIS representatives at the event. Some Algerian media outlets describe FIS as a discredited group because of its previously radical platform and history of discord with more secular opposition parties.

Nonetheless, the Algeria opposition is on the move. Bouteflika’s reelection has galvanised these disparate groups and provoked further disenchantment on the streets. Socioeconomic frustrations combined with a vocal and courageous press is cultivating a united front, at all levels of society. These grassroots forces are calling for real political change and transition away from Bouteflika’s “liberal autocracy”[2] to a system that empowers the people.

With a more unified opposition, an increasingly young and frustrated society, and an aging president, we should pay close attention to events in Algeria in the coming months.


[1] Layachi, Azzedine, “Political Liberalisation and the Islamist Movement in Algeria,” The Journal of North African Studies (Volume 9, Number 2, Summer 2004), 60, 61.

[2]Entelis, John P. “Algeria: democracy denied, and revived?” in North Africa’s Arab Spring, edited by George Joffe, (Routledge, Taylor and Francis: New York, 2013), 149.

Posted on Friday 4 July 2014