Benjamin Stora on Bouteflika’s “Hollow Victory”

Benjamin Stora, the well known French Algerianist, gave an interview to Reuters on the upcoming Algerian elections. The interview covers five broad topics. My reactions are as follows.

1. The age factor: Bouteflika is old, objectively and relatively. He and his cohorts, as Stora says, are strongly removed from most of the population, which is overwhelmingly young. This does not pose an electoral problem for Bouteflika, because most of the youth population is too apathetic or disillusioned to vote. This does present a challenge to governance, however. The state is seen as aloof and unresponsive and there are no strong or credible opposition movements into which the youth can channel their frustrations, leaving many young men to conclude that the only way that to get the state to pay them any mind is through violence. Stora references violence at football stadiums and urban areas, which often goes unreported. This is one of Bouteflika’s great failures and it was set in motion early in his tenure, in 2001. There is little love for Bouteflika among the mass of the young, especially in Kabylia and the other areas that bore the brunt of the Black Spring. Those who lived through the Civil War view him relative to that experience and appreciate the general stability that he has brought. But most remain bitter at the lack of “dignity” they enjoy despite this. Bouteflika will forever remain an arrogant “gnome” to many Algerians who came of age during his presidency.

2. The absent opposition: Stora notes that turn out will likely be very low rendering Bouteflika a “hollow victory”. With no real contestation — there is no mass movement or really powerful candidate that can seriously compete with Bouteflika — there is no reason to see the election as a means of expressing one’s opinion. The attitude found among young people is one of general indifference: To participate is to legitimize the status quo. The destruction of the Islamist movement into several factions, the bifurcation of the Berberist movement (or trifurcation if you want to count the MAK), and the splintering/cooptation of the leftist parties has created a situation where only the ruling factions are viable. Personal rivalries and financial incentives placed on the opposition representatives seated in parliament has ensured that nothing contrary to the regime is accomplished. This feeds into the culture of disenfranchisement and hopelessness that produces explosive “revolutionary” violence. This shattered opposition has been coopted by the state with token seats in parliament and serves primarily to legitimize state initiatives. If protests break out during the elections, violence is very likely, but it will probably not be well organized. The only organizations capable of mounting organized resistance are in Kabylia and in the underground Islamist movement. Outside of this, random youth violence would be the norm, if did occur. In addition to this, Bouteflika has also marginalized elite opposition within the military and security services. This has contributed to the stability of the regime as those who would be capable of destablizing the regime from within have been sent off, sacked or allowed to get rich enough money that there is no incentive to organize a rebellion or coup.

3. Transitional innovation?: Stora notes that Algerian presidents have pretty much all left office abruptly either by coup or by death. He terms Zeroual’s departure as “retirement from politics” which in my opinion is an exception to his over arching narrative to a certain degree, but the general trend is accurate. (One may agree or disagree, as I do, with his characterization of certain “periods” in Algerian history.) He refers to Bouteflika’s imminent re-election as a first in terms of “long continuity […] at the state level”. Many believe that Bouteflika hopes to die in office, a sentiment that reflects the public perception of Bouteflika’s insatiable appetite for power. Stora says that “Algerians reject this notion as counter to their revolutionary tradition”. The whole process, seems to be “behind the scenes” which is characteristic of Algerian political culture but contrary to the stated ideological orientation of the state whose motto is بالشعب وللشعب “by the People for the People”.

4. International support: Stora states: “The regime has very strong international support from everyone — Europe, the United States, the Arab world, Russia, China, Iran. Their diplomatic strength is having united all these extremes, from Raoul Castro (of Cuba) to Hu Jintao (of CHina) to Nicolas Sarkozy (of France)”. This is one of Bouteflika’s chief achievements: Restoring Algeria’s international standing. While it has not recovered the relevance and prestige it carried during the Cold War (for obvious structural reasons), Bouteflika has created an environment where discussion of the country’s internal affairs is more muted than in the past, especially in the West. The other big success has been the re-establishment of relative stability, one of the main promises he was installed (one can say “elected” if he pleases) to do. And he has gotten kudos for that from the international community. Close ties with sovereignty-obsessed China and Russia and cooperation with the US on the War on Terror has kept outsiders from poking into Algeria’s internal affairs. Strong backing from the international community and its institutions has benefited the regime greatly.

5. Gas and stability: Stora wisely notes that the price of oil and natural gas control’s the state’s capacity to deal with unrest and social demands. This is underemphasized in the reports/excerpts, however. This relationship is tied to another of Bouteflika’s great failures: The lack of real reform in the economic sector that could lead to strong economic fundamentals independent of hydrocarbons. Almost nothing has been done on this front and it will be a determining factor as to how retive the population becomes following his re-re-election.

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