AFP on Algeria’s elections: Malou

After Bouteflika held his first major rally in Batna, a flurry of stories came out, providing historical and political context to readers. The AFP article on the elections, however, falls short in this effort by way of its numerous factual errors, mainly regarding the nature of the candidates and the Berber minority. I see five main problems with it.

1. A lack of context on Hanoune’s choice of Blida to start the campaign. The characterization of Blida as a “garrison town” in the context of Louisa Hanoune’s inaugural rally. Blida was restructured by the French as a military center and has been the center of many military operations since independence. But to characterize it as a garrison town is misleading. Blida has been a center of poverty and opposition for many years, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. It was known not long ago as a theatre of combat between the Army and Islamist guerillas. The significance of Hanoune beginning her campaign there is that it is a city that was at one point home to much of the country’s middle class, and now to a large number of disaffected people. This is Hanoune’s target constituency, and it is why she chose to start her campaign there, with the emphasis on the poor on their ground.

2. Lack of description of Batna’s significance. The reason that Bouteflika chose Batna to kick off his campaign is related to the city’s history in the War of Independence and its status as a base of support for the government. The city stokes patriotic imagery as the home of Benboulaid and a center of resistance against France and the hometown of some of Algeria’s military and political chiefs. Furthermore, it is a less wealthy city in a less wealthy region (the Aures Mountains) that reinforces his populist rhetoric, patriotic emphasis and old guard appeal. It reminds voters that Bouteflika was a mujahid (war veteran) and that he has political experience dating back to the days following 1 November, 1954 — which makes him popular with his base of support which comes from older people and younger people in the establishment. Including a reference to the city’s important place in the nationalist narrative would have provided important context for Bouteflika’s campaign message, especially since the average Anglophone reading the piece probably wouldn’t pick up on the revolutionary overtones in the speech and its placement, which is one of the characteristics of Bouteflika’s campaign and rhetorical style.

3. Incorrect information on the geography of Berbers in the country. The report describes the new Berber-language television channel as being “Tamazight, the Berber language spoken by a large indigenous minority mainly in the northwest.” Berbers are concentrated in the northeast of Algeria, in Kabylia, the Aures (near the Tunisian border) and Ouargla (towards the eastern border). The other major Berber populations are in Ghardaia (the north central Sahara), the southern Sahara near the Libyan, Malian and Nigerien borders. The other dialects are scattered through the oases in the Sahara and in the northwestern coast outside of Algiers (Chenoua) and some other dialects near the border with Morocco, which are close to Tarifit. Most of the largest concentrations are east of Algiers, however. The channel will be broadcast, it is also reported, in five dialects of Tamazight/Berber.

4. The mis-characterization/description of other electoral candidates. It describes the rest of the candidates as not being “truly national figures”, without describing what a “national figure” is in Algeria. It also describes Ali Fawzi Rebaine as “a nationalist”, but simply describes Moussa Touati as being from the Algerian National Front. The FNA describes itself as a nationalist party, a major part of his platform (which is otherwise lacking in substance), and “nationalist” could ably describe any of the candidates (except for Djaid Younsi) – Hanoune might be called an “economic nationalist”. Describing Fawzi Rebaine as a “nationalist” is also an outright misnomer: Ahd 54 takes its name from the 1954 Revolution — nationalist gloss for sure — but its leader began his career as a human rights activist, and the party’s platform has historically emphasized that aspect of the party’s background. Curiously, Rebaine is the only partyed candidate whose party is not named and who is described merely by ideology. Mohamed Said Belaid is said to be running on the “Liberty and Justice Party”, though he is running as an independent (his party has not been officially recognized).

5. The piece leaves out major concerns about voter turnout. The article is brief, and thus such a topic is understandably omitted. This is, however, a major concern of the leadership. Low turn out has plagued elections over the last 10 years, lending the regime little evidence of popular legitimacy. Thus, as the more comprehensive Reuters piece describes, the have taken to encouraging university students to vote (there seems to be a special emphasis on students from rural areas studying in the cities, allowing students to vote near their universities), and the religious (by telling imams to tell the faithful to go to the polls). This is part of a failed tactic that Bouteflika used in the last presidential elections and in recent parliamentary elections and referendums. There is a clear worry that Bouteflika’s re-re-election will not appear legitimate domestically (and internationally, but the domestic aspect is more worrisome becomes this is where opposition will emerge). If the state can make it appear that many Algerians voted and that Bouteflika’s victory comes up with its likely super majority (60+%) it will be able to stand on more solid ground than if the trend where less than 30% of voters go to the polls (often fewer, with official figures usually much higher). The percentage of voters who turn out for Bouteflika will be  exaggerated, and the degree to which the regime can exaggerate, and therefore utilize its make-believe legitimacy afterwards, will be impacted by how many people turn out.

*Malou refers to bad weather in Algerian Arabic and can refer to negative conditions generally.

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