Louisa Hanoune has come out well. The head of the Trotskyite Workers’ Party turned out in second place in Algeria’s recent presidential election on 9 April. Her candidacy, which saw opposition from the ranks of Algeria’s historical opposition parties and some former supporters, placed her well in light of the regime and with some abroad. Importantly, they provide her with a basis from which to oppose the regime whilst providing her national name recognition and notoriety.
In 2004, she came in second to last, with only 1% of the vote. Bouteflika handsomely defeated all of his competitors, the most prominent of them being his former deputy Ali Benflis who enjoyed backing from some military hardliners alienated by Bouteflika’s consolidation and reconciliation program. But in 2009, she faced little trouble: The other major opposition parties boycotted — notably the FFS and RCD — and the “Islamist” candidates were little known or unpopular. The “nationalist’ candidates suffered obscurity or a lack of credibility. In a race where all the participants were seen as legitimizing a fraudulent process, Hanoune was in a better place among urban voters than her opponents and, because of her previous run, she was probably more recognizable elsewhere.
Those Algerians who voted voted for Hanoune for many reasons. Some used it as a protest against the regime: In a country where traditionalist attitudes towards women in power are still powerful, some voted for Hanoune as an insult for Bouteflika. I am told that “The atheist woman before a gnome dictator” was spray painted on a wall in one village. The results, which put Hanoune in second place virtually nation wide, say that the regime was quite happy to put Hanoune immediately behind Bouteflika. Emphasizing its modernist credentials, the regime can point not only to Algeria being the first Arab country to have a woman run for high office, but also the first in which a woman came in second place in such a contest.
Bouteflika, always mindful of the military (for whom he made a major part of his platform “continuity”), also did well to make certain that an Islamist did not come in after him: This would have upset the balance of forces within the fragmented Islamist movement, irritated the military establishment, have brought the reconciliation program under question within the elite and perhaps abroad. Hanoune on the other hand poses little real threat to the regime: Her party’s numbers, while growing, are marginal, her ideology is well known to be discredited (her popularity is with her approach to politics more than anything else), she does not represent a major cultural or regional constituency in the way that the Berberist parties do and she has long standing credibility in some ways moral and cultural but in no way numerically. With the Islamists, Berberists and others divided and boycotting, Hanoune was free to take the spoils, as she has in other instances when the FFS and RCD kept on the side lines.
Hanoune is undoubtedly unconventional, ideologically and otherwise. A Trotskyite woman favoring reconciliation with the Islamist movement, she has made it surprisingly far in Algerian politics. Her position owes much to the rise of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose political arrival came at the expense of the factions within the military regime that were unwilling to see compromise with Algeria’s Islamist movement. Because her party embraces broad political participation, Islamist and non-Islamist, she gained credibility with many urban and educated Algerians some time ago. Her support for reconciliation and the Sant’Egidio Platform during the Civil War, she earned the respect of many prominent Islamists, including Ali Benhadj.
Her penchant for reconciliation has driven her into collaboration with Bouteflika’s regime. Through the 1990’s the PT had little say in the process, though its importance grew after the Rome Agreement and under Zeroual’s presidency, registering their severe criticisms through legal channels on the street and at foreign embassies. In 1997, the party had only 4 seats in parliament; in 2002 it had 21. In 2007 it held 26.
To whom (or for whom) does Hanoune speak? An obvious constituency is women. In 1982, she was arrested for feminist agitation in Jiljel. In the late eighties she was arrested for agitation as a part of the illegal forerunner to the PT. She has been a fervent defender of women’s rights throughout her carrier and she represents a kind of aggressive opposition contrasting sharply with Khalida Toumi and other women within the regime that projects a bottom up power dynamic. She has long been among the firmest advocates of mothers of young men “disappeared” during the Civil War. Perhaps most importantly, she has gained increasing support from the middle class, made up of many Algerians employed (or formerly employed) by state firms who have come on hard times as a result of privatization and the resultant layoffs. In the old workers strongholds in the suburbs around Algiers and in the medium sized cities on the coast Hanoune represents resistance to economic restructuring and marginalization.
Having come of age in the heyday of Boumediene’s socialist “revolution” when Algeria was a leader among Third World nations, Hanoune yearns for the straight back worker oriented socialism that was propagated in that era. Born to a poor family, internally displaced during the War of Independence, she attended law school in Annaba. Hanoune benefited from the educational and social policies of the old FLN, as did many middle class Algerians. The rapid undoing of the socialist infrastructure, and with it protections for the rights of women, under Chadli Bendjedid likely brought her ever more towards continuing revolution and Third World consciousness. It drives her committment to Trotskyite Marxism, the rejection of privatization and the continued institutionalization of disciminatory legislation. In this way, she represents one of the many possible orientations produced by the end of the Boumediene era.
Second place means that Hanoune can complain with more credibility. It also puts her in a position to inveigh other members of the opposition who criticized her candidacy. It it is, for instance, Hanoune’s belief that voter turnout was not so close 75% but rather 51%, and that she did not receive a measly 4% of the vote, but more like 30%. Because she participated in the election and the PT fielded observers in polling stations throughout the country, she can make such wild pronouncements without appearing completely off her pot. She is in a place to rebound from the accusation that her participation legitimized Bouteflika’s process by now shouting that “they stole our vote” and to use her 4% as proof that the regime “is afraid of the PT” and the possibility of its success. (Although, it likely means the opposite, that the regime does not fear the party.)
Beneficium accipere, libertatem est vendere?
As for her critics, notably Karim Tabbou of the FFS, she now asks them what they are doing criticizing the PT when they should be fighting the regime? Though she has been strongly co-opted by the regime, with her party’s success being dependent largely on other parties’ boycotts of the parliamentary and electoral process coupled with government string pulling, her personality allows her to maintain credibility with her true believers: A mixture of women, leftists (usually code for communists afraid of saying so) and the crumbling middle class. Her agenda, against liberalization, better higher education, more women’s rights and so on, is one that cannot be pushed on the sidelines. Her social program enjoys only marginal support from the broader currents in society (still strongly influenced by Islamist politics and traditionalist attitudes) and her economic platform requires defense from the inside (it is not substantially different from the status quo ante Chadli/Nezzar). But this exposes her to criticism from others who reject the regime’s “game” all together. Karim Tabbou, the Secretary General of the FFS put it this way:
To participate in the government brings a loss of credibility in Algeria. For instance, when Labor Party leader Louisa Hanoun was part of the opposition, people liked her audacity and style. It was the first time the Algerian people had seen a woman courageously talking about the ideas, feelings, and needs of the people. However, when she submitted to the regime and became part of its façade, she lost all credibility. The FFS is making what we call a sustainable investment in politics, wherein we expand our presence as a party and try to recruit the largest possible number of young people. When we decided to boycott the elections in 2004, everyone criticized us, but today we are no longer alone in boycotting the elections. The FFS believes that a regime change and return to democracy is the only solution that can emerge from this crisis.
Here is a central difference in approach between Hanoune and the PT and parties like the FFS: The legitimacy of the regime. The FFS has rejected Algeria’s political process as illegitimate since its founding in the early 1960s. In the first instance, it viewed the Ben Bella/Boumediene regime as being imposed on the population without proper consultation or consideration. In the second place, after the 1992 coup, it rejected the Generals’ Order as being wholly without standing because it trampled on an open and democratic process. It participated in the 1999 elections, only to pull out at the last moment with all the other candidates (Hanoune’s candidacy was not approved by the Constitutional Council) and boycotted in 2004 mainly to protest Bouteflika’s centralization of power. This time around, the logic was much the same with opposition to the constitutional amendment that made Bouteflika’s third term “legal”. In this they were joined by most the rest of the opposition. It is a well known methodology: One does not respond to another who is without rightful status, for in doing so he accords the other what he neither has nor deserves.
Hanoune, however, not only participated in the election but supported the Bouteflika Amendment in parliament, seen by many in the opposition as a betrayal. Hanoune believes that her agenda cannot be pushed without direct participation in the process, where as the FFS believes that limiting its participation allows it to gain popular credibility and support over the regime toward an eventual triumph during which the regime is displaced, overthrown or otherwise phased out. Hanoune recognizes that there is a significant portion of her platform that would have to be imposed on the population, regardless of under what conditions they were realized, and that Bouteflika’s march toward domination of the political scene could have easily tossed her by the wayside, together with her ideas. The reform (or elimination) of the Family Code, for instance, has few stalwart champions inside the regime or opposition: Its strongest champions are the PT, RCD and FFS. In the ruling triumvirate, the FLN, RNC and MSP, there are no supporters of reform in this regard. In the context of reconciliation there are few advocates for women’s rights or for the concerns of women and families: The Charter on Peace and National Reconciliation has startlingly little to say about missing persons or violence against women, issues Hanoune has raised on many occasions, including during the campaign. The reconciliation platform, a pet project of Bouteflika, is opposed by much of the opposition for its obvious lack of any actual process of reconciliation (there is nothing in it resembling the truth and reconciliation committees or commissions set up after other African conflicts). She was the most credible candidate to raise the Berber question, pledging to make the language official (without qualification) if elected, while Boutelflika and the others promised councils and commissions to study the issue. Nevertheless, a Kabyle in Boston remarked: They all promised to do something with Tamazight, so for sure they will take it and make it useless in Algeria like they have done to Arabic.
In terms of women’s rights generally (a minor issue in the recent campaign), if Hanoune had not been in the race, there would have been no talk of equal pay for equal work, protection of maternity leave or the Family Code — the other candidates proposed to cut the number of hours women are allowed to work, the further application of religious law on women or ignored the issue all together (see here for El Watan’s summary of “the issues”). Her over all position has been to maintain those rights women have already, within a context of reform. One PT activist said that the FFS could complain all it wanted about Hanoune and Bouteflika and the rest, but it could do anything about it because it refuses to participate. The struggle had to be done upfront and not in the background, otherwise nothing would be gained. A strong point, yet, Hanoune refrained from attacking the President directly and waited until the campaign was over to go after the regime sharply.
Not too sharply, though. Days ago, Hanoune expressed interest in joining a coalition with the RND, popularly known as “the bastard child of the FLN”. She noted her disappointment with “some FFS militants” who assailed her during the campaign. This came after she told reporters she had “great respect” for Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni, widely disliked by the youth and the opposition for his callousness and the brutality of the security forces. Zerhouni is accused of manipulating the election results (notably the RCD), sending direct directions to authorities in the provinces to exaggerate turnout numbers by as much as a three times the actual figures. She, along with other members of the opposition and former President Lamine Zeroual, boycotted the President’s swearing in ceremony, though she has “no problem with Bouetflika personally“. Her participation may well lead to her movement being suffocated, with its key positions being co-opted or drowned out.
This aside, though, Hanoune’s participation in the 2009 elections conferred her with greater credibility among her core supporters and those who doubted her ability to lead a strong offense against the regime. There is a Louisa Hanoune Facebook profile, whom users can “friend” to receive updates on her political thought and media appearances. Users post their opinions on the wall, where “Hanoune” often responds. Her status updates include things such as “Why not officialize the Ibadite rite in Algeria?” (after the recent violence in Berriane), “You may have noticed my absence from the swearing in ceremony” (self-explanatory) and “the ANP is a cathedral in the desert” (referencing this). She has come into a position where some of her demands will have to taken up by the regime, in the economic and social fields especially, and where she will be accorded a higher profile in Algerian politics at the regime level; her position within the opposition, however, will remain compromised in the short and medium term. Her attitude seems to say House opposition is still opposition, but only time will tell if others agree.