On 12 December Algerians went to the polls to elect a new president – or did they? Millions boycotted the election, which they saw as illegitimate. Since February 2019, a huge protest movement has developed against the corrupt regime. Weekly demonstrations involving millions across the country keep demanding system change, a state based on the rule of law, and not a military state. The movement forced president Bouteflika to step down after 20 years in power, after he proposed to stand for a fifth term. It also forced the postponement of two presidential elections, in April and July, because people refused simply a change of faces at the top in an unchanged system. When a new presidential poll was announced for 12 December, the protest movement organised a boycott, rejecting “an election with the gangs” organised by a corrupt power.
Officially the overall turnout on 12 December was the lowest ever, at 39.93 percent. Only 8.7 percent of eligible overseas voters turned out, the official body overseeing the elections claimed, while the turnout was 41.14 percent inside Algeria. To put it in context, in a population of 45 million, with an electorate of nearly 25 million, the regime claimed that 9.7 million votes were cast, which included 1.2 million spoiled ballot papers.
The boycott movement was strongest in the Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou regions in Kabylia, which had a turnout close to zero, according to local activists. Yet the regime claimed that Abdelmadjid Tebboune won the election with around 5 million votes, or 58 percent. The opposition RCD (Rally for Culture and Democracy), which is largely based in Kabylia, claims the national turnout was only 8 percent while media reports suggested it was only around 10 percent.
There are many videos on social media, one of which shows protesters putting their votes directly into a rubbish bin (poubelle in French). This echoes favourite slogans from the demonstrations, such as “Les généraux, à la poubelle!” (Generals into the rubbish bin!)
Abdelmadjid Tebboune is a 74 year old who was a minister in the former president Bouteflika’s government since 1999, and briefly prime minister. He was the preferred candidate of the army.
He was congratulated by all the Arab countries, the first of which was Egypt’s Abdelfattah Al Sisi, followed by the USA and Russia, who are looking forward to business as usual.
The five men selected as candidates for president all had ties to Bouteflika’s regime. Algeria’s strong man, General Gaid Salah, had promised the election would be a festival for the country, but the campaign met hostility.
Late into the night before the election, 11 December, protesters in Algiers faced repeated charges by the police. In other towns it was the same story – Sétif, Constantine, Bejaia, Bouira, Tlemcen, Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdès, Bordj Bou Arreridj, Mostaganem, Sétif, Biskra and Batna.
The unity of the protest movement was shown before, during and after the election. Demonstrators in Algiers chanted their support for the overwhelming boycott in Kabylia. The slogan “Ya Lekbayel bravo 3likoum, Oual Aldjazaïr Taftakhar Bikoum” (Kabylia, bravo, Algeria is proud of you ) could be heard in Béchar, Constantine, Algiers and other towns.
On election day 250 people were injured by police violence in Haïzer, Bouïra Province east of Algiers. Three demonstrators are still in hospital after being hit in the eye by rubber bullets.
The day after the election was the 43rd Friday protest, following a pattern of weekly mass demonstrations demanding regime change which has continued since February 2019. In Oran, Algeria’s second city, in the north west coastal region, the peaceful demonstration suffered an unprecedented violent attack by security services. They used teargas, truncheons and violence indiscriminately against men, women and children. The centre of Oran was in a state of siege. 400 people were arrested.
The human rights organization LADDH speaks of a “will to punish the population of Oran and the hirak”, or popular movement. In Oran the security services “spared no one, neither men, women, children … nor even the flag. They arrested, clubbed, insulted blindly, tear gas in the face of children, kicks in the private parts of boys, dirty words to women.”
The question has to be asked – is this the post-election response to try to crush the movement? Some speculate that it is an attempt to limit the protest movement to Algiers and Kabylia, and to shut down the movement in the rest of the country. Others think Tebboune may seek to co-opt the protest movement instead.
A mass of protesters in Algiers and elsewhere chanted slogans such as “We said no to the vote with the gangs. They brought us five wolves.”
“We are the sons of Amirouche. We have no fear and we will keep up protesting,” was chanted in Algeria and London, referring to independence war hero Colonel Amirouche Ait Hamouda.
After the attacks in Oran, protestors in Bejaia, Kabylia chanted: “Well done People of Oran, the people of Bejaia are proud of you!”
Where the movement goes from here is being discussed. What is not in doubt is that the weekly protests will continue, as long as none of their demands have been met. All the political prisoners must be released. But there is also discussion about how to increase the pressure on the regime, including more widespread general strikes.
There was a call for a nationwide general strike via social media, for the four days prior to the election. The general strike was solid in Kabylia, where there was a united call by numerous trade unions, political parties and other organisations in Bejaia. It was partly successful in Algiers. However, the strike failed to be supported so well in other areas of the country. Many fervently hope that the example of solid support in Kabylia will encourage other areas of the country to follow suit next time.
In London activists picketed the Algerian consulate all day every day during the week leading up to the vote. Very few voted, which was the same story across the Algerian diaspora. On the Saturday demonstration following the election many activists expressed their determination to continue the struggle.
As Samia Beddiaf, a teacher, said:
“It’s a big step we’ve made, we’ve come so far, there is no turning back. We’re not stopping till we get our country back from the mafia, from the gangsters. They are trying to scare people, they are using violence now, so we need awareness first of all, keep it peaceful. Strikes maybe, civil disobedience, we can go that far, but there is no stopping.”
“At the consulate in London we were protesting from 7am to 10pm, singing and smiling. Very very few people went in to vote. They told us 40% voted, which is a joke.”
“The government is doing everything to stop us, they are using violence, jailing people.”
Another man said: “The rulers are trying to scare people, they are playing on divide and rule, and trying to portray as if the protest is only in Algiers and in the Kabylia region, as if it’s just a regional problem, but people are not buying this anymore, especially with the youngsters. This is quite an old argument, they’ve been using it since 1962. Now with social media people do know what’s going on. We are going through a difficult moment, it’s not impossible. We don’t have any choice, we have to recover our freedom, or we will have a worse regime, maybe for another 50 years. So we have no other choice.”
A young Algerian said “Also they are trying to break the revolution, by calling for dialogue which we have refused from day one. We are calling for negotiation, not dialogue, because we want our freedom, and we want this regime to step down. No-one is going to represent the revolution, all the nation is of one decision.”
What you can do:
- Rush immediate protests to the Algerian embassy condemning the violence against demonstrators in Oran and other towns and cities and calling for the immediate release of political detainees.
- Write to your MP calling on them to urge the UK government not to carry on “business as usual” with the Algerian regime but instead to call for an end to repression and for the release of political prisoners.