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Rallying against the leader
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 04 - 2004

As the presidential elections in Algeria enter their final phase, criticism of Bouteflika is growing. Yet the incumbent's chances of winning seem untainted, writes Amira Howeidy
The 8 April presidential elections in Algeria come at a critical moment in the Arab world. "Reform" dominates official discourse yet remains the biggest challenge to Arab regimes. Algeria is no exception, and its approaching elections are viewed by observers as a microcosm of the impact of reform "from within" in a region dominated by totalitarian regimes.
For one thing, Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika is not running alone. He is competing with five other candidates who appear conveniently representative of the Algerian political and social spectrum. They include an Islamist, Abdallah Gaballah, head of the Islah Party; a woman, Louisa Hanoun, spokesperson for the left-wing Workers' Party; and a Berber leader, Said Saadi head of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) Party.
Technically, these four, in addition to former prime minister under Bouteflika, Ali Ben Flis, secretary-general of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and Ali-Fawzi Rebaine, head of the nationalist party Ahd 54, were the only candidates who qualified under the strict conditions of the presidential electoral law. According to this law, candidates are required to collect 75,000 signatures in 25 of Algeria's 48 provinces, with a minimum of 1,500 from each one.
The State Council reserves the right to dismiss signatures it deems inauthentic. Among the numerous candidates disqualified by the council was Bouteflika's most serious rival, Ahmed Taleb El-Ibrahimi, a former foreign minister and a highly respected nationalist figure in Algeria. Despite the 90,000 signatures collected in his support, the Council contested their authenticity, ousting El-Ibrahimi from the presidential race. Interior Minister Yazid El-Zarhouni on his part offered some insight into the surprise decision by accusing El-Ibrahimi's party, Al-Wafaa Wal Adl (Loyalty and Justice) -- which the government refuses to recognise -- as a "cover up" for the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
The Algerian president is keen, however, to guarantee that this vote appears fair and free. His decision to invite international observers to monitor the elections did not emanate solely from his desire to demonstrate transparency, but also to avoid repeating the embarrassing scenario of the 1999 elections when six candidates cried fraud and withdrew from the race at the 11th hour.
Clearly Bouteflika also wishes to disassociate himself from the army that played a major role in bringing him to power five years ago. The military appears equally interested in improving its image, announcing through its chief of staff that it will remain "neutral" in the presidential elections. "No one should expect the army to back any candidate to the [presidential] Mouradeya palace," Chief of Staff General Mohamed Lamari was quoted as saying two months ago.
But the electoral climate is far from smooth. Both the independent media and Bouteflika's five rivals have launched an intense campaign against the president, accusing him of manipulating state-controlled TV and harassing assistants and sympathisers of other candidates. The president responded with counter accusations slamming the press as "irresponsible". His fury at the months' long campaign against him was expressed in a recent interview he gave to the Lebanese Al-Manar TV station where he pointed to the "dangers of media", arguing that he "knows the doses [of free media he] should give to the Algerian people which is why [he] won't permit the other view [an open, impartial media]." He later accused the press of attacking him and tarnishing Algeria's image abroad. The tension reached its peak on Monday when the seven biggest independent dailies announced they were suing Bouteflika for "inciting hatred and violence" and "stifling freedoms".
"Tens of Algerian reporters were assassinated and targeted when Bouteflika was living abroad [before he became president] ... we will not wait for Bouteflika's permission or whims to grant us the freedom we gained already," the seven papers, which included Al-Khabar, Le Matin, Liberte and Le Soir d'Algérie, said.
As the presidential election campaign enters its last week, several prominent political figures, including former prime ministers Ahmed Ghazali and Mekdad Sefi and Abdel-Aziz Mehri, former FLN leader, announced their support for Bouteflika's rival, Ben Flis. Meanwhile, Hanoun, the Labour Party's spokesperson, urged her supporters to follow the "Spanish model" and conduct a "punishment" vote against Bouteflika.
Nonetheless, despite the political elite's opposition to Bouteflika, there are signs that the president is likely to win a second term. A recent poll conducted by the Paris-based Emar research centre on a random sample of 1392 Algerians revealed that of the 18 million eligible voters in Algeria, 55 per cent will vote for Bouteflika, 17 per cent for Ben Flis, 10 per cent for Gaballah and only eight per cent for Hanoun. Observers believe Bouteflika's chances of winning are good in view of the weakness of his rivals -- the result, they say, of a decade-long strategy to undermine them.
The only free elections the country held took place in 1991 when the FIS scored a landslide victory. Alarmed by the results, the army scrapped the elections triggering an endless bloody civil war that killed more than 100,000 Algerians. The FIS was liquidated and its leaders sent to prison.
When he came to power in 1999, Bouteflika vowed to restore peace and security to the war- torn country under the Civil Concord Bill that granted amnesty to those members of armed groups who were not involved in serious criminal activity, such as rape or murder. Despite the decline in violence over the past few years, neither the bill nor Bouteflika's efforts have succeeded in restoring peace.
The political crisis caused by the army's interference has been further complicated by accusations that the security apparatus orchestrated splits in several political parties in order to weaken them. An internal FLN coup removed its strong and respected leader Abdel-Aziz Mehri. This was followed by the speedy formation of the pro-government National Democratic Rally (RND) that was viewed as a pacified version of the FLN. The Islamic oriented Al-Nahda faced a similar scenario when its chairman, Abdallah Gaballah, was ousted from the party, forcing him to form a new party under the name of Al- Islah.
The economic situation has continued to deteriorate sharply. Critics accuse Bouteflika of opening the Algerian market, especially the oil sector, to "foreign control". His government's privatisation of public sector institutions sparked similar denigration for its failure to improve the economy or contain unemployment rates, which currently stand at 30 per cent.
The question is, who is supporting Bouteflika today? For Ahmed Ben Beitour, former prime minister under Bouteflika, the answer is "the army" which, contrary to its claims, has not confined its role to the barracks. The results of the 8 April elections will indicate whether it is the will of the people or that of the generals that determines who will rule Algeria for the next five years.


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