Presidential Elections in Algeria: Full Speed Ahead … to Nowhere

Of the seven chiefs of State who have ruled Algeria since the country’s independence 62 years ago, the present and future president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 79, will indisputably have been the most insignificant and least active. More reason for him to covet a second term of office on 7 September! The first ruler of the country too young to have taken part in the War of Independence (1954–1962), owes his designation to an exceptional set of circumstances.

Algiers, 27 August 2022. Abdelmadjid Tebboune at a signing ceremony in the pavilion of honour at Algiers airport as part of the visit by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Ludovic Marin / AFP

A graduate of The National School of Administration at 25, prefect at 40, minister at 45, Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s outstanding achievement was to have surrounded Algiers, the capital, with thousands of council homes, as ugly as they are decrepit for want of proper upkeep. In the spring of 2017, to everyone’s astonishment, he found himself at the head of the government, a promotion as unexpected as it was short-lived and which he owed to the backing of the chief of staff, General Ahmed Salah Gaid, whose political star was on the rise, the illness of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika making him increasingly absent from the scene. Less than three months later, Tebboune was brutally evicted from the premiership and left the country. Public opinion promptly forgot about him. And yet his ‘crossing of the wilderness’ was to be brief, less than two years. The failure of Bouteflika’s fifth term of office, contested in the streets throughout March 2019, opened the road to power for General Gaid who chose Tebboune for his protege.

Less than a month after his laborious election, his protector succumbed to a sudden stroke. The new president found himself alone, topped by the new chief of staff, General Said Chengriha. Gaid’s cliques were decimated, victims of a ruthless purge which spared neither civilians nor military personnel. Tebboune was one of the rare survivors.

Press magnates preferred to journalists

Was it a choice imposed on him or a deliberate tactic? He became practically a covert president, caulking himself away in the capital, surrounded by a handful of devotees. He travelled to the provinces only twice in five years. He stayed away from all the world summits with China, the USA or the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) which, at their August 2023 meeting put off, in humiliating terms, Algeria’s application until better days. He speaks little, expresses himself as poorly in Arabic as in French, stutters reading his speeches, stumbles over words that are a bit complicated. During his term of office, he delivered only one speech to the Nation and prefers the company of press magnates to that of reporters. He meets with them regularly, his declarations are made public two or three days later, the time for State television to tidy them up in the form of brief extracts or at best as slogans. His chief decisions, which he takes himself or which are attributed to him, target this or that official – he fires one regularly. His Prime Minister changes almost every year; diplomats, judges, prefects, police commissioners, all are subjected to purges announced with great fanfare by an obedient press. What was his actual role in Algerian politics over this last term of office (2019–2024)? Nobody knows, outside of the tiny circle of decision makers in uniform.

If the truth be told, the record is disastrous, whether it be his or that of the generals. The regime is going through the most repressive period in its short history. Civil liberties, already restricted, are now practically inexistent. Parents are gaoled to make their runaway offspring turn themselves in.

Journalists are harassed, newspapers shut down, after manoeuvres that fool no one, their editors are thrown into prison ad those who finance them are intimidated or turned off in other ways. Foreigners, whether they belong to the media or to NGOs, wait months for visas which are seldom granted.

The Berber minorities, in Kabylia as in M’zab are subjected, by omnipresent security services, to systematic mistrust verging on the inquisition and there are more political prisoners than ever before. Intellectual life is at a standstill, 90% of the books published are religious and the rest are about the war for independence, the regime’s second object of zeal. A huge generation gap prevails and young people, including college graduates, are leaving the country in droves by way of the sea. A totally illegal ferry line between Mostaganem and Algeciras in Spain operates at full capacity as soon as the Mediterranean grows calm.

International isolation

It seems that Tebboune hoped to give himself a little breathing space vis-à-vis his generals by latching on to French President Emmanuel Macron. On several occasions, a trip to Paris was planned before being inexplicably cancelled. Algeria’s present diplomatic isolation is unprecedented. It is rumoured that the President gave up the idea of attending the Bahrain Arab summit in May 2024 because only one of his 21 counterparts was prepared to meet with him in private.

The super-rich Gulf monarchies which are now all-powerful in the Arab League and elsewhere, snub him completely, except for the United Arab Emirates which takes a wicked pleasure in thwarting Algeria’s regional ambitions and Qatar, more accommodating when it comes to managing the activities of the local Muslim Brotherhood. Paradoxically enough, the inglorious withdrawal of French troops from the Sahel has compromised Algeria’s relations with its Southern neighbours. Mali quite openly accuses Algiers of supporting the Touareg rebellion against Bamako. Niger, the country through which the future gaz pipeline from Nigeria to Europe is meant to pass, blames Algeria for the inhumane deportation of thousands of migrants abandoned in the middle of the desert.

Mauritania is inclined to prefer a finicky and self-interested neutrality in the Algeria-Morocco conflict. There again, Algiers has no allies whereas Mohammad VI has Israel, its sophisticated weaponry and military advisors. Russia, which has been arming the Armée nationale populaire for over half a century, has launched a vast pan-African campaign, from Benghazi in Libya to Bangui in the Central African Republic, clearly focusing on its ant-Western objectives, leaving Algeria to one side. The only consolation for Algerian diplomats and especially for its police force, Kais Saied’s Tunisia is short of funds and has come to resemble something like an Algerian protectorate. Habib Bourguiba, the father of the country’s independence, must be turning over in his grave!

Prices are soaring as never before

During his brief electoral campaign, nearly five years ago, Tebboune promised a change. He has failed completely on every score, starting with the daily lives of Algerians! Prices are skyrocketing as never before. A miserable chicken costs 2,000 dinars (DA) in Algiers, i.e., 10% of the minimum wage, nearly $80 at the unofficial exchange rate. ‘In Setif, bananas, Algerians’ favourite fruit, cost what they cost in Paris’ a young man who spent his vacation in his home country tells me. Wages don’t keep up with the double-digit inflation which has been raging since 2020. According to the Office of Statistics, incomes increase on the average by … 1.5% per year, a disaster for the buying power of the poor. Even the upper classes can’t make ends meet.

A prosperous solicitor, practising in the capital but residing 25 km. out of town, tells me his tale of woe: ‘It takes me an hour to drive into Algiers, deposit my wife at her work, then my two children at their expensive private school. That takes 30 minutes more.’ He spends over three hours a day in the traffic jams and despite his comfortable earnings, he has no other solution. There are no suburban trains as in other megapoles and the buses come when they come.

The health-care system is defective, and provincials are de facto excluded from Algiers hospitals, while the private clinics are unaffordable. The regime’s wage policies only make things worse; three million people are out of work and receive 70% of the minimum wage which encourages idleness and does nothing to stop illegal emigration. In April 2024, the outgoing president announced a rise in wages and pensions without specifying at the time either the amount of the increase or the date it would go into effect. Already, the political opposition, especially the Islamists, have seized upon the issue. Abdelkader Bengrina, leader of the El Bina movement, takes many provincial tours and is said to fill the hall wherever he appears. He is not standing for president but has set his sights on the next legislative elections.

Economic stagnation

On the economic plane, the new strategy which consisted in moving away from hydrocarbons (60% of tax revenue and 90% of foreign exchange earnings) and from government spending as motors of the economy into a more diversified and more dynamic model, has simply evaporated. The last technocrats who still believed in it have retired, and so oil and gas remain the two pillars of Tebboune’s Algeria! When prices climb to over $100 a barrel, Algerian finances are better off, insiders can gorge themselves more than usual while the diet of the people, in their vast majority, cannot be said to improve. But this has occurred only once in the last ten years, when Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2022. The rest of the time, stagnation has been the norm. The 2019 law on oil taxation did not attract international investors as had been hoped. The US company Exxon-Mobile, world number 1 hydrocarbon firm, which Algeria is trying to persuade to come and prospect the Sahara for its shale gas, is demanding another tax cut.

Productive investment is practically non-existent, the public banks lend their funds to an insatiable Treasury which uses them to finance its huge budget deficit (8% predicted for 2024 in the law of finances for this year, enacted at the end of 2023). The domestic market, gutted by the losses of buying power and the drop of imports by a good third, is practically dead.

Except for the fossil fuels and the electricity sold off cheaply by the State to run the air-conditioners of the middle classes and the infernal car traffic on the outskirts of Algiers. But subsidy reduction is less topical than ever. Car owners couldn’t bear to face a substantial rise in the price of petrol though they are perfectly capable of asphyxiating the nerve centre of their country. The President’s crass incompetence in these matters certainly doesn’t improve things. Questioned in April 2024 at the end of Ramadan, he got all muddled over the exchange rates, claimed quite implausibly that the dinar was worth $100 (it is worth less than one US penny on the parallel market) and promised to double the Algerian GNP in two years’ time.

Is Tebboune the right man for the job?

Under this military regime, now openly averred as such, where the generals control the presidency of the Republic as well as the intelligence and security services, the unstable balance of power between those three institutions no longer exists as it did in the past. ‘Civilians operate under the strict control of the military’, a diplomat explains. The ministerial personnel, all of whom come out of the administration, are lacking the inspiration and the insights to conceive of a different future. They live from day to day, fearful of drawing the anger of the colonels who watch over them. ‘Public opinion doesn’t give a damn who represents it in this shadow play, they can put anyone they like up for election…’ a connoisseur points out. In the spring of 2023, the generals were wondering whether Tebboune was the man for the job. A brave journalist, Ihsan El Kadi published a well-informed article about that on the Radio M1 website. He got 5 years in prison for his trouble!!

The days of Hirak are long gone that weekly demonstration when millions of Algerians demanded each Friday the return to a civilian regime and reiterated their rejection of this ‘barracks nation’ which an Algerian writer, Samir Kacimi conjures up wittily in his latest satirical novel, translated from the Arabic as Le Triomphe des imbéciles.2 In the spring of 2020, the Covid 19 epidemic made it possible to silence Hirak. But for how long?

1Radio M belongs to a network of independent media on the Arab world of which Orient XXI is also a member.

2Samir Kacimi, Le Triomphe des imbéciles, Actes Sud, coll. Sindbad, avril 2024, traduction de Lotfi Nia, 304 pages, 23 euros.