This is a critical moment in the history of Algeria. The largest country in Africa, with the second-largest population in the Arab world, Algeria is standing on the brink of a political and economic precipice. Never since its independence has the country been so fragile.
Today’s presidential election in Algeria is a foregone conclusion. Algerians will wake up tomorrow with the same regime that has ruled over them for 15 years. A regime that has no legitimacy and no connection with the people of Algeria. At the head of the regime stands Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a man who is so ill that he couldn’t run his own re-election campaign, and was incapable even of announcing for himself his intention to stand in the elections.
On 15 December I launched my own campaign to run as a candidate in the elections. I had a new vision for Algeria, one that had its centre democracy, the rule of law, and economic development of the kind that would benefit the whole population.
I believed that my youthful candidacy could pose a threat to a regime led by a 77-year-old man coming to the end of his life. But in the months of my campaign, it became clearer than ever to me how paranoid and controlling this regime has become. No-one can possibly succeed without its backing.
I experienced first-hand some of many mechanisms used by the regime to stifle genuine opposition. All of my scheduled meetings with citizens and civil-society groups were cancelled, with authorities citing a threat to national security. The associations which I planned to meet were threatened with losing their government funding if they met me. Activists working on my behalf were summoned by police and ordered to stop collecting signatures in support of my campaign for fear of reprisals. The state administration refused to certify those signatures we did gather, claiming that it could not do so without explicit instructions from the Ministry of the Interior. The local press, dependent on printing works owned by the state, remains reluctant to publicize our campaign.
When it was announced that Bouteflika would stand for a 4th term, I knew my campaign was in vain. I withdrew my candidature in order to stand beside those campaigning against the president and calling for an end to the current political system.
In doing so, I experienced another side of the regime’s iron grip on politics. In recent weeks, rallies in favour of a boycott of the elections and against a 4th term for Bouteflika have either been prevented from going ahead or been met by a huge a police presence. The regime is consistently denying Algerians their right to peaceful protest and their right to speak out against all the injustices they are suffering.
Instead, the regime is labelling the democratic aspirations of Algerians a source of instability, claiming they undermine a balance of power that was agreed decades ago and remains untouchable today.
This election is symptomatic of a political impasse that has endured for decades. Since Algeria won its independence from France in 1962, Algerians have never had any influence over their destiny. The regime has treated its citizens like irresponsible children, incapable of choosing for themselves the kind of country in which they want to live and raise their families. Today, many of them simply want to leave.
The economy is in grave danger of collapse. If the government cannot sustain its oil and gas revenues, then it will not be able to continue to import the food and subsidize the energy on which impoverished Algerians rely. With 70 per cent of Algerians aged under 35, unemployment at nearly a quarter, housing shortages, rising living costs and deepening social misery, all the conditions are there for a social explosion. If no-one puts a stop to it, the country could collapse completely, and instability could spread across the rest of North Africa. We have seen before what happens when young and despairing people see no future in democratic politics. Algeria will bear the scars of its national tragedy for ever.
And yet the West turns away from Algeria’s people, towards its energy resources. At a time when the US and European Union (EU) are vocal in support for democracy in Ukraine, they have said nothing in response to the farce of democracy playing out in Algeria. Instead, just three weeks ago, US secretary of state John Kerry visited Algiers as part of a ‘strategic dialogue’ between the two countries. Algerians did not miss that. Nor did they fail to notice the President of the European Commission jetting into Algiers last year to sign a Strategic Energy Partnership with a corrupt regime that is still the EU’s third-biggest gas supplier.
What do Algerians dream of? A country in which they can be free to pursue their aspirations. A genuine constitution through which the rule of law is supreme, institutions are transparent, the economy is free and elections are fair.
We do not seek any more Western interference. But we do seek a voice. For how much longer can the people of Algeria continue to suffer in silence?
Kamal Benkoussa is a former banker now involved in the protest movement opposing the presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He tweets at: @KamalBenkoussa