Algeria sometimes appears like an oasis, unaffected by the regional uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East since 2011.
Yet Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s partially paralyzed, 77-year-old president, has stepped up a crackdown on opposition and protests ahead of presidential elections there on April 17.
Bouteflika has ruled the oil and gas-rich country since 1999, and he is now poised to win the vote for another five-year term.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that government security forces forcibly dispersed protesters from the Barakat (Enough) action group three times in the first week of March.
"On March 1, 4, and 6, security forces tried to block access to the protest site. Security forces confronted protesters who managed to reach the site and started to wave banners and chant slogans," HRW said in a statement.
Then, on March 15, around 100 demonstrators gathered in Algiers to protest Bouteflika’s decision to seek a fourth five-year term. Security forces did not disperse this incident.
While theses rallies still only number a few hundred people, activists say the momentum is growing.
“More and more people are expressing their objections,” Nabila Benbelkacem, an activist, told VICE News. “There are many movements who are against the election and they show people’s hope for something new and democratic.”
Benbelkacem noted that the ruling party will resort to the “same corrupt methods” to re-elect Bouteflika.
“The open-ended, blanket ban on demonstrations in the capital has been in effect almost as long as Bouteflika has been president,” Eric Goldstein, deputy director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, said in a recent report. “Is it any surprise that these latest victims of the crackdown on protest are those who peacefully oppose his election to a fourth five-year term?”
A stroke in April 2013 left Bouteflika’s legs paralyzed, raising questions about his health and ability to run for yet another term. He has not spoken in public since the stroke.
In a letter published in local newspapers on Wednesday, Liamine Zéroual, Algeria’s president between 1994 and 1999, hinted that Bouteflika should withdraw from the elections due to poor health. He called the presidency "a heavy and delicate task, both moral and physical.”
"The next presidential term of office is the last chance that would be taken to put Algeria on the path of real change,” Zéroual said. “All indications point to the need to initiate immediately… the major plans to realize this project." Zéroual cautioned that "it would be a mistake to think that this can be achieved by the will of one man, whatever his genius or a single party regardless its majority."
'With 70 percent of Algeria’s population under 30, many Algerians cannot remember life without Bouteflika.'
Despite this rising chorus of dissent from both from grassroots protesters and high-level officials, Bouteflika is likely to maintain his post through a powerful centralized network at key government agencies, the backing of his National Liberation Front party, and the military’s reluctance to overthrow a regime without popular support or viable political opposition.
Algeria’s military and security factions are wary of government change due to the country’s bloody history of civil war and Algerians popular backing of the civilian control introduced by Bouteflika. Many in the country are also wary of prolonged power struggles and the rise of Islamists in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia as a result of abrupt regime change.
With 70 percent of Algeria’s population under the age of 30, many Algerians cannot remember what life without Bouteflika is like.
Barakat’s members say the government is mounting a smear campaign against them.
“This campaign has a clear purpose to discredit the movement and associate [it] with [certain] ideologies… (preferably extremists),” said Sidali Kouidri Filali, a Barakat leader, in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
“We reject this election and this system,” Filali told VICE News. “The solution will come from all the forces that make up this nation — political parties, associations, intellectuals, artists, thinkers — and the only claim we have is to provide a unifying framework for all the good of this country through a transition.”
As well as stepping up the security and police presence against the protesters, Bouteflika also unveiled new five-year plans, including constitutional and institutional reforms, for after the elections.
"The constitution will be revised to consolidate the system and allow more democracy and more respect for all institutions," said Abdelmalek Sellal, a former prime minister who resigned to run Bouteflika’s electoral campaign.
Bouteflika’s campaign team and his presidential advisor, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, maintain he is fit for office. "He is lucid and in possession of his intellectual capacities, allowing him to take decisions,” said Belkhadem on Tuesday.
Photo via Flickr