By Robert Zaretsky

What if an election is held and no one votes? This question now confronts Algeria, where the government of interim President Abdelkader Bensalah has scheduled a presidential election for December 12. Yet the election risks ending as an exercise in absurdity: nearly all Algerian political and civil organizations have refused to endorse the five official candidates and have called upon Algerians to refrain from voting. The failure of this election will, paradoxically, mark the success of the country’s democratic aspirations, as expressed through a phenomenon that has dominated the Algerian political landscape since late February: le hirak.

Among the protest movements that have recently erupted across the globe, Algeria’s hirak, the Arabic word for “movement,” stands apart. As persistent as the protests in Hong Kong, the hirak remains resolutely peaceful; as insistent as Catalonian separatists in their call for independence, the hirak nevertheless swears by the Algerian nation; as resistant as France’s yellow vests to anointing leaders, the hirak nonetheless accepts the necessity of political alliances and organization. Algeria’s future will be determined by the hirak’s ability to sustain these tensions while managing the nation’s transition to democracy.

For the millions of Algerians who filled the country’s streets and squares on November 1, the date held particular meaning. The protest fell on the 65th anniversary of the official start to Algeria’s war of independence. But whereas France was the oppressor 65 years ago, that role has since been assumed by le pouvoir, or power, the popular term for the military-industrial interests that have ruled Algeria for the past half-century, hand-in-hand with the state and its security apparatus.

Nearly all Algerian political and civil organizations have refused to endorse the five official candidates.

The significance of the anniversary was too great to ignore. The crowd of more than a million men, women, and children joyously riffed on the theme of independence. In their chants (“Algeria is retaking its independence” and “The people demand their independence”) and their banners (“The generation of the revolution liberated the land, that of the hirak will liberate the nation” and “The nation is in danger: the Battle of Algiers continues”), the protesters associated the current struggle with that of their forebears two generations earlier. As one participant declared, “Our ancestors fought the French for independence, and we are fighting the Mafia that has confiscated that same independence.”

This sequel to the original battle of Algiers began on February 22, 2019, when millions of Algerians flooded the country’s squares and streets to protest the announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would run for a fifth term of office. This sudden and popular eruption took by surprise not just the security apparatus but also an intellectual apparatus convinced that Algerians had resigned themselves to the status quo. The novelist Kamel Daoud had written that “there were no longer citizens in Algeria, but only believers,” while his fellow writer Boualem Sansal sighed that “like a gas, Islam covers all of Algeria.” In a book titled Where Is Algeria Going?, the essayist Mohamed Sifaoui wrote, “Nowhere.” Apart from a handful of utopians, he concluded, “citizens no longer even try to engage themselves in politics.” To the author’s chagrin, however, the book was published on February 21, the eve of the first mass demonstration.

Twenty years earlier, Bouteflika’s election had seemed providential. The new president did not challenge the military-industrial system, but his civilian background reassured civil society. By brokering an amnesty law, Bouteflika managed to end the “black decade” of savage war between the state and Islamist rebels that had killed approximately 200,000 civilians and combatants. The lasting impact of the war benefitted Bouteflika, making Algerians reluctant to reject or resist a political settlement that had imposed peace. That reluctance lasted well into this decade. In 2014, when Bouteflika was reelected after a profoundly debilitating stroke, he was “already a zombie,” one Algerian recalled, but Algerians still “suffered from the trauma of the civil war … All of us were afraid to relive that era.”

Twenty years earlier, Bouteflika’s election had seemed providential.

By 2019, however, Bouteflika’s presence had become a provocation. The combination of a faltering economy and flourishing corruption had deepened the rift between the state and the public. Moreover, his candidacy violated not just constitutional norms—a law passed in 2016 imposed a two-term limit—but also ethical ones. Since his stroke, Bouteflika has used a wheelchair and is incapable of independent movement and speech. His drooping frame and deadened gaze became an emblem of a deeply corrupt state, capable of little more than rewarding an elite while repressing most everyone else. This odd state of affairs has inspired a cottage industry of bitter jokes, such as “Even cancer has only four stages,” and “Bouteflika promises to die should he win a fifth term.”

The demonstrators maintained their weight on the regime throughout the late winter and early spring of 2019. Braving threats and warnings from the government, protesters filled the streets with chants of “20 ans: ça suffit” or “20 years is enough.” In late March, le pouvoir chose to interpret the demand as applying only to Bouteflika. The army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah announced that Bouteflika’s “debilitating” state of health disqualified him from a fifth term. Having wheeled his former patron off the stage of politics, Salah replaced him with Bensalah. At the same time, Salah ordered the arrest of several former ministers and officials connected to Bouteflika, most importantly his brother Saïd Bouteflika, who was then charged with financial corruption and political conspiracy. The political scientist Luis Martinez noted that the motivation behind these arrests was transparent: Salah will “have heads fall in order to convey the appearance of political change.”

In the wake of this symbolic housecleaning, the regime pushed ahead with plans for elections. But the opposition movements dismissed the election as no less symbolic than the purge, and they refused to offer candidates. During weekly demonstrations, protesters now chanted, “There will not be a vote.” At the same time, civil society groups—including associations of lawyers, judges, professors, and students—organized strikes, insisting that the generals and interim leaders were the problem for which they pretended to be the answer. As the Algerian journalist Akram Belkaïd argued, the arrests “were concessions, not a reform. It’s a classic move: in order to survive, the system sacrifices a part of itself.”

Protestors demanded that Salah step aside to allow a transitional government take office. By mid-June, an alliance of 70 political and professional organizations, claiming to represent civil society, issued a detailed plan for Algeria’s transition to a fully transparent and democratic system. Saïd Salhi, the vice president of Algeria’s chapter of the League of Human Rights, insisted that following the plan’s four steps would “mark the rupture with a system that is now maneuvering and manipulating public opinion in order to remain in power.”

Protestors demanded that Salah step aside to allow a transitional government take office.

While the pouvoir has proved as stubborn as the protestors, it has also proved more tentative. Salah has refused to retreat in the face of the hirak’s demands, and has instead ordered the arrests of numerous strike leaders, as well as youths who display the Berber flag or emblem as a reminder that the one-party state has long suppressed Berber ethnic and linguistic identity. At the same time, though, he has mostly avoided open confrontation with the protestors. Even the use of water cannons by the security forces seems halfhearted, leading protestors to demand shampoo for these occasions.

For the moment, Salah has decided to double down on the election. In mid-September, he reaffirmed the regime’s determination “that elections will take place on the appointed date.” As that date looms, so too does the regime’s presence in the streets, where police have arrested and detained an increasing number of protestors. The near future is full of uncertainty. For Daoud, this mystery is welcome. For the first time, he remarked in an interview, Algerians “have the right to the unknown. For the last fifty years, we knew who our president would be, along with the exact level of participation and percentage of votes. For the first time, nothing is written in advance.”

  • ROBERT ZARETSKY is a professor of modern French history at the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author of Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, The Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.