MEA Risk Assessment: Algeria is preparing for its most controversial elections in history. The process is fraught with risk, as the turnout is expected to be the lowest ever. The situation is creating a sense of panic among officials on the civilian side in charge of the election process, but the military command, headed by General Gaid Salah is not backing down as its primary strategy now is to elect a president at any cost. The military is seeking a way out of the situation it has created in the first place, in an effort to deflate the attention on it by appointing a new president and re-legitimize a renewed regime inherited from the Bouteflika reign. The future president, with Azzedine Mihoubi favored, will be at the top of an incredibly hard to govern nation, while allowing the military to remain in power but in the background.
In a speech on 3 December, General Gaid Salah called for massive voter turnout to serve as a “slap in the face of Algeria’s enemies.” He added that “If November (1954) marked the liberation from French rule, December will have the honor of finalizing the construction of a state of law.” On 4 December, Gaid Salah issued new threats saying that he gave instructions to the army and security personnel to “prevent anyone from disrupting the electoral process in any way.” In the upcoming elections, repression against protesters is most likely to intensify. More arrests were already announced, including that of prominent opposition figure Rachid Nekkaz. He was arrested at Algiers airport on 4 December for reasons unknown yet. After campaigning against Bouteflika’s fifth term in early 2019, Rachid Nekkaz decided to boycott the 12 December presidential elections and proposed a series of actions to prevent the polls from happening.
Facing the military command and its civilian support structures are the various but uncoordinated opposition figures in the country and abroad who have been calling for an escalation, albeit peaceful. Protesters over the past days have been repeating calls made by opposition figures to launch nationwide strikes. Protesting students have also made the call and as such, there is some likelihood that the country will be in standstill mode prior, during and after election day. There is also a broad recognition that the elections will go on, regardless of the turnout. As such, opposition figures like retired judge and civic activist Zoubida Assoul (inside Algeria) and former diplomat Larbi Zitout (abroad) pledging that the protest will go on regardless of the poll results.
On the ground, Algerians thronged their capital Friday, 6 December to rebuke the military rulers and insist that a presidential election set for 12 December must not go ahead before a change of regime. Protesters fear the poll will cement in power politicians close to ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The five candidates standing in the poll all either supported the former leader or took part in his government. “There will be no vote!” demonstrators continue to chant. They denounced an official crackdown on the so-called “Hirak” movement that has shaken the country with months of unprecedented protests. Security forces, both uniformed and plain-clothed, flooded Algiers for the 41st consecutive Friday of demonstrations, deploying water cannon and anti-barricade vehicles.
Less than one week is left before the 12 December election in Algeria. Despite the entire population rejecting the elections and promising the lowest turnout in the country’s history, Algeria is likely to have a new but controversial president, with Azzedine Mihoubi, a former housing minister and the current interim head of the RDN party, favored to win.
With this scenario taking place, Algeria watchers should expect the political crisis to extend beyond 12 December and well into 2020. Leaders of the opposition in and outside Algeria are currently preparing the Algerian population for a long-term fight, and therefore the work of the Algerian government going forward will be extremely difficult and challenged by lack of legitimacy, even if measures of appeasement are expected to be announced by the new president. The problem with the Algerian regime is that it has no support for any segment of the population. This is a situation that is different than in Egypt, Syria, Venezuela, and other countries with similar challenges, where the governments have sizeable sections of the population supporting their policies. In Algeria, the regime has no base of support to bring it enough breathing space. Foreign companies operating in Algeria should prepare for long-term political instability in the country.
A forced presidential election constitutes a new risk factor on the security front. While the military and all security services are on high alert to secure the elections, the biggest wildcard is what takes place in the post-election period.
In the early weeks of the Hirak movement, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) pledged that it would not stage any insurgent attacks on Algeria as long the Algerian people were continuing on their anti-government protest movement. Any effort to bring back remnants of the Bouteflika regime, including a president in the person of Mihoubi, would provoke a resumption of hostilities from AQIM and could add more security challenges, in particular along the southern borders and around oil hubs.
The Algerian security services could then face two-fronts, with the first working to interdict any political dissent in a continuation of the repressive measures adopted by the military command, and the second will be to contain terror activity.
With reduced resources and demoralized troops, the security services could find themselves in a very difficult environment, characterized by decreased efficiencies and deep divisions within the military. Dozens of senior intelligence officers have been arrested, dismissed or forced to leave Algeria amid a purge ordered by General Gaid Salah meant to cement his control of the various military and security agencies. In doing so, the Algerian security forces have lost many of its top experts due to the clan infighting that has taken place over the past months. As such, a degradation of intelligence and defensive capabilities, coupled with a reduction of troop morale will have long-term consequences on the security and stability of Algeria.
Economic & Social Outlook:
Both the social and economic fronts are undergoing major transformation, most with negative effects. The business and industrial sectors have been badly hit by the political crisis that has been lingering since early this year. Assuming the regime’s roadmap is maintained, the outlook looks grim on most fronts, including on revenue, spending, and inflation outcome. These factors, if not addressed through a robust economic policy, focused on industrial diversification, boosting business creation, endorsing transparency, fighting corruption and creating jobs, could have a damaging effect on social stability, through subsidy reductions and policies that would see a spike in outbound illegal immigration. With the next president expected to face unprecedented push back from the population, it will be unrealistic to expect the next administration to come up with meaningful policies to enhance economic recovery. All the five candidates running for president, failed to show reasonable grasp of economic policy. All of their slogans are populist and political in nature and show no real expertise in macro or micro-economic affairs. In such context, Algeria is likely to undergo a prolonged period of economic degradation, struggling between populist decisions and the inevitable launch of painful reforms.