Algeria, Tebboune put to the test of the crisis

The newly-elected head of state will have to use all his experience to bring the country out of crisis, amid protests and concern from Europe

Former Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune has been elected as the eighth president of Algeria. Born in the small town of Mécheria in the Atlas Mountains (north-western Algeria) in 1945, Tebboune is a long-standing politician and is regarded as being particularly close to the current Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, a national strongman after the resignation of the ill and elderly former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The newly-elected head of state will immediately have to face the very difficult task of dealing with the protests by the “Hirak” popular movement which since February has been demonstrating against “le Pouvoir” – the system that has governed the country in recent decades.

After several weeks of stagnation, the Popular Movement regained strength in the country’s main cities ahead of the poll: from Algiers to Oran, Annaba to Constantine, thousands of people took to the streets to say “no” to the vote being held in the current political conditions, as the election was seen to be failing to guarantee citizens’ freedom of choice. Beginning on Nov. 17, demonstrations were held in various moments of the electoral campaign with low attendance and a lack of interest from citizens, and were mostly focused in the Berber region of Kabylia where a general strike reached 80 percent participation. There was an iron-fisted reaction from the authorities, and particularly from the military, making numerous arrests and reiterating that the election would go ahead as scheduled in any case.

Concern from Europe

In a resolution adopted in late November, the European Parliament expressed “concern” about the human rights situation and fundamental freedoms in the North African country, strongly condemning “the arbitrary and unlawful arrests, detainment and intimidation of and attacks on journalists, trade unionists, lawyers, students, human rights defenders and civil society and all peaceful protesters taking part in the peaceful Hirak demonstrations.” The European Parliament resolution was “categorically rejected” by Chief of Staff Gaid Salah and was met with harsh criticism both from the Algerian Foreign Ministry and the National Assembly (lower house of the Algerian parliament). The tit-for-tat between Strasbourg and Algiers came at an increasingly icy moment for relations between Algeria and the European Union. The distance between the two parties is the result of an association agreement signed in 2005 and, above all, a free trade arrangement that will come into force in 2020, considered “unfair” by many influential voices in the North African country.

Meanwhile, relations between France and its former “metropolitan territory” in North Africa are growing increasingly cold. French leader Emmanuel Macron gave a frosty welcome to the election of Tebboune, merely “acknowledging” his victory. Macron said he did not want to “comment, make positive or negative points, or make any forecasts”, hoping that “the aspirations of the Algerian people may be met through the dialog that must be opened between the authorities and the population.” The President of France (a country that is home to the largest Algerian community abroad, including many Berbers) added that “it is up to the Algerians to find the ways and means as part of true democratic dialog”, stressing that France “is by their side at this crucial moment in their history.” The remarks did not go unnoticed by Tebboune: “I was elected by my people, everyone is free to make their own statements”, he said in his first press conference as the newly-elected president.

It is worth noting that the Algerian judiciary is investigating an alleged meeting between the French secret services and the former head of the Algerian secret services, Mohamed Mediène, also known as General Toufik, the head of the Algeria’s Department of Surveillance and Security (DSS), General Athmane Tartag and Said Bouteflika, the brother of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who resigned on Apr. 2 after more than 20 years in power. All of these – apart from the former head of state – were arrested as part of the maxi-judicial campaign against senior officials, entrepreneurs and officers tied to the previous ruling establishment. The three individuals are considered to be the leaders of the so-called “deep state”, whose real goal is said to have always been to alter the direction of military institutions, its arms purchases and its system of alliances.

Long-term politician

Tebboune will have to use all his experience to bring the country out of crisis. After all, his political career began in 1977 when he held various positions in different departments, before heading up the areas of Adrar, Tiaret and Tizi Ouzou. At the beginning of the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002), Tebboune held the position of Local Authorities Minister for around eight months during the presidency of Chadli Bendjedid, before leaving the executive in 1992. Tebboune remained far removed from the political scene up until 1999, when he officially returned to the field after the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. From 1999 to 2002, he held various roles, including Culture Minister (1999) and Local Authorities Minister (2001) and then once again moved away from politics for around ten years. In 2012, he was once again called by the government to take on the post of Housing Minister (2012-2017) and then Minister of Commerce for six months before becoming prime minister in May 2017. His experience at the helm of the executive lasted only two months and 21 days due – some believe – to the distrust of Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother who was against the prime minister’s attempts to reduce the influence of politicians, entrepreneurs and officials who had benefited from the presidency’s favors for decades.

Tebboune had stayed out of the limelight in recent years before reappearing on the scene in an interview on Oct. 19 (several months after Bouteflika’s resignation in April) with the pan-Arab newspaper al Hayat, where he shed light on his controversial split from the presidential establishment. On Oct. 26, he officially announced his candidacy for the presidential elections. According to some observers, Tebboune has the support of the current Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army, Ahmed Gaid Salah – the country’s new strongman following the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The two are reported to have had a long-standing friendship since the early 1980s – a time when Tebboune was the governor of Adrar in the central desert, and Gaid Salah was in command of the 3rd Military Region. Tebboune’s closeness to military leaders could limit the room for maneuver of the newly-elected president, whose authority has been undermined by low voter turnout.