Is there no limit to the assault on the basic rights and fundamental humanity of Arab citizens? The latest insult to common human decency and the struggle of hundreds of millions of Arabs for democratic and accountable governance emanates these days from Algeria, where Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced earlier this week that he is running for his fourth consecutive term as president. Not surprisingly, in central Algiers security forces Thursday arrested 40 people who were demonstrating in protest against Bouteflika’s announcement. A similar small protest last week met the same fate at the hands of security services.
Even though a state of emergency in the country was lifted in 2011, public protests remain banned throughout the land. Another protest last week was similarly broken up. Then and again this week, the brave Algerians who took to the streets to bring an end to military rule and perpetual hold on power by ailing old men chanted slogans like “Long live Algeria!” and “Free and democratic Algeria!” The police intervened forcefully to break up the protests, but the lessons of the past three years across the Arab world suggest that this latest example of attempted perpetual incumbency by military-backed families and small cliques will not pass without more protests.
Even after the demonstrators were bundled into vans by security forces, they continued to oppose Bouteflika’s candidacy by banging on the sides of the vehicles. One female protestor cried out, “Fifty-two years—Barakat!” (That’s enough!), referring to the fact that the Algerian military in one form or another has ruled the country for the past 52 years of its independence from France.
“Barakat” is a new popular movement that opposes a fourth Bouteflika candidacy, similar to the Kefaya movement in Egypt that opposed the assumed intention of former President Hosni Mubarak to pass on the presidency to his son Gamal. Kefaya protests were always broken up by security forces, but they played a historic role in giving Egyptians the courage to openly challenge the Mubarak regime by publicly protesting against perpetual Mubarak family rule.
A liberal who presented himself as a presidential candidate but dropped out of the race in disgust after hearing of the Bouteflika candidacy, told AFP, “We are tired of this half-dead man and the thugs who surround him. The political equation must change.”
The spectacle of an ailing old man like Bouteflika clinging to power after 15 years as president is a sickening reminder of the single most debilitating legacy of the modern Arab state system that is now so directly challenged by its own citizens who are tired of being treated like children with no rights. That would be the legacy of soldiers and families ruling entire countries for decades on end, with neither the legitimacy that free elections confer nor the credibility or efficacy in governing that would result from participation, accountability and transparency in the conduct of policymaking.
Bouteflika, who is 77 years old, suffered a stroke in April 2013 and spent months being treated in France. His rare public appearance on Monday was necessary for him to submit his candidacy papers in person for the April 17 presidential vote. He then appeared on television to confirm his candidacy, marking the first time he spoke in public since returning from Paris eight months ago.
Before his presidential years began 15 years ago, he had held senior posts in the National Liberation Front that has ruled the country since independence, and was foreign minister for 16 years in the 1960s-70s. He is credited in his first term with ending the ten-year-long civil war against Islamists in the 1990s, but after being re-elected in 2004 he amended the constitution so that he could run again in 2009 and 2014. Power, it seems, is addictive.
Bouteflika is likely to be re-elected, but not because a majority of Algerians want him to serve again. The country has witnessed hundreds of small demonstrations in recent years against corruption, mismanagement, economic issues and lack of democratic participation, all to no avail. The military’s hold on power remains firm, and Algerians seem unlikely to wage a national rebellion to oust the regime as has happened in other Arab lands across North Africa, mainly because they have challenged the state before and always lost to the rule of the generals. Algerians also seem fearful of igniting national strife again after their ugly civil war.
So he will win despite the protests against his candidacy, and will serve another term, or as much of it as his frail health permits; but he will remain a sad symbol of the inability of Arab old men with guns to come to terms with their people’s desire to live with dignity and full citizen rights.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global