No Arab Spring Please, We're Algerian

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

It's been a tough campaign for contenders in Algeria's parliamentary election. Politicians of almost all stripes have been hounded, heckled and, in some cases, literally run out of town.

While the past year has brought the spirit of change to other parts of the Arab world, Algerians don't seem to believe in it much. Wrote columnist Hadda Hazzam in the Algerian daily El-Fadjr:

Whoever follows the electoral campaigns can see that the majority of the participating parties have neither platforms nor charismatic figures capable of prompting change or of creating a powerful opposition against the authority.

That authority is President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power for more than 12 years. His regime, many commentators argue, will not be significantly challenged by the vote, scheduled for Thursday. Whereas Islamist parties have dominated recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt, Algeria's so-called Green Alliance of three Islamist parties is expected to perform modestly in the contest for a newly enlarged 462-member parliament.

Several secular opposition parties, as well as al-Qaeda’s branch in the region, have announced their outright rejection of the election. If voter turnout is as low as the 35 percent registered in the May 2007 election, it will be a blow to the regime’s case at home and abroad that it is steering the country toward greater democracy.

“The authority wants to stage this election day to silence the voices questioning the importance of the reforms introduced into the country,” wrote Hazzam. She added sarcastically:

Let the president himself speak, as long as he has programs and ideas. Let him call on the people to vote after the candidates failed to seize the attention of the citizens, who have become convinced that the main goal behind their candidacy is not to serve the people and the country but to earn comfortable salaries and pensions and to enjoy parliamentary immunity. The president knows this reality and the fact that neither the old nor the new parties are able to achieve the breakthrough that is wanted by all.

Of course, breakthroughs can be dangerous. Algeria's lack of enthusiasm for the tumult elsewhere in the region may have something to do with the country's recent past: the exceptionally brutal, decade-long civil war that erupted in 1992 after the government cancelled the second round of voting in parliamentary elections when it became clear Islamists were going to win. The war claimed more than 200,000 lives. Wrote columnist Boumediene Bouzid in the Algerian daily El-Khabar:

In the Algerian case, one can note a joint fear that exists within the authority and society over the repetition of a tragic experience, some of the facets of which are now being seen in certain Arab countries.

After raising concerns that unspecified “international sides” could stoke Islamist militancy once again or encourage “the emergence of religious or ethnic extremism," Bouzid ended his piece with a heavy emphasis on the value of the “cohesion, stability and security of our society.”

Criticizing precisely this sort of logic, though, an editorial in the same daily earlier this year argued that the army’s 1992 coup was “justified by its initiators as a barrier to the rise of fundamentalism.” The paper wrote:

Some would say today that we were right to oppose the decision to cancel the electoral process. Others would say it was inevitable but the army did not keep its promise to preserve democracy. The fact is, 20 years later the results are there to throw in the face of the regime its sole responsibility for having plunged the country into chaos.

Since then, the paper noted, some of the Islamist parties have actually joined governments formed by the regime. El-Khabar concluded:

The power-Islamist coalition is so natural, it is easy to deduce that it is in fact democracy that they have always wanted to block, not fundamentalism.

With some members of the Green Alliance expected to again join the government formed after the elections, El-Khabar may be right on at least one score: whether Algerians vote or not, their options are likely to remain limited for now.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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-0- May/08/2012 13:50 GMT