When I walked into a polling station in Algiers last Thursday morning, rows of people peered down at me from three floors of balconies. They all wore lanyards and were there to officiate at Algeria’s presidential election. But there weren’t any voters.
The election was a third attempt at going to the polls. The first two scheduled ballots, in April and July, had been aborted under pressure from the mass movement that has been filling Algeria’s streets every Friday since 22 February, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – frail and rarely seen – announced he would run for a fifth term. He stepped down in April. But the Hirak (‘movement’), not content with seeing Bouteflika gone, is demanding that ‘all of them go’.
Outside the polling station, normally a school, a passer-by shouted: ‘You want cachir, you want a sandwich!’ Cachir, a kind of soft, spreadable sausage, has become a symbol of the protests, since it was said to have been used to bribe people to vote for Bouteflika in 2014. ‘Anyone who votes doesn’t have any dignity!’ a 75-year-old woman shouted from the street corner. The candidates are all the ‘same faces’ from the old government, she told me. ‘They are thieves!’ A policewoman grabbed her and whisked her away in a van (she was later released).
It was the army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, who called the election, though the interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, announced the date. The ‘total and deep overhaul’ that people were demanding wasn’t possible, according to Gaid Salah, because of time constraints. Those who opposed the poll, he said, were ‘conspiring against the people and the nation’.
Instead of voting, many Algerians spent the day in the streets, waving the national flag, or the banned Amazigh (Berber) flag, calling to put the ‘generals in the bin’ and for a ‘second independence’. Rue Didouche Mourad, which the Hirak march normally passes along, was filled with protesters and police. There were clashes. In some parts of the country polling stations were ransacked, but in Algiers they were calm, and deserted. One centre in the capital had recorded nine voters by 3 p.m. Another nearby had counted 12.
Rym Mokhtari, 39, a lecturer at the Algiers arts school, spent the day cleaning her house. The previous day, her friend Nime, a satirical cartoonist, had been sentenced to a year in prison for ‘insulting the president’ with his drawings. More than two hundred people have been jailed for political reasons since February. His lawyer defended him not on grounds of freedom of speech, but by calling into question the legitimacy of the interim president. Bensalah wasn’t elected but appointed, and for a limited time, so should the law against insulting the president apply in his case?
One sketch that Nime posted on Facebook depicts Gaid Salah and Bensalah placing a golden slipper on the foot of the winning presidential candidate, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister. Even according to official figures, he has the weakest mandate in Algeria’s history: 58 per cent of the vote on a 40 per cent turnout. But even these numbers are not believed or accepted by the Hirak, who marched the day after the vote. There were no independent observers to verify the count.
Mokhtari told me she is with the Hirak, ‘whoever that is’. ‘We have only impotent words that describe big things: system, hirak, them, us. These words are not false but we can’t use them to do anything,’ she said. ‘The Hirak is many people, on 22 February we were in agreement – we didn’t want this president who is half dead. We don’t want the elections, we don’t want corruption. After that it is hard to agree on what we want.’
According to Louisa Dris-Aït-Hamadouche, a political scientist at the University of Algiers, the government has won ‘a technical battle, not a political battle’. But despite the Hirak’s determination to continue, some citizens voted out of impatience at the lack of change or progress after ten months of mobilisation. ‘What we need today is for the Hirak to structure itself so that the pressure on the regime is strong enough – political projects will appear once we have achieved an open political playing field,’ Dris-Aït-Hamadouche told me on election day. She thinks these structures could be organised on a local level or by sector, rather than according to ideology. The biggest danger, she says, would be for the dichotomy to shift from ‘regime v. society’ to ‘society v. society’.