Presidential elections in Algeria: what about civil society?

6 mins read

The withdrawal of the nomination forms for the presidency in Algeria brought its share of oddities with unexpected people contending for the country’s highest office and announcing their candidacy with statements that are at best bizarre.

However, it is not the fact that they are unknown that is problematic. Rather, it is the fact that it is symptomatic of the state of political practice in the country. For many observers, this situation is the logical result of two decades during which 1) the ruling power has done everything to pull the political sphere down, discredit it, infest the society with Islamism, push the intelligentsia to exile, to bribe frenetically, to co-opt incompetents … 2) the opposition parties and the civil society rather played the game of the ruling power, giving up public space, yielding to the cronyism temptations on the one hand and making their own co-optation system on the other.

A multidimensional crisis

The current crisis of civil society in Algeria is unquestionably multidimensional. Different factors must be taken into consideration to establish a complete diagnosis of the situation. Nevertheless, the issue will have to be tackled on the two closely related cultural and political levels.

In terms of culture, membership in an NGO or a trade union and individual involvement in a political organization are the expression of a personal decision, that is to say a certain perception of public space resulting from an empowerment in relation to the state. However, this culture is not rooted in Algeria where youth engagement in civil society organizations is extremely weak. Some observers point to an unfinished process of individuation, which means that Algerian young people are unable to extricate themselves from a great dependence upon the state to which they concede almost all the keys of their destiny and give up their share of the public space.

In other words, Algerian young people are generally unaware of or, at least, do not feel the need to individually engage for the good of their community, believing that it solely belongs to the State to manage the public space.

In addition, the almost entire disinterest of Algerian youth in public affairs is equally likely to be found in an educational system thought – knowingly some will say – fundamentally as a machine for making graduates and not as a vector of citizenship. The concepts of civic education, active citizenship, volunteering, etc. and all the related culture are completely absent in Algerian school curricula.

Moreover, in the collective psyche civil society is often reduced to only partisan activity, that is to say that it is exerted by a member of a political party. However, opposition parties did not escape a demonization campaign headed by the ruling political power, especially from the late 1990s. In the official discourse, they were attributed the greatest responsibility for what happened from 1988 to 2000, a period characterized by great political and security instability following a thirty years undivided reign of the one-party State, the National Liberation Front (FLN). By that campaign, the opposition parties lost a lot of credit and went out of business.

Nevertheless, this same period paradoxically constitutes a significant parenthesis in the recent history of Algeria, during which civil society played an important role in mobilizing itself for the defense of the republic, notably by condemning Islamist terrorism and by taking part in debates that had shaken Algerian society such as those related to women’s rights.

A public sphere under control

Indeed, many observers agree that the evolution of civil society in Algeria took place according to an inversely proportional relationship between the strength of the welfare state and the space given to the voluntary sector. The 1990s was not only a period of political uncertainty but also that of economic scarcity that pushed the State to cut public spending under the pressure from the International Monetary Fund. On the other hand, the State urgently needed the mobilization of the civil society to face the jihadist danger which threatened its very existence.

During the last fifteen years, a period of prosperous revenue from oil exportation, the political power had been gradually restricting the room of maneuver of civil society and this has been accentuated by a turn of the screw that occurred after 2011 following the Arab uprisings. Following the events that shook the countries of the region, the Algerian government announced a series of political reforms and it is in this context that the NGO law of the 12th January 2012 was adopted, further strengthening the powers of the administration in the detriment of the associations already subjected to an increasingly rigorous state control.

Today, these bizarre candidatures seem to be much more of an orchestrated bad-tempered staging in order to put civil society in front of the sidereal void it represents, unable to present a credible alternative to a decried regime but quasi-exclusive political actor.

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