x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

In Algeria, the people will continue to suffer in silence

Kamal Benkoussa, a former presidential candidate, says Algerian society has been stripped of its substance to the point that Algerians no longer dare to assert their right to exist

My life has taught me that while there are often difficulties, nothing is insurmountable. That is why last December I launched my own campaign to run for president of Algeria.

I had a new vision for the country, one that had its centre in democracy, rule of law and economic development of the kind that would benefit the entire population.

I believed that my candidacy could be a threat to a government led by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a 77-year-old man who appeared to be coming to the end of his political career.

But over the course of my campaign, it became more clear to me that however atrophied Mr Bouteflika’s administration had become, it would be almost impossible for anyone to stand against it.

His officials have such a tight grip over the machinery of politics that no one can possibly succeed without their backing.

I experienced first-hand some of the many mechanisms used to thwart political opposition. My scheduled meetings with Algerian citizens were cancelled, with authorities citing a threat to national security.

The associations I planned to meet were threatened with losing their funding if they did. Activists working on my behalf were summoned by police and ordered to stop collecting signatures in support of my campaign. The state administration refused to certify those signatures we did gather. Even the local press was reluctant to publicise our campaign.

When it was formally announced that Mr Bouteflika would stand for re-election, I knew my campaign offered no match for the system. I withdrew my candidacy so I could stand beside those calling for an end to the current political arrangement. In doing so I experienced another side of the government’s grip on politics.

In recent weeks, rallies in favour of a boycott of the elections and against a fourth term for Mr Bouteflika have either been stopped or been met by a strong police presence. Protesters were labelled as attempting to undermine a balance of power that is considered untouchable.

Mr Bouteflika was returned to office last week after capturing 81.5 per cent of the popular vote, although the majority of those eligible to vote did not take part in the election.

It is my belief that Algerian society has been stripped of its substance to the point that Algerians no longer dare to assert their right to exist. Feeling completely powerless in the face of the system, they have withdrawn from politics.

In Algeria today, the economy is in grave danger of collapse.

If the government cannot sustain its revenues, 97 per cent of which comes from oil and gas exports, then it will not be able to continue to pay the food and energy subsidies on which impoverished Algerians rely.

An unwieldy and uncompetitive public sector, an almost non-existent private sector and a totally unbalanced economy have meant that even with oil and gas sales, GDP growth has remained at just 3.5 per cent.

With its population expected to grow dramatically, an estimated unemployment rate of 24 per cent, housing shortages, rising living costs and deepening social misery, all the conditions are there for a social explosion.

Despite this very real risk, the reaction from the West has been a deafening silence. At a time when the US and Europe is being vocal in its support for Ukraine, they have said nothing in response to the Algerian election.

The people of Algeria deserve a country in which they can be free to pursue their aspirations. I dream of an Algeria that is free to celebrate all its diversity. I dream of an Algerian state that returns dignity and pride to its people.

We need to build a state in which the rule of law is supreme, institutions are transparent and our economy is free. Our government should be bound by a constitution determined by the people it governs. I want to see our country become a regional leader, to find its proper place in the diplomatic world, to regain its confidence and pride.

I want to help build a more just and prosperous society, so that Algeria can become the great nation that it has the potential to be.

This dream is eminently realistic, but our voice needs to be listened to in Washington and across Europe. For now, unheard and unsupported, the people of Algeria continue to suffer in silence.

Kamal Benkoussa is an Algerian politician who stood as an independent candidate for president

On Twitter: @KamalBenkoussa