Algeria: Who is new president Abdelmadjid Tebboune?
Abdelmadjid Tebboune became Algeria’s president last week. The vote was marred by a record high abstention rate of nearly 60%, forcing Tebboune to deal with concerns over his legitimacy, while seeking political consensus and containing the army’s influence.
Former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 73, was elected President of the Republic in the first round of the presidential election held on Thursday, December 12.
The election result – which must be confirmed by the Constitutional Council this week – hands Tebboune a clear majority with 58.14% of the vote.
- He won nearly 5m votes out of 24m registered voters.
He succeeds Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999. Bouteflika was forced to resign in April this year after massive protests over his decision to contest elections for a fifth time.
The presidential election took place in an extremely tense atmosphere with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets every week.
- After the vote, thousands of people demonstrated in the capital, as well as in other cities across the country, against the election.
- Unrest has been recorded in some cities in Kabylia, a rebellious region, where the population has overwhelmingly boycotted the elections.
A record abstention rate – the highest of all presidential elections since Algeria’s democracy in 1989 – underscores the attitude of Algerians towards the vote.
The protests are not expected to wane. New demonstrations kicked off on Friday, 13 December, while more actions are planned for the coming days.
Before the election, many observers believed that Tebboune – who is close to the military – had a slim chance of winning. Despite an election campaign that was marred by a series of staff defections and the arrest of two of his friends and donors, the former Prime Minister beat his four rivals by a wide margin.
The other big surprise in this election was the low turnout for Tebboune’s closest rival, Abdelkader Bengrina, who came in second place with 17.38% of the vote.
Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis – who ran for two previous elections in 2004 and 2014 – finished in third place with 10.55% of the vote.
Former Minister of Culture Azzedine Mihoubi was defeated with only 7.26% of the vote, despite being thought to be a possible favourite of the army.
This fiasco was all the more spectacular as Mihoubi won the support of two political parties that formed the former presidential alliance – the Democratic National Rally (RND), and the National Liberation Front (FLN). The failure of his candidacy will have major consequences for the political future of these two groups.
A man of the system?
Born in El Bayadh, in the Western Highlands, to a peasant mother and a military father, Tebboune began his career in local administration, before joining the government in 1991 as Deputy Minister of the Interior.
His tenure lasted only a few months before he retired from politics. Tebboune made a comeback when Bouteflika was elected in 1999.
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A giant with feet of clay
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He occupied several senior government roles, including Minister of Communication, Minister Delegate to the Ministry of the Interior, and Minister of Housing. From May to August 2017, he served as Prime Minister.
Tebboune’s critics say he’s a member of the “Issaba” (‘Mafia gang’) whose leading figures are behind bars at El Harrach prison for corruption. They also accuse him of being loyal to the deposed president.
Tebboune dismisses these accusations by claiming to be a victim of a witchhunt. He also reminds his critics that he was expelled from the Government Palace in August 2017 at the instigation of oligarchs languishing in prison. He says that his son Khaled remains in detention over a cocaine trafficking scandal.
Tebboune’s friends, former colleagues, and acquaintances portray him as a pleasant, hardworking, and good-natured person. His critics strongly disagree, saying he lacks political roots and loves business.
Lack of legitimacy
The new president will have to govern in a most unfavourable political, social and economic context.
Despite being elected in the first round, Tebboune will have to overcome his lack of popular appeal.
A large group of Algerians, who reject the election result, also seem determined to continue protesting.
- Tebboune will need to prioritise the street protest movement – known as the Hirak – if he hopes to win over his critics.
- His second challenge will be to build consensus with the rest of the political class, regardless of political tendency.
- Tebboune’s third challenge, and perhaps his biggest, will be to manage the influence of the army, particularly that of its leader, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, who is also Deputy Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff.
What will be Gaïd Salah’s role in Tebboune’s new administration? A strongman in the classical style, Gaïd Salah did everything possible to push for this presidential election.
He called it the only solution to Algeria’s institutional crisis, at the risk of exacerbating tensions and fuelling the popular protest.
Will Salah abandon his role to allow the new head of state to fulfil his campaign promises?
Tebbourne’s first steps at El Mouradia Palace should give some indication of what his presidency will be like.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique