In Bab El Oued, election is ‘news from a foreign country’
Bab El Oued is the real heart of Algiers but it was beating slowly Thursday, as residents sat out an election they feel they have no part in and is happening in a world far removed from theirs.
“It’s like a day off, I’m just resting. I know there’s nothing for me in this election,” said Mohamed, a lanky young man wearing shorts and flip-flops, sitting on a pavement in a sun-drenched street.
The shops were shuttered and the neighbourhood unusually silent, with only a trickle of mainly elderly men heading to the nearby school to elect their members of parliament.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was already a minister in Algeria’s first independent government in 1962, has said the polls are an opportunity for the youth to step up and build their country.
But Mohamed is deaf to the head of state’s appeals, amid fears of a historically low turnout.
“I switch on the TV set and I see election coverage on the state channel. It’s like news from a foreign country,” he said. “It’s not Algeria, it’s the land of those people in power.”
“I’m 30 years old and I am nothing. My heart is empty,” said Mohamed, who earns 200 euros ($260) a month working for a water delivery company. “I would have to work 100 years to get a flat of my own.”
The disconnect between the neighbourhood’s youth and the politicians running the parties in the governing coalition is huge.
In 2001, flash floods destroyed entire apartment blocks on the heights of Bab El Oued, unleashing rivers of mud and rubble into the narrow colonial-era streets snaking down towards the Bay of Algiers.
Bab El Oued and its surrounding slums is where many of Algeria’s social and political revolts kicked off but on Thursday it was all bitter resignation and had no whiff of Arab Spring about it.
In front of the nearest polling station, a rare student prepared to vote.
“The only reason I’m voting is because I’m a young adult and I’m about to enter the job market,” said Bilal, who like most people in a country with an all-pervasive security apparatus would only give his first name to journalists.
“I’m afraid one day the authorities somewhere will ask to see my voter’s card before granting me access to housing, or employment or even health coverage,” he explained.
“But if it’s not for that, young people here don’t vote. We’re sick of all the lies, they’ve never done anything for us.”
Behind him, an old man with a stick wearing a blue Mao jacket walked past electoral boards that were left completely blank throughout the campaign and slowly scaled the steps to the polling station.
“I vote because I’ve always voted. There is someone I’ve known a long time on one of the lists, so I’ll vote for him. The rest of it is way above my head,” said Mustafa, in his seventies.
A few streets down, Hamid was stacking shelves in his convenience store.
“These dozens of new parties are not legitimate. They were putting ads in the newspapers to recruit candidates, it’s incredible,” said Hamid, an Islamist sporting a long, bushy beard and wearing a white knitted skull cap.
“The other parties? They’ve all been co-opted, they’re all eating out of the president’s palm,” he said.
The main forces in Thursday’s polls are Bouteflika’s former single party, the National Liberation Front, as well as its government partners, the National Rally for Democracy and the moderate Islamist Movement of Society for Peace.
“The so-called Islamist MSP? I abhor these people. It’s all pretence,” said Hamid, a former member of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a party banned by Bouteflika’s regime.
When the FIS won the first round of a legislative poll in 1991, the army stepped in to stop the electoral process, triggering a civil war that lasted 10 years and left 200,000 people dead.
“Our rulers are illegitimate, greedy and incompetent. The hardest thing for us in this area is that the state is sitting on 200 billion dollars (in foreign currency reserves and we aren’t seeing any of it,” Hamid said.