Algeria youth scorn 'dinosaur' old guard ahead of polls

Algiers (AFP) –


Algeria's contentious presidential election campaign is highlighting the deep gulf between young people at the heart of a street protest movement and an ageing elite they see as clinging to power.

The poll, set for Thursday, will see five candidates, all of them linked to the 82-year-old deposed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, compete for the top office.

But the protesters, whose mass mobilisation forced the ex-strongman to resign from his two-decade tenure in April, have rallied weekly to demand that sweeping reforms must come ahead of any vote.

"It's not a gap between the fossils in power and the youth, it's a yawning chasm," said Lyes, a 22-year-old geology student draped in his country's flag at a student march in Algiers.

While more than half of the North African country's population is under 30, Algeria's leaders are geriatric.

The powerful army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah is 79 and interim president Abdelkader Bensalah is 78. The presidential candidates range in age from 56 to 75.

"The dinosaurs who have held power since independence made us disgusted with politics," said Lyes.

Young people only became interested in politics with the eruption of the "Hirak" protest movement in February, he said, noting that most of his peers are not even enrolled to vote.

Around him, his friends agreed.

For nine months they have marched every Tuesday to demand change.

Each week they wave the national colours and flags calling for a free and democratic Algeria, while chanting against the "dinosaurs".

The young protesters summarised their aspirations as wanting to live freely, receive a good education, find a stable job with a decent salary, have their voices heard, and enjoy entertainment opportunities beyond loitering in the street.

Algeria's leaders have created few jobs, stifled free speech, upheld conservative traditions and turned a blind eye to police oppression, the young protesters told AFP.

"Before we were afraid to speak out but things have changed since Hirak," said Hanya Assala Abdedaim, a 24-year-old student.

When the Hirak movement erupted onto the scene, 21-year-old Asma said she swapped nice shoes for sneakers so she could hit the streets to "put some of the old people who govern us in a museum of antiquities".

- 'Generational transition' -

"The transition in Algeria isn't only a political transition, it's also a generational transition," said Algerian sociologist Nacer Djabi.

But age is just one aspect of a deeper issue, said Yamina Rahou of the Centre for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology in the city of Oran.

"It's a political problem between a mainly young population that wants a modern state based on the rule of law, and those who appropriated the state to subjugate Algerians," she said.

Mohamed Lamine Harhad, another 22-year old student, said he did not have a problem with old people, just with old "ideas", noting that all age groups are represented in the protest movement.

Among the hundreds of thousands who have demonstrated, for many young people abstention will be the only palatable choice in the election.

Algeria "needs a new system based on democracy," Harhad said. This would "encourage young people without ignoring old people with experience".

This view was shared by Lamnaouar Hamamouche, a sociology student from Bejaia east of Algiers, who said "the gap is not defined by age but by visions".

Lamnaouar said he feared the crisis could deepen as a result of the establishment consolidating its power through the elections, but believes that young people "will not give up".