Arab Spring moment?

Print edition : April 12, 2019

A demonstration near the May 1 Square in central Algiers on March 15 demanding that President Bouteflika step down. Photo: AFP

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a handout still image taken from a TV footage released on March 11. Photo: REUTERS

Abdelaziz Bouteflika's brothers Said Bouteflika (right) and Nacer Bouteflika, a May 2017 photograph. Said is said to hold enormous influence in the presidential apparatus. Photo: Sidali Djarboub/AP

Algeria faces its moment of truth, with civil society and the opposition protesting against the government and the power behind it, Le Pouvoir.

Algeria seems to be on the cusp of a change after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika finally announced his decision not to contest for a consecutive fifth term in office. The oil-rich North African state has been witnessing widespread protests since the third week of February after the 82-year-old President announced his decision to seek yet another five-year term. The election was scheduled to be held in the third week of April. Bouteflika was first elected President in 1999.

When the protests started gaining momentum, in a bid to mollify civil society, the President said that if elected he would remain in office only for a year and then start a transition process by handing over power to the younger generation. The opposition, however, rebuffed the eleventh-hour concession. The peaceful protests have been growing larger by the day. The protests started after a cross section of civil society, including professionals, students and ordinary workers, used social media platforms to organise peaceful demonstrations. Many senior leaders and Members of Parliament have left the ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), in recent weeks and have been marching with the protesters.

After filing his nomination for the elections, Bouteflika went to a Swiss hospital for treatment. Bedridden for a long time, he was not even in a position to file his nomination papers in person as required by Algerian electoral law. Anyway, with the protesters and the opposition in an unrelenting mood, and with cracks beginning to appear in the tight-knit power structure that has been virtually running the country in the name of the bedridden President, Bouteflika finally made the long-awaited announcement in the second week of March that he was no longer running for the presidency.

Promise of a new Constitution

It was also concurrently announced that the elections would be held only after a new Constitution was drafted and approved by the electorate. The Algerian authorities have proclaimed that Bouteflika will continue in office until this process is completed. This, in effect, means that the President, who is still evidently backed by the current leadership of the armed forces, will remain in office despite his term ending in April.

This only fanned the flames of anger, which has now spread to all major Algerian cities. As the protests intensified, the government named the veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as the chairman of a national conference that would be convened to rewrite the Constitution.

The government has said that the national conference will “be inclusive and independent”. Besides drafting a new Constitution, the conference is also expected to set the date for new elections before the end of this year.

But very few Algerians believe that the Constitution-drafting process will end any time soon, given the examples in many neighbouring countries. Leaders of the protest movement and key opposition figures have been invited to participate in the process. However, many among them are sceptical of the motives of the government.

Ali Benflis, a former Prime Minister and now a leading figure in the opposition, has said that the government’s new announcement “is simply a trick, another trick” by “unconstitutional forces” to extend the term of the government. Benflis was all set to contest the presidential election but withdrew from the race after Bouteflika announced his intention to run again. Benflis, who came second in the contest against Bouteflika in the previous elections, has been saying for some time that the President’s ill health had created “a vacancy of power” that had made it possible for “extraconstitutional forces to seize power”.

The overwhelming majority of the country’s population was born after Algeria gained its independence in 1962. The current leadership, including that of the army, is in the hands of the generation that fought the bloody war of liberation against the French colonial power. The army chief, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, is himself in his late seventies.

Brahimi himself is part and parcel of the old establishment. He has been particularly close to Bouteflika. In fact, he succeeded Bouteflika as Foreign Minister in the early 1990s. At one point, he was even viewed as a possible candidate for President. Brahimi made his reputation as an international diplomat, successfully mediating many conflicts. His last high-level international mission was as the United Nations’ special envoy to Syria in 2012. In an interview he gave the magazine Jeune Afrique in December 2018, Brahimi said that he did not visualise a political crisis erupting in Algeria any time soon and admitted that he had “a great friendship and admiration” for Bouteflika.

Bouteflika has been a key player in Algerian politics for the last four decades. A stroke in 2013 left him wheelchair-bound. Many Algerians were in fact surprised when the FLN allowed him to run for office five years ago, soon after his debilitating stroke. During his last term in office, the Algerian public rarely saw him. He was only seen sitting immobile and expressionless on television. He never made a speech in public for almost six years.

The Algerian political class weathered the Arab Spring with relative ease even as neighbouring states such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya reeled under its impact. The protests in Algeria were smaller than in these countries, and the government quickly calmed the situation by increasing salaries, giving women more representation in Parliament and creating an independent election commission. The price of oil was high at the time and the economy was in relatively fine fettle. The majority of the people then did not want a repeat of the political turmoil that had wracked the country in the 1990s.

Reality check

However, the reality is different today. The government is in no position to distribute its largesse to a disaffected public. The economy is in bad shape, with foreign exchange reserves at an all-time low. Economic growth last year was at 2.8 per cent. The unemployment rate among the youth is estimated to be around 30 per cent.

Algeria, some commentators say, had its Arab Spring 30 years ago. The ruling FLN had to agree to hold free multiparty elections after massive street protests in 1988. The first and only really free multiparty elections held in the country were in 1991. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) easily won the first round of elections and was poised to take over power through the ballot box when the ruling party, backed by the army, annulled the results of the elections.

What followed was a brutal civil war in which more than 200,000 Algerians lost their lives. The strife ended only after Bouteflika took over the presidency. He announced a general amnesty at the beginning of his first term in office. In a way, it was the Algerian military that showed its counterparts in neighbouring countries such as Egypt the way on the shortcuts available to thwart the popular will. Ever since the Islamists were put down brutally, a secretive group comprising politicians, army generals, senior intelligence officials and a clutch of influential businessmen, collectively known in Algeria as Le Pouvoir (the power), has been running the country. During the last two terms of the Bouteflika presidency, this shadowy group included the President’s brother Said Bouteflika, who is reputedly close to the country’s oligarchs. Many Algerians believe that an internal coup was carried out by the President’s brother, and it is his clique that is running the country. In 2015, two senior army generals were dismissed and jailed under mysterious circumstances.

The head of Algeria’s feared intelligence agency, Gen. Mohamed Mediene, was also removed that year. He was considered the “eminence grise” of the regime and had played a key role in crushing the decade-long Islamist insurgency. He is also credited with Bouteflika’s victory in the 2014 presidential election. Despite being incapacitated from the stroke, Bouteflika won with more than 82 per cent of the votes in that election.

Lakhdar Bouregaa, a prominent FLN guerilla leader, publicly stated a few years ago that he feared that the President had “been taken hostage by his direct entourage”. Bouregaa had requested a meeting with the President to get first-hand knowledge of his physical well-being. He was denied an appointment despite his standing in the country and seniority in the ruling party.

As of now, civil society and the handful of opposition leaders who have the trust of the protesters have vowed to carry on with the struggle and not accept the proposals put forward by the government. They want a caretaker government run by technocrats to be put in place for around two years before credible elections can be held and legitimate institutions put in place.

Noureddine Bedoui, who has been appointed Prime Minister after the resignation of Ahmed Ouyahia following the mass protests, has started talks for the formation of a new government. In an effort to extend the olive branch to the protesters, he said that the new Cabinet would comprise technocrats having no party affiliations. He said the new Cabinet “will also reflect the demographics of Algerian society”.

Abderrazak Makri, a leading opposition figure and the leader of the Islamist Movement for Peace and Prosperity, and other opposition leaders were quick to reject the new offer from the government. Meanwhile, the chief of the armed forces has issued a dire warning stating that the army will preserve Algeria’s security “in all circumstances and conditions”.

The Algerian street, however, remains defiant and seems determined to effect meaningful change this time. It remains an uphill task, given the frayed state of the opposition parties. The secular and socialist parties have had a long history of compromise with the central government. But, for the first time after independence, Algerians, at least for the time being, seem to be united in their desire to see the back of the present dispensation and “Le Pouvoir”.