Algeria’s power shuffle and peaceful political transition
Since February 2019, Algeria has witnessed a popular peaceful uprising that it hasn’t seen for decades. The main reason for this socio-political anger was primarily based on the commitment of former-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a fifth-term amid controversy around his health.
Bouteflika’s candidacy raised questions about his ability, given that he was in convalescence during his fourth term, and his brother, Said Bouteflika, the president’s personal advisor at the presidential medical palace in Zeralda, a suburb of Algiers, was the de facto president of Algeria.
A corrupt political establishment, which led the president to be isolated from his own voters, was also among the questions raised right after his candidacy. The economic choices of successive governments during the two decades of the Bouteflika system between 1999-2019, and maybe the notable one, the financial crisis caused by the oil price collapse in 2014 were also among the raised questions.
Despite the absence of a political structure and coherent program carried out by charismatic leaders, the protest movement in Algeria, Hirak, has remained peaceful.
From day one of the protests, Hirak’s slogan was “Selmia, Selmia,” (Peaceful, Peaceful) and it has been a fundamental message for the Algerian regime to hear.
Hirak didn’t engage in any physical contact with anti-riot security officers. Weekly demonstrations continued without significant clashes. On the other hand, it needs to be said that police showed great professionalism and managed to stay calm. The Algerian army, meanwhile, played a good role in managing the crisis and acted in line with law and order in the entire country.
How did the regime react? It is more than clear that the Algerian regime pursued a strategy of appeasement and sought for a smooth political transition. However, the radical wing in the Hirak movement has insisted on a transition that would ultimately eliminate the regime’s power base and the role of the military in civil administration.
Well, what is the best model for achieving Hirak’s aspirations? The problem for democratic transition in this instance is the absence of a comprehensive standard model. In their post-dictatorship eras, some countries such as Spain to Latin American states have followed this path. Besides, many in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region experienced the same in line with their own socio-political social realities.
Democratic transition can be defined as an engine that runs the mechanisms and imposes a rhythm needed to reach the ultimate goal. Successful experiences in the MENA region, particularly in Turkey, have shown that the success of a progressive transition is based on the art of negotiation and a coherent political message.
However, it also requires a set of conditions such as the existence of credible opposition and strong representation within the framework of political parties or labor union organizations and a homogeneous elite.
What can be seen in Algeria is that these organizations lack power, confronting the regime with little political vision – very similar to what Algeria experienced during the golden age of the first peaceful, but stillborn, democratic transition under the principles of the second republic’s constitution between 1989 and 1992. In the country’s political spectrum, there were prominent political leaders such as Abdelhamid Mehri in the conservative movement, Abbassi Madani and, his rival the Algerian Brothers, Mahfoud Nahnah in the Islamist movement, Hocine Ait Ahmed in the secular social-democrat movement, and President Ahmed Ben Bella in the pan-Arabist national movement. Before he suffered a stroke in 2013, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, between 1999 and 2013, tactically used this very weakness in Algerian politics as a “containment policy.”
As a result, the political parties were stuck between loyalism and polarization. Each camp wanted to move closer to the regime and its fearful intelligence services, the Department of Intelligence and Service (DRS), which put in question their credibility. Therefore, it had complicated their position in any negotiation with the regime for power-sharing.
Aspirations and responses
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s new administration, however, elected under decisive and exceptional electoral circumstances of ideological tension and political polarization after the radical wing in the Hirak insisted on its surreal demand: “Overthrow the entire regime” has upheld its obstructive stance, hoping for Hirak Season 2. Last month, Tebboune submitted a constitutional draft, whose amendments include a proposal to create a vice president position appointed by the president.
Oddly enough, this new post creates a sense of confusion. Currently, Algeria has a semi-presidential system. If this passes, it means Algeria will have a different presidential system, not like the American one, where the vice president is elected alongside the president in a joint ticket system. In addition, along with participative democracy, individual and civil rights and freedom of belief and opinion are protected. However, reactions to the very draft constitution, from politicians, journalists, academics and civil society activists, were virulent on national and social media.
According to the draft constitution’s Article 30, Algeria, within the framework of the United Nations, the African Union and the Arab League states, will participate in peacekeeping operations.
Besides, the president can decide to send troops abroad after a two-thirds majority vote in the two chambers of the Algerian Parliament.
This article in the amendment is correcting a bad policy judgment following the outbreak of the Libyan crisis in 2011. They would allow military troops to be more proactive if another conflict erupts in neighboring countries: Mali, Niger, Tunisia and even in Mauritania, all considered to be fragile states. Theoretically, nothing constitutionally prevents the president from launching an external operation. Algerian units took part, alongside Arab armies, in the 1967 and 1973 wars against the Israeli army.
Soldiers also intervene under the U.N. mission in the framework of peacekeeping operations, in particular within the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
According to El-Djeïch magazine of Algeria’s army, the first mission of the Algerian army, from January 1989 to January 1991, was an observation mission, watching the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. Several other operations followed in Cambodia, Haiti, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. By changing the constitution, the Algerian presidency is sending a dissuasive message to the outside world and making it clear it has a say in everything happening on its borders, particularly in Libya and Mali. Algeria has never wanted to intervene militarily in the Sahel, other than secret special operations and short-lived interferences, notably on Mount Chaambi on the Tunisian-Algerian border and on the Malian-Algerian borders, have been observed in the context of the fight against terrorism. The assassination of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) near the Algerian-Malian border is an example.
The conclusion of this radical shift of the Algerian army remains within the national security strategy and the doctrine of the military body. It leaves discretionary power to the country’s High Council of State in accordance with the imperatives of the country’s national interest. Yet, the most important reason for this shift in defense policy is security challenges that threaten Algeria’s national security in light of the latest political instability and political turmoil prevailing in Libya and the Sahel. Change and stability analysts are following the radical wing formation in the Hirak movement, which was halted last February due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There have also been some reactions on social media to the new constitutional proposals, which are calling for total rejection of participation in the debate around the draft constitution and the policy that the president has offered. The election of Tebboune in December 2019 for five years was part of a political trajectory of change and stability that the regime wants, implementing a peaceful democratic process to follow this political transition with constructive dialogue.
This can occur through this draft of the new consensual constitution, which includes in its preamble the peaceful Hirak movement as a sociopolitical paradigm of a new Algeria that will ultimately enhance the fundamental elements for a social contract and eventually the birth of a third republic able to thrive through civility and polity.
* North Africa expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)