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Gaïd Salah’s dangerous gamble in the Algerian transition

By Arianna Poletti
Posted on Monday, 20 May 2019 19:03

Students and police confront each other during an anti government protest on 19 May. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

The Algerian army chief's political score-settling may increase the pressure from the street for him to abandon his plans for quick elections.

“Gaïd Salah, go away!”, “Algeria is not Egypt”, “Against Bensalah, Bedoui and Gaïd Salah”. Slogans hostile to army chief of staff Leiutenant-General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, were shouted by protestors at a 14 May demonstration by students and lawyers in Algiers. Despite Gaïd Salah’s frequent statements that he supports the Algerian people, the street is demanding his departure, identifying him as a pillar of the system it wants to sweep away.

Meanwhile, in the face of the consensual silence of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah, Algeria’s new strong man has been carrying out a wave of arrests, claiming that he is trying to “eradicate corruption”.

  • In late April several influential businessmen were arrested, including Ali Haddad, who was close to Bouteflika, and Issad Rebrab, who backed the rebellion.
  • Next it was the turn of the “plotters against the army”, namely Saïd Bouteflika, brother of the deposed president, and the two former heads of the security services, General Mohamed Mediène (known as Toufik) and Athmane Tartag (known as Bachir).
  • But it was above all the recent arrest of the oppositionist and secretary general of the Parti des Travailleurs, Louisa Hanoune, also accused of “attacking state authority”, that angered public opinion. This anti-corruption drive, according to the shouts of the demonstrators, looks more like the settling of scores.

With these arrests, is the army command taking over the judiciary?

For Belkacem Nait Salah, a lawyer at the Oran court who has been involved in the protest movement since its inception, “it is rather that the judicial system has no real power in Algeria. It is not an institution but an apparatus dependent on politics.”

The 1996 Constitution, revised in 2016, established an independent, “impartial” judiciary, “guaranteeing the security and stability of the nation”, as controversial former justice minister Tayeb Louh assured a few weeks before the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

In practice, “this institution is an integral part of the system. With phantom institutions, without the rule of law and an independent judiciary, the army is the real power today,” Belkacem Nait Salah adds, recalling that it is the Armée Nationale Populaire (ANP) that really chooses the Algerian president.

This is why, since the beginning of the protest movement and in order to obtain a new democratic government, the street has been calling for a real independence of the judiciary and criticising the trial of civilians in military courts. “Finally, there is a movement of emancipation. We are aware that the whole system has to be redesigned,” says the politically engaged lawyer.

No evolution

“If there has never been any real respect for the constitution, the problem is that there are laws that are contrary to freedom and obsolete,” continues the activist. He launched a hunger strike in 2015 to denounce “large-scale corruption” within the Oran court. “This constitution has been made and shaped so that there will be no evolution.”

Nait Salah does not support the “constitutional path” initiated by Gaïd Salah when he called for the immediate application of its Article 102 to hold new elections as quickly as possible. On Friday, protesters again challenged the current political system and the planned holding of presidential elections on 4 July.

If Gaïd Salah continues to push for the election, “siding with the street is the only way for him to get out unscathed. Otherwise, we will see an election without candidates, boycotted by the people. And no one will be able to organise a second round because Bensalah has only 90 days in power,” says Moussaab Hammoudi, a doctoral researcher at Paris’s École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

A new constitution

For Hammoudi, “Algeria would then most probably find itself in a coup d’état situation, without executive power.” A new constitution is therefore, according to him, “the essential condition for breaking the country’s deadlock”. Sufiane Djilali, president of the Jil Jadid political movement, says: “Changing the constitution is an absolute necessity.”

“We are witnessing a battle between Ahmed Gaïd Salah, who wants to lead the transition from the top down to regenerate power, and the people, who are demanding a transition from bottom to the top,” Hammoudi says.

The army’s historical legitimacy challenged

However, if the street is criticising the chief of staff, the army remains a respected institution. “This is a people’s army. Each family has a connection to the ANP. In the popular imagination, we then separate the jeish – the soldiers who share the same misery as everyone else – and the commanders, the military junta, this closed circle represented by Gaïd Salah and composed of other powerful generals. It is them that the people want to see leave,” Hammoudi says.

The involvement of the military in political and judicial affairs is far from unprecedented in Algeria. Since independence, the ANP has been the backbone of the regime, playing a crucial role during political transitions. A role to which the ANP command is now clinging to in order to continue to exercise power. But, according to Hammoudi, the context has changed: “The ANP had long enjoyed historical legitimacy from the Algerian liberation war. However, it has been overtaken by the will of the people, who are calling for a government based on a new political legitimacy.”

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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