Algeria ‘lost in transition’? Three months after Bouteflika’s resignation, and progress has stalled

By Farid Alilat, in Algiers

Posted on Tuesday, 30 July 2019 15:44
Demonstrators are sprayed with water to cool them off during an anti-government protest in Algiers, Algeria 26 July 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

More than three months after Abdelaziz Bouteflika's resignation, the political stalemate is entrenched: each party has its own plan to end the crisis and does not want to compromise.

Algerians have renamed the Tunnel des Facultés, which leads to Audin Square – an important place of protest in Algiers – “Ghar hirak” (Tunnel of the Revolution). It became one of the symbols of the 22 February revolution, which changed the course of history in Algeria. But this tunnel, which the police close every Friday before the big march to avoid overflows, also symbolises the impasse in which the popular movement finds itself today. More than three months after the forced resignation of President Bouteflika on 2 April, Algeria is bogged down in an increasingly inextricable political crisis.

On the one hand, the government is clinging to its roadmap and wants to organise a presidential election as soon as possible. On the other hand, the protesters continue to demand the departure of all the symbols of the system and the founding of a new republic. In between, there is a divided opposition that is crumbling and unable to agree on goals and how to get out of this impasse. Almost six months after the beginning of the revolution, these three forces are shifting according to different agendas. Will all sides accept concessions that could lead to creation of a new republic?

End of the system or bust

For the 22nd Friday of the protest, which coincided with the final of the African Cup of Nations, pitting the Algerian team against the Senegalese team, the street kept up the pressure on the government. While determination and commitment are not weakening, popular mobilisation is beginning to falter. A heat wave, holidays, fatigue, intimidation, repression – which sent several young demonstrators to prison for waving the Berber flag – mean that Friday marches no longer bring out millions of Algerians.

Algerians protesters nevertheless continue to make the end of the system the only possible outcome of the movement. The government’s offer of an inclusive dialogue was rejected, while the army’s chief of staff, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, is increasingly targeted by the street and social media. A problem is that while sentiment is strong, there is a lack of consensual representation.

Personalities from civil society, community associations and the political sphere have emerged over the weeks as possible spokespeople for the hirak, but they are struggling to establish themselves as undeniable figures of the revolution. That is necessary to be legitimate and credible interlocutors in a position to impose the street’s agenda on the government. This lack of representativeness is one of the factors that prevents an exit from the crisis.

Bensalah plays his trump card

Abdelkader Bensalah, who was reappointed head of state on 9 July after his 90-day interim term expired, proposed a roadmap aimed at holding a presidential election. And the measures envisaged would constitute real concessions if they are implemented. The initiative would first involve a dialogue to which neither the presidency nor the military would be invited and which would be conducted by independent national figures who do not have partisan affiliations or electoral ambitions.

The state would simply observe strict neutrality by making its resources available to the protagonists. Another new feature is that the date of the presidential election would not be set by the government but instead by the bodies responsible for conducting this dialogue. This would be a small revolution because, since independence in July 1962, the electoral calendar has been the exclusive responsibility of the authorities.

This roadmap would also introduce a significant change in the organisation of elections. It would thus be up to the panel of personalities to set up the body responsible for organising, supervising and controlling the process. Legislative texts, in particular the electoral law, heavily criticised by the opposition for their bias in favour of the regime, could also be revised or amended.

This would be the first time since 1962 that the state has divested itself of its prerogatives in the electoral process. At the same time, it would lose any possibility of influencing the outcome of the election. For the time being, Bensalah, who suffers from cancer and is eager to leave office, has not won support from the street or the opposition. The forthcoming announcement of the composition of the panel in charge of the dialogue could be a guarantee of his sincerity. But further concessions are essential, otherwise the offer of dialogue will not be taken up.

Without compromise measures, there will be no dialogue

The first response to Bensalah’s proposed plan came from the Forum National du Dialogue, which brought together opposition parties, members of civil society and representatives of the hirak on 6 July. Coordinated by former minister and diplomat Abdelaziz Rahabi, this forum proposed a multi-stage programme to resolve Algeria’s transitional crisis. There are some points of convergence with the regime’s proposal: the holding of a presidential election as “the only solution to end the crisis” and the creation of a body with total autonomy to organise and supervise the elections. “We want these elections to be conducted in the best conditions of fairness, transparency and stability,” Rahabi said.

The former minister insists on the need to extend the initiative to all opposition parties, as well as to other representatives of the popular movement. This is a challenge given that the street’s distrust of the opposition and the government is persistent and perhaps insurmountable. If the authorities see that they have no choice but to accept this offer, calming measures are prerequisites to convince them of their good faith.

These could include the release of prisoners of conscience and the end of prosecutions for the crime of free expression, the opening of public broadcasting, the lifting of constraints limiting the political exercise of parties or improving the fight against corruption. It through these measures that Algerians will be able to judge the sincerity of the government. There remains another major concession: the departure of prime minister Noureddine Bedoui.

What kind of executive?

“Bedoui’s departure is not a problem,” confided a senior official who requested anonymity. The government has two things to which it will not give in: Bensalah’s position and the holding of a presidential election. Everything else is negotiable.” The government, which many Algerians consider illegitimate, is one of the nodes of the crisis.

Bedoui’s dismissal is one of the main demands of the demonstrators. They say it is a key demand because his name has been mentioned in cases of alleged corruption and abuse of authority. According to rumours in Algiers, the prime minister has repeatedly expressed the wish to leave, but the army boss has vetoed it. Bedoui’s departure is a political bargaining chip that the government intends to use in good time to get the opposition and the street to accept its roadmap. To sack Bedoui without the support of all parties is to lose a precious asset.

If his resignation is inevitable, his replacement could be another stumbling block. Should a government independent of the army and the presidency be established? A compromise executive over which the government would have a right of scrutiny and control? A technocratic government in charge of expediting current affairs while waiting for the presidential elections? These are all possibilities that will be the subject of tough negotiations. The next step is to agree on the role of the military in the political game.

Gaïd Salah, from mediator to player in the succession

He played a decisive role in the departure of Bouteflika and his clan, but he too has become a part of the problem. Since the fall of the former president, Ahmed Gaïd Salah has expanded his powers. To the point of generating mistrust, rejection, misunderstandings and concern. He is involved in so much that some people openly accuse him of wanting to establish a military regime behind a civilian storefront. For example, “Dawla madania, machi askaria” (“Civil and non-military status”) has become one of the main slogans of the Friday marches. Gaïd Salah’s untimely and sometimes aggressive interventions have poisoned an already deleterious atmosphere. Although he says he does not have any political ambition, the army boss has established himself as the key player in this uncertain succession.

Claiming his determination to dismantle the Bouteflika system, which he has served obediently and faithfully, Gaïd Salah has used the fight against corruption to extend his influence to all corners of the government. The imprisonment of the leading figures of the former regime is certainly welcomed by some of the public, but they doubt both the sincerity of anti-corruption operations and the independence of the judiciary. The head of the army is said to be protecting certain businessmen, such as the member of parliament and billionaire Bahaeddine Tliba, Front de Libération Nationale secretary general Mohamed Djemaï and one of his predecessors, Amar Saadani. Their trials could allow Gaïd Salah to kill two birds with one stone: give a token measure of good faith and silence some critics. However, he would have to keep his word by refraining from harbouring any national ambition. This is one of the key issues of the transition.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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