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Every Algerian president wants his own constitution, Dalia Ghanem

By Mourad Kamel
Posted on Monday, 18 May 2020 12:05

Algeria
Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune delivers a speech during an inauguration ceremony in the presidential palace, in Algiers, Algeria, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Toufik Doudou)

While Algeria continues to fight COVID-19, the presidency has just unveiled its constitutional reform project. Dalia Ghanem, resident researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyses President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s constitution. 

The first draft of the constitutional reform has received so much attention in the news that the spokesman for the Algerian presidency, Mohand-Oussaïd Belaïd, said last Wednesday that the text was “only a draft revision, a platform for debate and a working methodology.”

“There is no point in prejudging the timing,” insisted Belaïd, while the opposition noted how the draft was revealed to the public in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Presidency argued that it wished to respond “to the repeated insistence of certain political actors and representatives of civil society, despite the impossibility of holding public meetings” because of the health crisis.

A commission at the level of the presidency will be responsible for receiving the opinions and proposals of all actors, added Belaïd.

“The objective is for Algeria to have a consensual Constitution, protecting it from falling into authoritarianism and experiencing crises whenever there is a dysfunction at the head of power. As for the presidential arbitration, they will come in due course,” said the spokesperson for the presidency.

“The Presidency cannot intervene now so as not to give the impression that it is leading the debates (…) But we will retain everything that unites Algerians and reject what divides them,” said Belaïd.

Dalia Ghanem, resident researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, sees the reform project as a “political payback” that misses its target, namely to satisfy the hirak’s (the movement) demands. Jeune Afrique interviewed her to better gauge the situation in Algeria.

Jeune Afrique: The preliminary draft of the constitutional reform bill mentions the hirak of 22 February in its preamble. Is this a victory for the popular movement?

Dalia Ghanem: This is political payback, I don’t see any victory for the Hirak. The president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, wants to take advantage of the “blessed” Hirak, as he says. Using the popular movement, which was against his coming to power in the first place and the system he represents, is not a good thing. The demonstrators who [ousted] Abdelaziz Bouteflika demanded a radical change in the Constitution, not its amendment.

Moreover, this work of revising the Constitution is being carried out without representatives of the Hirak nor members of the opposition. It is the work of a committee that has not been representative of Algerian society and has been thinking behind closed doors. So much so that Fatsah Ouguergouz, a doctor of law and former judge at the African Court of Human Rights, resigned from this committee of experts.

Is it a draft that draws a more liberal Algeria?

Every president who came to power in Algeria wanted to have his own constitution, from Chadli Bendjedid to Bouteflika, who in twenty years amended the constitution three times. These are always cosmetic changes, including this time. These heads of state are bound by the same type of regime, which breaks neither with its political affiliation nor with the military’s stranglehold.

But is the promise of checks and balances being kept?

No, clearly not. In this preliminary draft, the president gives himself more powers, whereas his speech evoked more balance between the poles of the executive.

READ MORE Algeria: President Abdelmadjid Tebboune now the sole master of the game

I will give you a few examples. Article 102 now gives the President the power to nominate and appoint members of the government thus disregarding the choice of Parliament, whose opinion becomes advisory only. Article 146 extends the President’s right to legislate. Section 156 states that the Speaker may dismiss a legislative assembly designated by electors. The Hirak had asked for a constituent from the people !

READ MORE The Hirak continues Algeria’s struggle for liberation

I doubt that a referendum will be called to adopt this reform and even if it is held, they will be sharing grotesque turnout figures. There is a great risk that the figures will be inflated in an attempt to legitimise this new Constitution.

Another new feature is the creation of the post of Vice-President. What is the need for this proposal?

This is a novelty, which fills an institutional void that appeared when Abdelaziz Bouteflika was deposed. He was replaced by Abdelkader Bensalah, then president of the parliament [and himself ill], supported by former chief of staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah.

In the future, the vice-president will be able to assume the duties of the interim in the absence of the president. He will also be able to replace the head of government when the latter is on holiday.

Article 95 allows the army to intervene abroad, after a vote in parliament. Is this a break with the doctrine of non-intervention currently in force?

I would describe it as a pilot, to test the people’s reaction. Algeria realises that Libya has been a powder keg for years, that the countries of the Sahel – including Mauritania, Mali and Niger – are for the most part failing or on the verge of becoming failing states. The risk of conflict is great in Africa, and Algerians must be ready to intervene, to defend their interests and to face external threats.

While we do not yet know precisely what the operational consequences of this change will be, the fact that the term “external” is attached to the dangers against which the army remains mobilized, breaks a mental lock.

Internally, it also shows that there is a willingness to regain leadership in international action. During the last few years of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule, foreign policy was reduced to nothing because [he remained] stuck in a wheelchair, could no longer travel, and was unable to make decisions.

The loudest criticisms come from the Islamist movements. How can this be explained?

These movements never miss an opportunity to ride the wave. I am clearly talking about political figures who are seeking to strengthen their networks of supporters and who had tried to graft themselves onto the demonstrations. Let us recall that during Hirak, the Algerians demonstrated together beyond ideologies and identities, but the political leaders of the Islamist parties were never tolerated.

In recent weeks, many journalists and activists have been arrested and some imprisoned. Can such a reform guarantee their right to a fair trial?

Every time a president has changed the Constitution, he has promised more fundamental rights and public freedoms. Yet dozens of people are now languishing in dirty, poorly ventilated prisons in the midst of a pandemic, while others are being arrested at home. What crime has Khaled Drareni committed? What crimes have others committed? What they are accused of is doing their job as journalists or opposing the government.

READ MORE Coronavirus in Algeria: A country’s last warning

It is ironic, to say the least, to promise more rights and freedoms when, at the same time, Algerian jails are filling up. The long-awaited gesture would have been to release prisoners of conscience and activists as soon as the election was called. Abdelmadjid Tebboune missed this opportunity to prove that he was genuinely open to dialogue.

I fear that the situation will deteriorate after the end of the lockdown. The Hirak will come back, the social question will be at the heart of its demands because the regime no longer has the financial means to buy social peace. Pseudo-political reforms will not silence the streets. The room for manoeuvre for those in power is shrinking day by day and the use of radical means to silence the population is an option that I fear will become a reality.

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