Popular Protests and the Dialectic of the Political Transition in Algeria
First: The Algerian Scene on the Eve of the Popular Protests.
Second: Future Scenarios.
The popular demonstrations taking place in Algeria since February 22nd 2019 have caused a state of confusion to the political regime that was preparing for the nomination of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term as a threshold to change into the black box of the current political regime. The letter of the president's candidacy implicitly and explicitly referred to this change, speaking on the one hand about the president’s illness and acknowledging that he no longer has the same physical strength. On the other hand, change was indirectly evoked by the call for a "national seminar" in the first year of Bouteflika’s presumed new mandate, which would be entrusted with several tasks, most important of which are proposals for "deep enrichment of the current national Constitution".
The four-week- popular movement, which came in rejection of the current president’s running for a fifth-term, has put forward a second message to the president in which he responded to the demands against his candidacy and included a vision for the transitional phase that intersects with the previous letter, especially regarding the amendment of the constitution, and another formation headed by the former Interior Minister Noureddine Badawi, composed of a technocratic government.
In addition to the people’s pressure, the current political system is facing a serious problem, namely the constitutionality of its decisions, beginning with the postponement of the presidential elections to reaching a formula for the continuation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in power after April 18th, the date of the end of his current mandate. All of these developments expose Algeria to many scenarios, ranging from a smooth political transition to a new wave of violence. The present paper aims to discuss possible scenarios Algeria will undergo.
First: The Algerian Scene on the Eve of the Popular Movement.
There is a situation of anxiety and apprehension about the future for all actors in the Algerian political process, whether authority, opposition, or even the community. This is due to the prevailing sense of uncertainty in recent years at all levels and institutions, beginning with the many changes that have affected senior leaders in the army and security institutions through crises experienced by governments and the fragmentation of the opposition, which has not been able to formulate unified positions and visions of power, to the social discontent previously expressed by the protests in all the Algerian cities and turning into demonstrations throughout the country every Friday, for five consecutive weeks, rejecting the continuation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in power.
1. Constitutional Amendments:
The Algerian Constitution, which had been revised three times, was last amended less than three years ago, February 2016.. However, the President of the Republic indicated in his late letter of candidacy to open a national discussion in order to enrich and deepen it. Thus, the constitution will be amended for the fourth time during the Bouteflika era. What characterized the last two amendments was to open the field of candidacy for more than two terms in the 2008 amendment and then return to the previous version and limit it by two terms in the amendment of 2016.
2. Army Foundation:
The most significant changes in this institution were launched in 2015 by the President of the Republic with that the decision to affiliate the Directorate of Intelligence under the leadership of the Chief of Staff, amendments to the Republican Guard to protect the President and the dismissal and termination of the duties of the Commander of the Sixth Military District, followed by the dismissal of the Commander of the National Gendarmerie. The most significant decision, however, was the dismissal "The Head of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), General Tawfik, who is known for his centrality in the political power as he represents one of the sides of the triangle in addition to the chief of staff and the institution of the presidency. The dismissal decisions continued to take out most of the military leaders in 2018. The changes have reached the Secretary-General of the Algerian police, Gen. "Abdel-Ghani Hamel" who was known for his close relation with the President. He was succeeded by Major General "Mustafa Leberi," who in turn sent away many chiefs of state security. He was similarly dismissed on 13 February 2019 after seven months in office, to be succeeded by Major Abdelkader Kara Bouhadba.
These large changes that occurred in a short time and the actions taken by the newcomer to the post which are opposite to his predecessor’s reflect the existence of a form of conflict, especially since these measures did not stop at the dismissal, but went beyond to the follow-up of some leaders judicially, and statements of the army leadership which prevent former officers from going into political issues, as well as the nomination of Major General Ali Ghadiri for the canceled presidential elections and his statements to the political regime and media messages exchanged between him and the army leadership.
The government changes have contributed to the deepening of the state of uncertainty, especially the government of Abdel Majeed Tabboun, who succeeded Abdelmalek Salal in the first cabinet at the end of May 2017. His government, however, only lasted less than three months. These changes were accompanied by contradictions in the rhetoric about the economic conditions of the country, which entered into "austerity" policies following the decline in oil prices and the freezing of many major projects, and the Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal’s announcement of the government’s inability to finance the construction of housing. However, the Minister of Housing Abdul Majeed Taboun disagreed and continued to do so after his succession in office, where he announced mechanisms to finance these projects, and denied the fact that Algeria was suffering from a financial crisis or taking any austerity measures. Ahmed Ouyahia, on the other hand, began his duties, as head of the Prime ministry, in September 2017, by warning of a financial crisis to the point of not being able to pay workers wages in November.
Parliament is on the sidelines of the decision-making process, which is inconsistent with its constitutional status as the legislative authority and the supervisory role of the executive. However, it has also been infected by conflicts, which had not originated from the opposition and the ruling parties but from within the parties in power. The Algerian parliament witnessed a crisis between September and October 2018 following the call for the impeachment of the head of the ruling party (FLN), "Said Bouhadja," demands of his resignation, and the "the National Liberation Front" party’s referring him to the Disciplinary Committee. Bouhadja’s refusal to comply with the decision and his adherence to his position led his opponents to shut the doors of the parliament. The crisis came to an end after the announcement of the Council’s Commission of Legal and Administrative Affairs of a state of vacancy in the position, and then electing "Mo'ath Bouchareb" chairman of the National People's Assembly.
This incident refers to the many changes that have affected the general secretaries of the National Liberation Front, beginning with Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who was subject to withdrawal of confidence at the end of January 2013, as well as his dismissal from his government duties, which was interpreted as an expression of a crisis between him and the President of the Republic. He was succeeded by Amar Saidani in August of the same year, who led a media campaign against the head of intelligence, and then resigned in October 2016 to be substituted by Djamel Ould Abbes, whose news of his resignation was broadcast. Then, after the controversy about the truth of what happened, and whether it is a resignation or dismissal or a temporary sick leave, the news of his departure from the Secretariat was confirmed without providing adequate answers to the reasons and the way of such a departure. This came after the appointment of Mo’ath Bouchareb as Secretary-General of the party in November 2018.
5. The Opposition:
The "Coordination of Change and Democratic Transition" is the most important institutional framework under which the opposition was able to meet in June 2014. One of its most important outcomes was the call for the formation of an independent national committee to monitor the elections and presenting an initiative for political change. However, the initiative of national consensus soon failed after it was rejected by some of the coordination parties. In this way, the Algerian opposition is grappling with conflicts between its poles. It has not even been able to reach a compromise about a vision of how to deal with the regime. Indeed, in every political stage, it shows signs of divergence and conflict. For instance, in the recent parliamentary elections the opposition was torn between pros and cons. It was also affected by the initiatives announced by the political system which have become a reason for deepening differences within the opposition when some tried to control representation while others tried to make deals with the ruling regime.
The weakness of the opposition gave way to the emergence of a new type of opposition represented by Rachid Nekkaz, whose voice became disturbing to the political regime after he managed to find an area of activity and to gather supporters of young people who rejected the old figures of power and opposition alike. His positions on issues of public concern, as well as what happened to him in the previous presidential elections have contributed to mobilizing further support. This showed his individual ability to mobilize support during his collection of signatures of applications for candidacy for canceled elections. As for the traditional opposition, its failure to agree on political solutions to deal the fourth mandate as a single bloc, and then its failure for five years to benefit from the previous experience and continued confusion around its positions in the recent elections, which failed to provide a consensus candidate, and the controversies between them after the beginning of the popular movement are all indicative of the marginal future role towards political developments and exit from the equation of influence that will be confined to the political regime and society.
The situation of social discontent is further reinforced by the decline in purchasing power due to the economic crisis resulting from the decline in oil prices and the total rejection of official political participation either in the elections, which are characterized by great reluctance particularly by the youth, or by the interaction with the legal channels represented by the political parties. Meanwhile,, this situation of discontent is growing through participation in protests that are not devoid of political slogans. The most prominent protests have started in southern Algeria as a refusal of the Shale Gas extraction, or the Ouargla demonstrations, during which the protesters raised many demands, mainly on the distribution justice. In recent years, the ruling power has responded to many demands at the local level after protest movements, which contributed to its spread as the most appropriate means to achieve demands, especially with media coverage of these protests and their spread in social networking sites. This in turn has an impact on directing the government, which has often been forced to interact with what is being discussed, especially with regard to statements attributed to ministers who are quick to explain what they have issued. Finally, there was the popular movement, which began on February 22 as a result of the long-standing sense of discontent that had accumulated for many years, then exploded with the announcement of the president's candidacy for a fifth term.
Second: Future Scenarios
In light of the sense of uncertainty characterizing the political scene in general, Algeria remains open to all possibilities. The most important scenarios for the foreseeable developments in the near and medium term are as follows:
1. Peaceful Political Transition:
● The central issue in this scenario is a peaceful movement that will take advantage of the Algerian historical experience of the 1990s and the experiences of the Arab countries since 2011.
● The number of demonstrators doubled following the announcement of the President of the Republic not to run for a fifth term.
● The many statements made by the Algerian Chief of Staff, in which he affirmed his bias towards the demands of the people and protecting them from all external and internal threats.
● The presence of national figures that are chosen by consensus and that can be entrusted with the task of leading a transitional period.
In contrast to the expectations of the political authority, the number of demonstrators doubled on Friday following the announcement of the President of the Republic not to run for a fifth term. Demonstrations in all states continued on a daily basis by various sectors accompanied by demands for civil disobedience. This upward trend in protesting and its preservation of peacefulness increases the pressure on the political regime and may push it in the end to respond to the popular demands to avoid entering into a state of political instability.
One of the first indications of this was President Bouteflika’s withdrawal from running for a fifth term. This scenario is also attributed to the many statements made by the Algerian army chief of staff, in which he stressed his bias towards the demands of the people and protecting them against all external and internal threats and the deep ties that bring him together with his people. In addition, there are national figures that are accepted and can be chosen by consensus, and that can be entrusted with the task of leading a transitional phase, such as former President Liamine Zéroual, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, and Mouloud Hamrouche. The central issue in this scenario is a peaceful movement that benefits from the Algerian historical experience of the 1990s and the experiences of the Arab countries since 2011.
While the political regime has been taking advantage of the Algerian Civil War’s control over the society’s imagination, the violent misdeeds of the 2011 uprisings, the failures of the Arab Spring, in addition to the absence of social and political movements that would have the capacity to mobilize protestors for the accumulating crisis of trust, such Barakat movement and "Saturday demonstrations," which have all been unsuccessful, it should be noted that the effects of the Civil War experience have started decreasing because the fourth generation (the first being of the revolution, the second of the independence, and the third of the uprising of October 1988) who was born at the end of the Civil War (in 2000s) will soon reach the end of their second decade of life, and they did not suffer directly from this event. Therefore, this generation does not feel the effects of the lack of security and stability. When the rhetoric of the Civil War is brought up, this generation is convinced of the futility of violence in achieving political gains, and is therefore adhering to a more peaceful approach.
This conviction has been more strengthened after the experiences of other Arab countries, which have resulted in many losses due to the adoption of the violence alternative. This has also been taken into consideration by the security and military institution, which has benefited from the two experiences and is aware of the disastrous consequences of confronting the popular demands with violence. This has been manifested in its way of dealing with the demonstrations or in the statements of the Chief of Staff, which stressed on the protection of the people and not endangering them.
2. Continued Political Power:
● The political power depends on time and procrastination in its response to the demands for a political change.
● The role played by "Lakhdar Brahimi", who serves as an unofficial mediator between the various actors and who promotes some names as media representatives of the popular movement, was understood as an attempt by the political system to circumvent popular demands and divide the demonstrators by emphasizing the concerns of external interference and identity conflicts.
● The failure of the popular movement in the production of its leaders and representatives, by accusing anyone who tries to ride and win, and even attacking him as being an envoy of the political authority to perform the task of dismantling mobility.
● The political opposition, which is supposed to put pressure on the political system and push it to respond to the reality of the demands of the people, is also suffering from conflict and internal conflicts and experiencing a dilemma as bad as that which the authority is suffering from, being rejected by both parties.
The political authority depends on the time factor and the procrastination in its response to the demands of political change, considering that the president's initiative has not come up with anything new and has been part of an advanced plan, to which he referred in the announcement of its candidacy. It has also held on to its remaining in power during the next stage without constitutional support. The dismissal of the government has just been a formal step to calm the public so as to stop the peaceful demonstrations. In addition, the new prime minister has been already holding a sovereign portfolio in the previous government represented by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for managing the elections. This minister is accused of using the bureaucratic body to serve the president's electoral campaign, as well as his record in suppressing many previous peaceful protests.
At the same time, Lakhdar Brahimi has been playing the role of as an unofficial mediator between the various actors and promoting some figures in the media such as representatives of the popular movement. These have all been interpreted as the political regime’s attempt to circumvent the popular demands and cause splits between the demonstrators by stressing the concerns of external intervention and identity conflicts.
All this means that the steps taken by the political authority are serious and are never aimed at a real political change. This scenario is reinforced by the failure of the popular movement to come out with its leaders and representatives, the accusation of anyone who tries to do so by trying to take advantage of or make gains from the movement, and even the doubting that he is sent from the political authority to carry out the task of dispersing the movement.
Even the political opposition, which is supposed to put pressure on the political regime and push it to respond to the popular demands, is also suffering from tensions and internal conflicts and is facing a predicament that is no less difficult than that from which the authority is suffering as it is being rejected by the two sides.
At the popular level, it is being considered as a formal opposition that has not carried out its role in competing with the authority and achieving popular gains, and if it takes any step of negotiation with the authority, the deeply rooted image in the public will be confirmed. For its part, the political regime is taking advantage of this contradiction to emphasize that there is no other party capable to rule the country. The opposition is weak and the popular movement is unable to come out with the proper leaderships.
3. Violence and Political Instability:
● The refusal of the political authority to respond to the demands of the demonstrators for fear of their fate and fear of being subjected to judicial accountability or even retaliatory behavior.
● The use of force to disperse protesters and prevent protests, which may generate similar reactions from the other party.
● Internal or external parties having an interest in destabilizing security and stability and carrying out acts of violence attributed to one of the parties.
The demonstrations that have been taking place in Algeria for more than four weeks have been peaceful, despite the large numbers of demonstrators and their spread in all the governorates, and the very few cases of violence, which the security institutions have attributed to outlaws and saboteurs and not the demonstrators. The demonstrations have also witnessed the raising of slogans that have emphasized the fraternal ties between the security institutions and the common people, and that have even showed positions in which police officers have participated in the demonstrators' cheers for Algeria’s glory.
All these positive indicators do not necessarily eliminate the possibility of these demonstrations’ shift towards violence. The situations may deviate in case the political authority refuses to completely respond to the demands of the demonstrators for fear of its fate later and of being held accountable and even of retaliatory acts. The authority might thus resort to using force to disperse the demonstrations and prevent the demonstrations. This may generate similar reactions from the other side, in whose circles, especially young people, a conviction might be generated that the only solution lies in the use of violence.
This might also be used in case of the authority’s procrastination in response to their demands. This may also be the result of internal or external parties having an interest in destabilizing security and stability and committing acts of violence that they will later attribute to one of the two sides.
The great popular demonstrations in Algeria surprised most observers and followers who did not expect a protest movement of this size and manner, and who could not imagine scenarios for the direction it could take and the consequences it could reach, and surprises it may produce. However, this popular movement will remain at the center of attention depending on the two main factors which are; maintaining the peaceful aspect of the popular movement regardless of the gains it achieves, as well as the ability of the political power to avoid the use of force in the face of the peaceful and legitimate demands that target the political system itself. Amid this controversial situation, each party can get some gains at the expense of the other r to ensure a peaceful transition, albeit very slow and much less than the expectations of the demonstrators.