Another Battle of Algiers
Protests have stopped President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from seeking another term, but it won’t change the military’s domination of the political system. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the president of Algeria, on Monday announced in a letter that he would not seek a fifth term as president and called off the presidential elections scheduled on April 18.
He explained that a national conference on political and constitutional reform would be held and a new Constitution written and approved by referendum.
The stunning development came after mass protests by Algerians since Feb. 22 opposing Mr. Bouteflika’s attempt at re-election. Mr. Bouteflika, who is 82, had a stroke in 2013 and hasn’t addressed his nation in six years. Algerians found his desire to hold on to power absurd and insulting.
On Feb. 22 and March 1, I joined the protests in Algiers. I was surrounded by people from every socio-economic background: men and women, seniors in wheelchairs, fathers carrying children on their shoulders. Many carried signs with sharp, subtle and funny catchphrases. Many brought garbage bags to collect the water bottles protesters were carrying; others organized the cleaning of the streets after the demonstrations ended.
As we passed by a hospital, the protesters stopped the chanting to avoid disturbing the patients. A little later, they went quiet as we passed a funeral. Each time the procession reached a police barricade, the protesters chanted, “silmiya, silmiya” (peaceful, peaceful) or “cha’b w chorta khawa khawa!” (the police and the people are brothers). I saw police officers bursting into tears and protesters hugging them. It was exhilarating to witness the awakening of the Algerian people.
Algeria hasn’t seen such protests since the 1990s; their scale and their peaceful nature surprised many in Algeria and abroad. The protest movement is leaderless and started with ordinary citizens calling upon fellow citizens on social media, especially Facebook. Numerous groups of students, teachers, lawyers, jurists, judges, doctors, public employees and petroleum workers simply came together for the greater common good.
Even veterans of Algeria’s war of independence, who have historically been loyal to the regime, joined the protest movement. And several important leaders and parliamentarians, who resigned from the ruling National Liberation Front, marched with the people. Algeria’s opposition parties, which are divided, marginalized or co-opted by the regime and have little credibility, joined the demonstrations but were largely ignored by the protesters.
People celebrated joyously in Algiers and other cities after the news came that President Bouteflika would not seek another term in response to the protests, but Algerians are rightly cautious and see it as a first step.
The absurdity of Mr. Bouteflika’s candidacy and the cacophony around it stems from the very nature of the state. Beyond the old man, there is a highly complex and opaque power structure composed of overlapping and intricate networks, varied and divergent interests, and fluid and shifting allegiances.
The National Liberation Front, the principal nationalist movement, and its military wing, the National Liberation Army, led the war of independence against the French. After independence, the military wing became the country’s army — People’s National Army.
The legitimacy derived from the armed struggle against the colonial power gave the army a cardinal position to control power in Algeria. The army identifies itself with the nation and finds it inconceivable to separate itself from the political apparatus. The military leaders see letting elected civilian politicians run the country as endangering the nation.
The military rules even if it does not govern. It sits atop a pyramid of power composed by several strata of National Liberation Front apparatchiks, state officials and business tycoons connected by family or regional ties. Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, sadly, nepotism and corruption have remained the core tools of this model of governance.
The regime went from being outright authoritarian to a hybrid mix starting in 1995 when it reinstated constitutional processes, but the rulers have maintained their control by tactically using political, economic and constitutional reforms.
In 2012, as the Arab Spring shook the region, the government allowed new political parties to register, improved gender representation in the parliament and created a nominally independent electoral commission. The government also introduced greater subsidies, better salaries and easier credit for young people and entrepreneurs. These resources were controlled and selectively distributed.
Elections have become routine since 1995, but they are marked by irregularities and are neither entirely fair nor free. A fraction of political participation was permitted after the end of the civil war in 2002. Several opposition groups — nationalists, democrats, independents and even Islamists — were allowed to be part of the political arena, but the state ensured the opposition was marginalized and divided through co-optation.
Civil society organizations were also allowed some space for contestation, but the state used repression, co-optation and regulation to ensure they remained fragmented and too weak to challenge the government.
The economy was partially liberalized since 1994, and more so under Mr. Bouteflika, but it has largely served the ruling elite and its clients, who were granted generous loans, privileges and custom-made monopolies in return for their loyalty and support.
The capacity of the system to react quickly, distribute timely political and economic resources not only helped in boosting its legitimacy but also allowed it to impede mobilization and to defeat any oppositional force.
In the past few weeks of protests, the regime struggled to respond. Its lack of responsiveness to the people gave birth to the contestation; its contempt led to a visceral antipathy toward the leadership and a profound crisis of legitimacy.
The regime’s old tool of buying social peace by distributing generous handouts using the high oil revenues is no longer available because the country has been facing severe fiscal challenges since the fall in oil prices in 2014.
Algeria’s foreign exchanges have shrunk considerably, dropping to $96 billion in 2019 from $194 billion in 2013. Economic growth fell to 2.3 percent in 2018 from 3.8 percent in 2014.
Since Mr. Bouteflika is not seeking another term, the regime’s margin to maneuver has increased a bit, but the people seem to believe that the president’s renouncement is a way for his clan to gain time to install a successor close to them.
Mr. Bouteflika is abstaining from seeking a fifth term but he is extending the fourth and managing the pseudo-transition that he referred to in his letter. His renouncement is half a victory for Algerians, but the political-military elite and the bureaucracy will continue controlling the state. When another presidential candidate emerges and appeases the demonstrators, he will remain a pure product of a system that has kept Algeria in a state of permanent transition.
Dalia Ghanem, an Algerian political analyst, is a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
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