GLOBALIST | 24 MARCH, 2019
A New Era In the Offing?
The People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria has been roiled by mass protests in recent weeks.
The Smile Revolution as it is being called began on February 16, 2019 with many drawing parallels to the Arab Spring.
The protests focused on demanding an end to the rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and refusing to accept him as a contender for a fifth term in the Presidential elections originally scheduled for April 18, 2019. At one rally 70,000 people had massed in Algiers, including at Bab Ezzouar university, the country’s biggest.
Also dubbed the “Million Man March” protestors included students , doctors, prominent workers groups, some legislators of his own party -the FLN, and women, particularly on International Women’s Day. 1000 judges had refused to oversee the elections if Bouteflika stood for a fifth term. At some of the rallies arrests were made but no force was used against the protestors though the police did fire tear gas.
The protests had taken place in the capital Algiers and other cities like Oran, Constantine, Bejaia, Oran, Batna, Tizi Ouzou , Skikda and as far away as Paris in France where a large number of Algerians live. Among the slogans at the protests were “ Bye Bye Bouteflika” “ Algeria is not a kingdom” “No to a fifth term!”and with protestors singing patriotic songs and chanting slogans.
More than 70 percent of Algeria’s population is below 30 years of age and it is this segment that has been in the forefront of the demonstrations. Among the factors contributing to the discontent has been the increasing cost of living, lack of employment, barriers to upward mobility, inadequate health care, poor affordable housing, dissatisfaction with the educational system and above all distrust of the political class.
The protests were sparked off by Bouteflika’s decision, announced last month on television that he would run for a fifth term as President . The President stricken by a stroke has not been since in public since 2013 but is regarded by many Algerians as a hero for ending the long civil war in the early 2000s partly by giving amnesty to Islamic militants. After the announcement that elections would be held in April, the Election Commission said that candidates would have to submit their nominations by March 6, 2019 in person—effectively making it impossible for Bouteflika to do so.
The President in a letter carried by Algeria's Press Service news agency had referred to "internal and external" parties infiltrating the country to spread chaos and sedition and referred to the risk of a return to the civil war days of the 1990s and terrorism emanating from neighbouring countries. During the protests the Army Chief Chief of Staff Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah had also referred to the years of bloodshed before the current government took power and the fight against terrorism in an indirect suggestion that the present demonstrations presented a danger to the country.
Under Algerian law till 2008 a president could hold office only for two terms. A constitutional change in 2008 removed presidential term limits effectively opening the way for Bouteflika to remain President for life. But protests led to a subsequent amendment in 2016 which reinstated the two term limit without making it retroactive, making it possible for Bouteflika, who began his rule in 1999, to run for a fifth time.
In Algeria the head of state is the President of Algeria, who leads the government's executive branch and serves as commander of the Algerian military. The Algerian head of government, is the Prime Minister, who is theoretically nominated by the President and approved by the Algerian legislature. The legislature is the bicameral Parliament, comprised of the Council of the Nation and the People's National Assembly. But “Le Pouvoir” or “ The Power” actually holds the reins of power according to most observers. “The Power” comprises unelected individuals and advisors with a significant role played by the military and intelligence services.
The president is elected for a five-year term by the people. With over 40 registered political parties governance in Algeria has always required coalitions and the present government comprises Bouteflika’s FLN and the National Rally for Democracy, the Rally for Hope in Algeria, the Popular Algerian Movement—and it is the leaders of these parties who announced that Bouteflika would be their candidate. In response the main opposition parties indicated in a statement that they would seek a common candidate to oppose Bouteflika.
A meeting organised by the Islamist Justice and Development Front party (MRN), with Abderrazak Makri, leader of the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), former Prime Ministers Ali Benflis and Ahmed Benbitour as well as a plethora of other smaller parties in attendance, ended with participants unable to come to a decision.
The last Presidential election in 2014 had been boycotted by the major opposition parties and this time too the country's oldest opposition party, the Front of Socialist Forces, announced in January 2019, that it would not field a candidate and called for an "active, intensive and peaceful boycott" of the ballot. The secular Rally for Culture and Democracy party said it would also boycott the elections due to its objection to a fifth term for Bouteflika.
In the couple of weeks since the onset of the election process reports in the media said that nearly 186 people had requested the documents needed to declare their candidacy. According to the law, to be considered as legitimate candidates, hopefuls have to gather 60,000 signatures of citizens or 6,000 signatures of elected officials, spread out over 25 of Algeria’s 48 administrative departments.
The general perception was that not many of the over 100 prospective candidates would be able to fulfil the criteria. Assessments made by analysts suggested that Mr. Bouteflika’s top challengers would be former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, leader of his own party Talaie El Houriat- Arabic for Vanguard of Freedoms-, influential retired General Ali Ghediri; and the leader of the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP)Abderrazak Makri.
President Bouteflika or more likely the higher echelons of the FLN had been engaged in a manipulative exercise to stem the protests. First there was a statement on Ennahar TV saying Bouteflika had offered to step down after a year if re-elected- a statement that fuelled more anti government protests.
Finally Bouteflika dropped plans for a fifth run but also postponed the elections.
The office of the Presidency issued a statement that until an interim leadership is established and can plan for a new vote elections would be postponed and no new date was announced. The statement said that a new constitution would be drawn up and submitted for a public referendum, and political and economic reforms would be carried out. Bouteflika insisted on his plan to step down from office only after the national conference approved a new charter. His comments came shortly after Lieutenant-General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army's chief of staff and the deputy defence minister, said the military would play a role in finding a solution to the ongoing crisis.
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia had resigned in the face of the protests. His successor Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui said he would set up a technocratic government to continue with the talks process but representatives of 13 unions, which operated in sectors such as education and healthcare, refused to attend a meeting with him saying that the talks were "in contradiction to our position and that of the Algerian people".
The National Union of Public Health Practitioners (SNPSP) issued a statement that they did not believe the conditions for the success of a dialogue existed at the present juncture. Abdelwahab Fersaoui, President of the youth association Rassemblement Action Jeunesse (RAJ), denounced the moves as a "Machiavellian project" aimed at stifling the peaceful protest movement. He said they could not trust leaders of the past two decades and there was not just a crisis of leadership but a crisis of regime.
The years of Bouteflika’s rule have not seen achievements that would negate sentiment against him to the extent of people wanting him to rule on. The World Bank has said that nearly 12 percent of educated youths remain unemployed, and last year’s inflation rate of 5.5 percent suggested that 10 percent of the population could fall back into poverty. There had been a sharp fall in hydrocarbon revenues and a slowdown in the industrial sector which had forced the government to implement austerity measures while increasing taxation—moves which had had a negative impact particularly on the middle class.
Freedom of speech and right of assembly remain constrained. Though Algeria has more than 30 daily newspapers in French and Arabic in 2001, the government amended the penal code provisions relating to defamation and slander as an effort to rein in the press. Government monopoly of newsprint and advertising is another means to influence the press, although it has permitted newspapers to create their own printing distribution networks. Bloggers and activists have been arrested on charges of “inciting an unauthorized gathering,” “intelligence with a foreign country,” and defamation of public officials.
A 2012 law on associations, requires associations, even if they have successfully registered previously, to apply for a fresh registration from the Interior Ministry in order to operate legally. The right to freedom of assembly is circumscribed by the penal code which punishes organizing or participating in an unauthorized demonstration in a public place with up to one year in prison. Algeria continues to block the legal registration of Algerian human rights nongovernmental organizations and has not acceded to requests for United Nations human rights experts to visit.
The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and the state is required to ensure the status of equality. But on local levels, the political participation of women remains low. The penal code has been amended to criminalise some forms of domestic violence and sexual harassment in public places. But concrete measures and regulations for authorities on how to prevent and react to domestic violence are still missing. Divorce remains more difficult for women than for men.
Algeria’s population is around 42,484,058 with a Sunni majority. Christians account for about 1 percent of the population. But it is the Ahmediyas who suffer since they have been prosecuted for practicing their religion.
Will the coming days, with Bouteflika still in place, see a sprialliing of protests and possibly violence? The manner in which he and his cohorts have manipulated the system and postponed the elections is likely to chafe the younger and more demanding generation. The latest reports say that the Head of the FLN has said that the party would support the popular movement. Whether this is a consensus view or that of a faction, it is obviously a ploy to continue to have a say in any future dispensation. The announcement is therefore unlikely to assuage the ire of those who want the ouster of all the old faces.
A new umbrella party, the National Coordination for Change (CNC), that was said to be inclusive of a wide range of political opinion ranging from socialists to Islamist activists, had emerged. In a statement the CNC rejected Bouteflika's plan to extend his 20-year rule, and demanded that he hand over power to a temporary collective presidency on April 28, the day on which his fourth term is to expire. The statement also called for the dissolution of parliament and for the military to stay out of politics. But many supposed signatories to the statement said they were not associated with the CNC.
There appeared to be an external angle to the new movement as Dr. Mourad Dhina, a signatory to the statement, is living in exile in Switzerland and has been accused of terrorist associations which he has denied. He and Kamel Guemazi, the other person whose name is on the statement , are both former high-ranking members of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) - the Islamist party whose cancelled legislative election victory in 1991 led to a decade-long civil war. Mouwatana, a group of Algerian opposition figures, including political leaders and human rights activists, who called for the boycott of the presidential election, said it had nothing to do with the CNC. Dhina a co-founder of Rachad the opposition movement -in -exile, claimed he had no political ambitions.
But the presence of the two Islamist leaders in the new grouping had drawn expressions of distrust from some of those who have been involved in the recent demonstrations.
There is therefore the likelihood that tensions would increase and the spectre of rolling demonstrations till the next elections remains present. This would impact on the economy and at some point when frustrations increase and the powers that be are seen to be exploring avenues to stay in power, violence could occur. The remnants of Al Qaeda and militant Islamic groups could capitalise on the situation forcing the army to intervene on the streets.
In such a scenario Bouteflika’s proposed referendum and subsequent elections might just not take place. A palace coup could occur but whether that would be acceptable to the people is a moot question. Regime change is what they are seeking. And where ever regime change is sought outside players get involved; violence occurs; and it is the local people who suffer.
Is this to be Algeria’s fate? The coming months will tell.