Algeria and the old guard

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 13 Mar 2019

FILE PHOTO: Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seen in Algiers, Algeria April 9, 2018. REUTER

Despite the euphoria that overwhelmed the streets of the Algerian capital on Monday evening after President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika announced he did not intend to run for a fifth term, the very next day thousands of students and youths took to the streets in several cities rejecting what they called a “trick” from the old guard.

The scene may seem like a generational conflict, but it is actually a struggle by the “new” in the government, politics, the economy and culture, whether young or old.

Béjaïa, a coastal city, has witnessed a strike that paralysed its harbor, according to the Algerian satellite channel Ennahar. In Algiers, hundreds took to the streets to demonstrate against the president and his decisions. But otherwise, life was normal, according to Reuters reports.

President Bouteflika made a lengthy statement to the Algerian people on Monday evening in which he announced his decision not to run for a fifth term, as well as the postponing of the presidential elections to 18 April and the sacking of Ahmed Ouyahia’s government and the appointing of Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui as the new prime minister.

He has also said that “an independent inclusive national commission will draw up a national charter which will shape the new Algerian system” before the end of 2019.

Local newspapers have speculated that the head of this “national commission” will be veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, although the man himself has not announced that the Algerian president has appointed him to this post.

State television has aired Bouteflika’s meeting with Brahimi as well as the Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gaed Salah, whom the AFP has described as the second most important man in Algeria after the president.

The Algerian president also met with resigned Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, his successor Bedoui, and Ramtane Lamamra, the newly appointed deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

The Algerian crisis worsened after the president announced his candidacy for a fifth term despite suffering the aftereffects of a brain stroke in 2013, making rare public appearance and being unable to speak clearly.

The opposition believes that Bouteflika’s decisions are just a political manoeuvre which many think is unconstitutional, because the president’s term cannot be extended except in times of war according to the Algerian constitution.

Activists have questioned who is behind announcing the president’s candidacy and the submission of his file to the Constitutional Council, even though Bouteflika said in his message to the people that “there will be no fifth term. There was never any question of it for me given the state of my health and age."

President Bouteflika has been ruling Algeria since 1999, helping end the so-called “Black Decade” (1991-2000) where 200,000 Algerians were killed according to unofficial estimates.

His first term has coincided with a hike in oil and natural gas prices, which the country relies upon heavily. This in turn contributed to creating a climate where contractors enjoy political influence in a country where power is in the hands of the military institution, the old Mujahideen against the French occupation, and the Liberation Front Party politicians, which include, of course, Bouteflika.

During this period, the rate of unemployment did not radically improve. Algeria, half the population of which is under 35, has suffered from an employment problem since the end of the 1980s.

France, Algeria’s former coloniser and the Western country with the biggest interest in the North African nation, has welcomed Bouteflika’s decisions.

The question now being asked is will the president remain in power after the election date in April, and if so, on what constitutional basis?

The mechanism of selecting the national commission members is also unclear. In addition, in a country divided between the forces of loyalists and the opposition, it is difficult to reach a consensus on the figures that would participate in the government the president has promised.

Moreover, Algeria is a pivotal country for the nations of southern Europe (France, Italy and Spain), which rely heavily on Algerian oil and natural gas, as well as the Sahel countries in Africa (Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania).

The threat of instability in Algeria is heightened by its growing population, which has reached 40 million, and it being the largest African country by land area. It is also one of the main importers of oil and natural gas within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

There is also news currently circulating in local newspapers and social media about a faction war within the loyalist side among the businessmen, the military institution, the Liberation Front Party politicians and the bureaucracy.

At the same time, the opposition and protest movement are even more fractious, where parties enjoying universal power are absent from the street aside from the Islamists, who still seem to think that they can govern the country.

The Islamists (the Islamic Salvation Front Party) won in the first stage of the first parliamentary elections held in Algeria in 1991, which was overturned by the army in the same year, thus driving the country into the “Black Decade.”

The ascendency of the Islamists may be troubling for many countries, although they could receive support from others. This may push the “Country of a Million Martyrs” into a conflict that the army has vowed will not take place.

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