‘Revolution, season two’ in Algeria

Amira Howeidy , Wednesday 10 Apr 2019

Algerians on both sides of the divide are grappling with the country’s future after the resignation of former president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika

Demonstration in Algiers
People chant slogans during a demonstration in Algiers, Algeria, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Thousands took to the streets rejecting the country's interim leader Abdelkader Bensalah, an ally of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Photo: AP)

On Tuesday this week, Algeria’s parliament named the speaker of its upper house, Abdel-Kader Bensalah, as acting president for a maximum of 90 days until elections can be held.

“I am required by national duty to take on this heavy responsibility of steering a transition that will allow the Algerian people to exercise its sovereignty,” Bensalah said.

The plan is based on Article 102 of the constitution that Algeria’s military chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh threatened to implement last week, forcing president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika to resign following six weeks of massive protests.

However, because this process entails that figures and state institutions of the Bouteflika regime oversee its implementation and reinstates the ousted president’s loyalists in power, Saleh’s version of the transitional period has already been rejected by the protest movement.

Last Friday, the first without Bouteflika as president, the seventh massive wave of popular protests since 22 February saw Algerians adamant about the need to dismantle the country’s entire ruling class and the removal of the three “B’s” from power: Bensalah, prime minister Noureddine Bedoui and head of Algeria’s Constitutional Council Tayeb Belaiz.

Even Saleh wasn’t spared.

As both sides of the uprising now grapple with the post-Bouteflika era, the gap between what the people want and what the pouvoir, the country’s establishment, is willing to sacrifice appears larger even than during Bouteflika’s 20 years in office.

While few would agree that the ambitious demands of the leaderless protest movement encapsulated in the popular slogan “lrouhou ga” (all of them must leave) can realistically be implemented, it is clear that the transitional period it is envisioning runs counter to the roadmap of Article 102 that the military wants.

By pursuing this course, observers say, the authorities are going against the will of the people who want to see meaningful change beyond sacrificing the ailing 82-year-old Bouteflika.

Signs of the regime’s impatience with the protests emerged earlier this week when police attempted to disperse demonstrations and sit-ins at the main Post Office building in Algiers and at the headquarters of the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA).

According to the independent French-language daily El-Watan, 13 trade unionists were arrested on Saturday.

This was the first time in five weeks of similar sit-ins at the UGTA to demand the removal of secretary-general Abdelmadjid Sidi Saïd that police had interfered in this way, witnesses said.

The escalation, the paper said, has been interpreted as a sign that the security forces will attempt to ban demonstrations in the capital, thereby restoring the 18-year ban on protests in Algiers that was overturned when the protests began in February.

Police also prevented a scheduled rally for animal rights at the main Post Office, the early 20th-century post office building that now serves as a popular meeting point for protesters in the capital.

“The streets belong to the people. We do not gather only on Fridays for our rights. We gather every day,” said Tinhinane Makaci, a human-rights activist.

Learning their lesson from earlier demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world, many Algerians know that they cannot leave the streets before their demands are met.

The press is flooded with editorials, interviews and analysis on how to effect the transition process in the country, whilst conceding that the protest movement lacks a realistic vision.

El-Watan captured Algeria’s existential moment in its front-page headline “Revolution, season 2” in its 7 April issue.

“After seven historic mobilisations on Fridays, we cannot say with certainty that we have enough visibility and are ready for the days to come,” wrote Mustafa Benfodil, a journalist. There was “a vagueness that muddies the waters,” especially in terms of the protest movement’s organisation and representativeness, and it was important that “this revolution is not stolen,” he said.

In a talk earlier this week, Mustafa Bouchachi, a respected socialist politician, former MP and one of the prominent figures of the protest movement, said that Algerians should tread cautiously in using the “Irouhou ga” slogan.

“Who is this ‘all’,” he asked rhetorically. “The men and women who supported [the Bouteflika] clan and said the president must go, or those who said the president must go during the protests?” There were also executives, employees in security institutions and tax-paying businessmen who employed thousands of Algerians who were not corrupt, he added.

Any democratic transition is fragile, and the discourse of exclusion could give way to an army opposed to the transition, Bouchachi cautioned. “We must not stay in the middle of the road. We must go for a true democracy, and this cannot be done by exclusion.”

He said that the military would not be alienated during the transition period, “provided that it listens to the people and accedes to their will without intervening in politics.”

Supporting growing calls for a collegiate presidency to oversee the transition period, Bouchachi proposed that the body should have the power to legislate by decree to put in place the necessary mechanisms for clean elections.

“It could amend the law relating to elections and establish an independent commission for the organisation of elections whose members should in the main come from civil society and include persons of integrity,” he said.

The consultations should lead to a government of national consensus.

Meanwhile, the Bedoui government, which intends to organise the forthcoming elections, is expected to “recycle” the Bouteflika regime, in the words of the daily Al-Khabar.

“We cannot trust Bedoui to organise the elections,” Bouchachi said. “It would not surprise me if someone who is a symbol of allegiance [to Bouteflika] becomes president under such conditions.”

Former premier and reformist Ali Binflis, who supported the protest movement, agreed. Bensalah, a staunch advocate of Bouteflika’s fifth presidential bid, should be disqualified and not serve as acting president, he said.

A former justice minister who introduced reforms guaranteeing judicial independence, Binflis proposed an interim presidency that should be “individual or collegiate” for three or six months until the presidential elections.

This interim presidency would appoint a government of all the talents to lead the period, manage current matters, prepare a new electoral code and set up an independent commission to organise and monitor the presidential elections.

“It is not necessary to go directly into the presidential elections. We can start with the legislative elections,” Binflis said this week.

Shortly after Bensalah was named acting president, Algiers erupted in protests led by students that were met by water-canons by the police. By maintaining the status quo in defiance of the protest movement’s rejection of the Bensalah-Bedoui-Belaiz trio, the regime has given clarity to next Friday’s public protests.

“It is a coup d’état against the will of the people,” Algeria’s Rally for Culture and Democracy Party said in a statement.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Revolution, season two’ in Algeria

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