It has been three months since Algeria’s popular protest movement took to the streets in massive numbers first to remove former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power and then to demand radical changes in the system.
The protests, which began on 22 February in response to the ailing Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term after 20 years in power, might now be approaching a turning point as the country falls deeper into political stalemate or crisis.
An initiative by three prominent Algerian figures earlier this week offering a lifeline to both the protest movement and the Algerian authorities was flatly rejected by the Army Chief of Staff, Deputy Defence Minister and de facto ruler of the country Ahmed Gaid Saleh, raising fears that this could plunge the North African country into further political instability.
The trio’s initiative, authored by intellectual and former minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, 87, prominent human rights activist Ali Yehia Abdennour, 97, and former general Rachid Benyelles, 72, proposed the postponing of the 4 July presidential elections, the formation of an independent body to oversee a brief transitional period, and dialogue between the military institution and representatives of the protest movement, the hirak.
Gaid Saleh, who forced Bouteflika to resign on 3 April as a result of pressure from the protests, has announced a roadmap based on Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution, which provides for the replacement of a president who is deemed unfit to rule with the country’s parliamentary speaker until presidential elections can be held in 90 days.
On 9 April, Algeria’s parliament named Abdelkader Bensalah interim president despite fierce opposition from the protest movement, which considers him to be one of the key figures of the Bouteflika regime that they no longer want to see in power.
In his first rare public appearance since, Bensalah scheduled the presidential elections for 4 July, though this was immediately rejected by the hirak as calls for a boycott gained momentum. The protests have since continued in full force, with demands for Bensalah and premier Noureddine Bedoui to step down.
Despite attempts by Algerian riot police to limit the weekly Friday demonstrations taking place in Algiers and other cities, the hirak has continued its demands for an overhaul of the system. The army chief of staff has also made a habit of issuing statements during military visits, addressing the public and the protesters on Tuesdays.
Gaid Saleh broke this habit this week by responding indirectly to the trio’s initiative on Monday. He flatly rejected its contents, while leaving the door open to a delay in the presidential elections, which he nevertheless insisted should take place, though without mentioning the scheduled date of 4 July.
“It has become logistically impossible to hold elections on 4 July,” said Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, a resident scholar with the Carnegie Middle East Centre and an Algeria expert.
The deadline for submitting applications for the country’s Constitutional Council ends on 23 May. “There’s no serious candidate till now; no one has campaigned, so who will Algerians vote for on 4 July,” she asked in an interview with the Weekly from Beirut.
According to Gaid Saleh, proceeding with “the presidential elections will put an end to all those who try to perpetuate this crisis.” However, they will require the speedy formation of an independent body to supervise them.
The elections will prevent what Gaid Saleh described as the “trap of a constitutional vacuum,” a fate he said he feared the most for Algeria.
Gaid Saleh has continued to fluctuate between praise and criticism of the hirak over the past three months, and last week he expressed his frustration with its “irrational demands” such as the complete overhaul of the ruling system.
This “dangerous and malicious” demand sought to “dispossess the state institutions of their leadership figures,” he said.
It is “imperative to review how to organise these events and the need to supervise them by people with a responsible, nationalist spirit,” he said, claiming that many had jumped on the hirak bandwagon to promote ideas that did not serve Algeria in a possible reference to the triumvirate.
The highly anticipated speech was met with disappointment. “After Gaid Saleh’s speech, the dialogue of the deaf continues between the authorities and the people,” proclaimed the independent TSA Algérie newszine.
The independent French-language daily El-Watan said that “Gaid Salah wants to impose the presidential elections and reorient the popular marches.”
However, Yazbeck said Gaid Saleh’s questioning of the hirak’s representatives or lack thereof was not unreasonable. The protest movement needed to understand that after three months in the streets it could not go on indefinitely, she said.
“The military leadership can’t talk to 40 million Algerians. It is rational and logical, and it is time for the hirak to mature. A leaderless movement cannot resist time. And since a leader for the protest movement is not an option, another option is to form a collegial leadership,” she said.
The hirak should not insist on an overhaul of the entire system in Algeria, she cautioned.
“This is a regime that has existed since 1962 and has created a system that is so well-oiled that it will be hard to remove. The deep state is still there. Today, the military is governing openly,” she noted.
For Gaid Saleh, 79, a man whose career was advanced by Bouteflika and who has been stigmatised for this, notably in first phase of the hirak, there is little tolerance for a transitional period over whose outcomes he and the military institution standing behind him have little control.
“This is a question of survival,” Yazbeck said. The military in Algeria sees itself as the custodian, arbitrator and protector of the nation and the people. “This stems from the War of Independence onwards, so whenever there is a crisis they react and intervene… and then return to their barracks without ever really returning.”
In 1991, the military cancelled general elections the Islamists were winning, triggering a civil war that lasted almost a decade. Approximately 150,000 to 200,000 were killed and 8,000 disappeared.
However, Gaid Saleh’s constitutional framework will become null and void in just a matter of days, observers say, and he will be forced to accept the transitional period he has been trying hard to avoid once the interim president’s 90 days expire on 9 July if there are no elections on 4 July.
“Whose fault is this,” asked TSA Algérie’s Makhlouf Mehheni. The army’s chief of staff had blamed the “irrational demands” of the protesters, but it was he, Mehheni said, who “clings to an election without candidates or voters that is rejected by both the people and the officials who are supposed to supervise him and almost all the political class.”
The day after Gaid Saleh’s statements, thousands of students, lawyers and judges marched in Algeria, including in the capital. The students were met with tear gas and anti-riot police as they approached the Government Palace.
“Neither Gaid nor Bensalah,” they chanted.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Algeria enters a ‘dialogue of the deaf’