This article covers the political developments that Algeria has witnessed over the last months, leading up to the presidential elections held on 12 December 2019. It will provide an overview of the presidential elections in addition to their outputs, since they formed, according to many observers, an important political station to exit from the political blockage which plagued the Algerian political scene after Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down. In this article, I argue that the way change is taking place in Algeria is not probably perfect, but it takes to a larger extent the most rational method to be implemented, as the paths of the democratic transformation in the region usually took the form of two types. The first type to be mentioned is the zero-confrontational approach that seeks to radically overthrow the existing system and replace it by another one. This way, which is proved to be violent, represents an uncalculated adventure that does not take into consideration the negative consequences which might threaten the nation state in the aftermath, as we have seen in the Libyan and Syrian cases. The second type, which the Algerian case has taken, is regarded to be the most rational one; it indicates the necessity of working with a gradual change approach and always resorting to constitutional solutions and mixing them with political ones. This way may take a long duration of time to achieve the goals of change, and it requires a true political will and an organized popular struggle. Hence, it is not probably conceived as an appropriate, functional method for some people, but its effectiveness is plainly reflected in making safe, slow and steady progress forward.
The last developments in the Algerian politics indicate that there are “good intentions” for change among decision-makers, especially after resolving the conflict of wills within the political system in favor of the military institution which eventually advocated people’s choice. It is highly likely that the new rising class in this institution will play a fundamental role in pushing a positive change forward from the top of the pyramid of power. Therefore, talking about the continuation of the same previous system, as some critics claim, is a fallacy of public opinion, since Algeria is currently entering a new era after the elections of 12 December 2019.
A Split over the Mechanisms of Ending the Political Crisis: The Elections V.S Constituent Assembly Project
Since February 22, Algeria has witnessed large popular demonstrations described as the biggest peaceful revolution in its postcolonial history. These demonstrations, called the “Hirak”, dazzled the world by its peaceful and civilized way of expressing demands for change, wining the admiration of the enemies before the friends. The exit of millions of Algerians to the streets in all the regions of the country was not only for the sake of achieving an economic reform and crying out against corruption, but also for launching a deep political change devoted to a real democratic system in which the people would be the main source of authority and the effective monitor of the political life.
In the midst of the political interactions experienced by the country during the past months, the popular movement has achieved, after weeks of its breaking out, the fundamental goals that Algerians demanded in their peaceful marches and the most important ones are: the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika who ruled the country since 1999 and the departure of the previous regime with all its figures. This was, in itself, a great achievement as it put an end to a political system that lasted for twenty years and harnessed all the state’s capabilities to stay in power, mainly since the last two terms of Bouteflika’s rule which witnessed great political and economic corrupted affairs.
The popular movement also contributed to the liberation of the justice from the restrictions imposed on it by the defunct regime. The judicial authorities were then able, within a short period of time, to open investigations on a large number of files of corruption, in which the corrupted heads of officials, politicians and businessmen were arrested because of their involvement. The Algerian justice, in brief, has declared a war on corruption in a step that restored the prestige and the role of the Algerian justice. All this was accompanied by a great support from the military establishment that played a key role in protecting the sates’ institutions.
Moreover, an independent authority has been created to monitor and organize the elections in order to completely neutralize the administration from the electoral process. The election law has been also amended to ensure the integrity and transparency of the country’s future elections. All these remarkable achievements came, for sure, due to the “Hirak” and the determination of Algerians, besides the support of the army and the political will for change showed among the decision-makers who are managing this sensitive stage the country is going through. In fact, this peaceful Algerian experience on the road of change has been represented as “exceptionalism” in a region that has witnessed, during the past few years, violent paths of change which led to bloody confrontations between the people and the ruling regimes of those countries. These confrontations contributed to the production of chaos and caused the death of thousands of civilians, leaving behind failed states mired in civil wars, as it happened and is still happening in Libya and Syria.
Because of the prolongation of the political crisis in Algeria with the absence of any consensual initiatives to get the country out from the political impasse and the Hirak’s rejection of dialogue initiatives from the authority, several political camps emerged within the popular movement seeking to direct popular demands in one way or another. In this tense political atmosphere, slogans dispersed and new political camps emerged, including a trend calling for the work within the constitution and emphasizing the option of presidential elections in order to resolve this political stagnation. This proposal was adopted by the official state institutions, especially the military establishment, some national political parties, as well as a significant segment of civil society and national and historical figures.
There was also another stream calling for a transitional phase and a constituent assembly led by consensual personalities. This movement was presided by what is called “the forces of the democratic alternative”, a movement that includes many left and secular parties. The conflict of the political wills was intensified between these two currents in Algeria over the best solutions that should be utilized to take the country out of the political crisis. After 7 months of popular demonstrations, Concern rose and fear was widespread among Algerians about the country’s stability in the light of the internal division and the tense security situation in the regional neighborhood (Libya and the Sahel region). This is in addition to the economic crisis facing the country, which is highly in need for a political stability in order to carry out the necessary reforms.
The democratic alternative forces consider that the “Constituent Assembly” will give the word to the people, so they can determine the form and content of the institutions and the bodies they wish to establish while rejecting any attempt to impose the presidential elections that aim at saving the current system, according to their claim. These forces emphasized that this precondition is a guarantor of the consecration of basic freedoms, an independent judiciary, equal rights between men and women and social and economic rights, stressing the fact that the transitional period is extremely necessary to create a suitable institutional political climate.
They claim that there is no point in any political attempt or political dialogue whatever its nature until the basic goals of the departure of all symbols of the system are achieved, the release of all political detainees and prisoners of opinion, the opening of the political media field, the immediate cessation of repressive practices and the employment of the judiciary. The forces of the democratic alternative has included the Rally for Democratic Culture, the Socialist Forces Front party, the Labor Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Union for Change and Progress, the democratic and social movement, as well as the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights. The supporters of this trend believe that the Constituent Assembly seeks a radical change that can only be achieved by developing a new constitution for the state that stems from the representatives of the nation after a consensus between its various components and spectra.
Many observers of the Algerian affairs claim that many doubts hover over the credibility of the parties belonging to this trend, as many of them were in a silent alliance with the previous regime which had provided them with political and economic privileges and the access to sensitive positions within the state. The Algerians still remember very well how many of those parties were the first to call and incite the army to intervene in order to stop the famous elections in 1992, when the Islamists won by an overwhelming majority. And their talk today about democracy and the civil state and keeping the army out of politics is, for many Algerians, just a political maneuver to put up a smoke screen.Their main aim is to be relocated within this new balance of power in order to negotiate the political gains they lost with the departure of Bouteflika’s regime, since most of these regional parties have no popular base except in a specific region in Algeria. Thus, any free and fair elections will not serve their interests, and therefore these parties have thrown all their weight in order to pass to a Constituent Assembly stage in order to impose their political agenda without elections.
Furthermore, the idea of the Constituent Assembly itself carries many risks because it can, according to its theory, review everything, including settled issues such as national constants like identity, language and religion, as well as the other principles in which the statement of the first of November was elaborated and enshrined in fixed articles of the constitution. The matter may reach further levels, such as delving into the national flag, and the most dangerous of all is opening the debate for the adoption of the federal system. All of these risks make the Constituent Assembly project a dangerous uncalculated adventure that could plunge the country into deep divisions, especially as some transcendent voices from this current raised the issue under the guise of democracy and freedom of expression, neglecting that the federal system was basically a system that fits those countries which had united after wars and intense conflicts and not for countries that were originally united.
The Constituent Assembly project does not represent a rational option in the Algerian case, and it is rather an option, as confirmed by the Chief of Staff, that would lead the state to enter a dark tunnel called the “constitutional vacuum” to prolong the political crisis in the country. Freezing the constitution in this reckless and unaccountable way will constitute a threat to the foundations of the nation state and open clashes that have neither a beginning nor an end. Accordingly, the option to go to the boxes of elections on December 12, 2019 was perceived by many Algerians to be the rational choice in order to get out of the crisis with a minimal damage. And after the election of a new president, the latter can act as a party with the necessary legitimacy to carry out the essential reforms which will obviously take place after opening a broad and an in-depth dialogue with all political actors -this is what Abdel Majid Tebboune promised after he has been elected to be the eighth president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria.
In his First Speech to the Nation, the New Elected President Clarifies the Big Lines of his Domestic and Foreign Policy
The presidential elections were a fundamental political step. Although the conditions surrounding these elections were not perfect, they were the only rational option for a safe passage towards the stage of dialogue between the popular movement and the authority. Contrary to what had been expected, the Algerian presidential elections on December 12, 2019 achieved an “acceptable” turnout, despite a part of the popular movement rejecting it. It is close to the percentages of participation in recent electoral processes, at least, in Algeria’s regional neighborhood. For instance, the October 2016 legislative elections in Morocco witnessed a turnout of 43 percent; while the second round of the last Tunisian presidential elections saw a turnout of around 57.8 percent. Accordingly, the turnout is unlikely to cause a problem for the president-elect’s legitimacy.
There were a large number of Algerians who believed that the political crisis has prolonged, and the presidential elections can be a crucial step to solve it, especially that the elections were canceled two times in a row since the resignation of the former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the beginning of April 2019. Therefore, it is noticeable that the authority’s rhetoric claim concerning the delicate situation witnessed by the country internally and externally and the impossibility of cancelling the presidential elections for the third time in less than nine months convinced a large part of Algerians to participate in the elections. It is also likely that the popular movement’s refusal to be represented by any figure prompted other Algerians to participate, since this popular movement lacks a reliable vision to solve the crisis mainly after adopting a nihilistic speech by some parties in the Hirak. In addition, the emergence of moderate voices, who claimed that the participation in the elections does not contradict the continuing pressure for additional gains, has transformed the convictions of many hesitant Algerian citizens.
After his inauguration, the new Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune pledged political reforms that would include amending the constitution as soon as possible to protect Algeria from the individual rule, to achieve the demands of the popular movement, to diversify the economy, and to fight corruption. During a ceremony held at the Palace of Congresses in the capital Algiers, Tebboune (74 years) had sworn in as a president for the next five years, days after the Constitutional Council confirmed his victory in the presidential elections held on the 12th december by 58%.
Promises of Reform in the Domestic Level
In this context, the new president pledged to amend the constitution within months, and perhaps only weeks, to achieve the demands expressed by Algerians in reference to the ongoing protests calling for a radical political change. He declared that amending the constitution is the cornerstone of the new republic, and he made it clear that this amendment will allow limiting presidential periods to renewable ones, reducing the powers of the president of the republic, and protecting the republic from individual rule. He also stated that he renews his commitment to achieve the demands of the popular movement within the framework of the national consensus and the law of the republic, calling on the Algerians to unite and put their differences aside in order to find a common ground for change.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune also affirmed that the amended constitution will achieve the real separation of powers, determine the immunity of persons, not give the corrupt any immunity in prosecution, and protect individuals and collective freedoms like human rights, freedom of the media, and the right to demonstrate. He also pledged to moralize the political life, restore respect for elected institutions through a new election law that clearly defines the conditions for running the office, and he promised that the state will fund the campaigns by young candidates to ensure they do not fall prey to the corrupted money. The commitments mentioned by the new Algerian president included criminalizing the interference of money in the political life and buying votes, and not allowing tampering with public money.
In the same vein, he talked about the need to overcome the current political crisis and rearrange the national priorities to delve into the core issues of the country. He clearly pointed out that his strategy aims as well to restore the prestige of the state institutions by continuing with a systematic fight against corruption, impunity policy, and practices of random distribution of the proceeds of the sale of oil.
In the economic sector, Abdelmadjid Tebboune pledged that the new authority in Algeria would seek to build a diversified national economy that would create social welfare and protect the country from dependency, in addition to reforming the tax system. He also promised that the state would work to increase the support for the public health sector in order to ensure the citizens’ access to a good health care quality and develop the educational system, saying that the Algerian should feel his dignity and belonging to his country.
In regards to the foreign policy, the new elected president confirmed that the Algerian diplomacy will put the interests of the country first, adding that Algeria refuses any sorts of external interferences in its internal affairs. Tebboune talked about the issue of Western Sahara saying that it is a matter of eliminating colonialism in the hands of the United Nations and the African Union. He added that this issue should remain far from disturbing the relations with the brothers, stressing that Algeria will extend a hand of cooperation to all the countries of the Maghreb.
As far as the Libyan crisis is concerned, the president made it clear that Algeria is the most concerned with the stability of Libya, and he will not allow it to be removed from all proposed solutions, calling, at the same time, on the Libyans to abandon their differences and unify their ranks. He also said that Algeria is reaching out to all countries to contribute to the fight against terrorism and transnational organized crime.
Concerning the Palestinian issue, which is a fundamental constant of the Algerian foreign policy, the president emphasized the Algerian supports for the Palestinians in their right to build their state with Al- Quds as its capital. It is worth noting in the speech of the new president that he has preserved the broad outlines of Algerian foreign policy.
Accomplished Mission: The Algerian Army has Played a Pivotal Role in Accompanying the “Hirak”
The collusion of armies with regimes against their peoples in the third world countries has been a force obstructing the democratic transition in the region. However, the internal and external media circles from different directions did not hide their astonishment at the bias of the Algerian army on the side of the popular demands. The paradox in the democratic transition experience that occurred in the Third World countries is that the armies did not stand in the ranks of a popular movement which seeks to overthrow an existing authority that supported and paved the way to power, except those attempts occurred in the republics of the former Soviet Union when they were led by a few military officers who had defected from authoritarian regimes.
Despite the fears and apprehension, many followers of the Algerian affairs did not cancel about the possibility of the engineering of the post-Bouteflika map by the army and its desperation to defend the existing system as it happened in some Arab Spring countries. The Algerian army, however, took a historical stance in favor of the people’s will, particularly after the Chief of Staff of the National People’s Army submitted a proposal to activate Article 102 of the Constitution and apply then the principle of the vacancy of the post of the President and the necessity of applying the articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution, which stipulate in their content: “the people are the source of all authority”.This decision has been interpreted as a returning of the army to its true and natural role. Over the past years, a large sector within the military establishment was dissatisfied with the way the Algerian state was run during Bouteflika’s era, and the Hirak was an opportunity for them to pressure the existing system for its departure.
Observers agree that the Algerian army played a positive and pioneering role during the Algerian Algeria Post-Bouteflikamovement. It did not suppress the demonstrations, even no single drop of blood has been spilled despite the enormous waves of protests the country has witnessed for months. With the election of a new president for the republic, it could be argued that the army has successfully completed its mission of accompanying the Hirak and played a critical role in leading the country to safety, maintaining stability, and protecting demonstrators as well as the constitution and state institutions.
What Is Next?
The announcement of the results of the 2019 presidency election by the organizing authority represents not only a break with the “Bouteflika” regime, but also a break with the revolutionary legitimacy on which the pervious Algerian presidents have relied since the independence. Thus, the election of “Abdelmadjid Tebboune” represents a state of transition from the “liberation generation of revolution”, which “Bouteflika” represents its end, to the “generation of independence”. It is worth noting that the generation of independence is more educated; the five presidential candidates of the last elections, for instance, received university degrees and did graduate studies in economics, finance, law, and management; whereas, the former Algerian presidents depended more on their work experiences and self-education. This generational change which has occurred by virtue of biology may have a major impact on the decision makers’ vision, which is expected to be more open in the future.
Building bridges of trust between the new president and the Hirak is an essential step at this stage in order to restore confidence between the governors and the governed. There is no doubt that the president has many cards to use in order to negotiate with the popular movement and attract the main actors within it. The essential next step should be, of course, negotiating the formation of a government of competencies that should enjoy a popular approval. Today, the new Algerian president has a historic opportunity to resolve the crisis of legitimacy in Algeria, and this can only be done through dialoguing and negotiating with all actors to agree on a clear road map for carrying out the required reforms.
As for the Hirak, the continuation of this popular movement remains a healthy thing and represents, at the same time, a pressing monitoring force. Moreover, the Hirak should engage in the path of change through new tools which can contribute to the completion of the path of democratic transition in Algeria. Therefore, this movement must not only content itself with the street as a means of pressure, but it should also move to the stage of action and introduce real representatives who can negotiate with the authority. Hence, opening direct channels of communication between the authority and the Hirak would be a great opportunity which lead to the convergence of views between all parties and help them find a common ground of safe passage towards the road of change.
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