A Dangerous Algerian Struggle against Uncertainty

Algeria’s transition from the rule of Le Pouvoir––the now-shaken governing alliance of elites from the National Liberation Front (FLN), business tycoons, and army and police services––to a democratic government has not been easy. Demonstrators continue to occupy the country’s streets to demand fundamental political, economic, and social changes that would do away with an authoritarian heritage and structure that seem to have run their course. On the opposite side, the Algerian army and security forces promise to shepherd through a gradual process of change that would preserve their interests in a future Algerian state. In the meantime, transitional authorities have begun a campaign to prosecute influential members of the old guard and associated businessmen accused of graft and corruption.

One thing is sure: Algeria’s protests have entered a critical stage characterized by uncertainty. There are concerns about the demonstrators’ inexperience in providing the necessary guidance for the future and about the security services’ readiness for endless compromise. Thus far, no clear roadmap for what comes next has emerged and the presidential elections that were set for July 4, upon President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, have been cancelled by the Constitutional Council following protesters’ objections. The coming period is one of anxiety and nail biting as questions arise about the army’s patience with what it sees as threats to its image and to public security. Many wonder whether the Algerian army will follow in the footsteps of other Arab militaries and decide to clear the squares of protesters.

Thus far, no clear roadmap for what comes next has emerged and the presidential elections that were set for July 4, upon President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, have been cancelled by the Constitutional Council following protesters’ objections.

This last concern has come into sharp relief as Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, faced with equally determined protesters, ordered a crackdown in Khartoum to disperse a months-long sit-in, killing and wounding over 500 demonstrators. While there are differences between the nature and structure of the two military institutions, the fact remains that in the Arab world, most military officers see themselves primarily as defenders of the status quo. In addition, they are impatient with the details and intricacies of political compromises that, after all, may cost them at least part of the privileged positions the authoritarian state has guaranteed them.

A More Difficult Position for the Military

In Algeria, the distant memories of the struggle against French colonial rule no longer can assure the full adherence of the people to the ethos of the revolution that made independence possible. Nor can the discredited FLN that led the legendary struggle and ruled since 1962. The FLN now fights for its existence as its corruption is exposed and its alliance with the military and corrupt business class frays. This leaves the Algerian army practically free to devise its own means to quell the protests, likely with the least degree of compromise. What it had hoped for when the army chief of staff, General Ahmed Gaid Saleh, invoked the Algerian constitution to force the incapacitated Bouteflika out of office was simply to steer a smooth transition that mollifies popular demands for change from a moribund political system and presidency.

Soon, however, the demonstrators were disappointed as the same army facilitated the election of the head of the upper house of parliament Abdelkader Bensaleh as interim president for 90 days, in accordance with Article 102 of the constitution. The protesters’ objections were understandable since Bensaleh was an establishment stalwart whom they thought would preside over a transitional period with the assistance of the same personnel who had led the Bouteflika state. They also doubted that the technocratic government that Bouteflika appointed on March 11, headed by Noureddine Bedoui, and then reshuffled on March 31, would be capable enough to withstand the pressure from the army or to organize free and fair elections.

Now that the July 4 elections have been cancelled, the military appears to be on the ropes. General Gaid Saleh was himself the enforcer of Bouteflika’s departure and the installation of Bensaleh, who is disallowed from running for the office of president. And yet, no qualified candidates for the presidency materialized before the cancellation of the elections. A primary reason for the paucity of candidates is the reality that anyone wishing to get into the fray must be acceptable to both the pillars of the deep state—especially the military and security services—and the demonstrators who are disillusioned with all those associated with the state.

A primary reason for the paucity of candidates is the reality that anyone wishing to get into the fray must be acceptable to both the pillars of the deep state—especially the military and security services—and the demonstrators who are disillusioned with all those associated with the state.

Since his plan for a new election was announced, Gaid Saleh refused to hold a meaningful dialogue. But suddenly, on May 30, he called for “a purposeful, serious, realistic, constructive, and visionary dialogue approach that puts Algeria above all considerations.” Bouteflika regime officials who might want to participate in such a dialogue must come to the table ready to make serious compromises. On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether the demonstrators and opposition are able to constitute themselves as a unified partner in negotiations with the military for creating a new governing pact. This dichotomy clearly presents an essential detriment going forward and does not ease the army’s mission as the powerful actor on the ground; in fact, it makes it more difficult.

Doing the Possible

Notwithstanding the dilemma facing the Algerian military and its street opposition regarding demands for political change, important steps need to be taken to address the rampant corruption that has beset the country. In a sense, the military must show that it is serious about fighting the scourges of graft, nepotism, and malfeasance that have taken hold of both the public and private sectors. If the army generals are to maintain even a modicum of influence over whatever political pact their negotiations with the street and the opposition potentially produces, they should appear to have the public’s interests at heart. Such a mission, once undertaken, will give their position a welcome boost in those negotiations.

If the army generals are to maintain even a modicum of influence over whatever political pact their negotiations with the street and the opposition potentially produces, they should appear to have the public’s interests at heart.

To achieve that objective, it appears that the military institution is allowing the Algerian judiciary full rein to prosecute those responsible for corruption in the country. Powerful former government and security officials and businesspeople were singled out for prosecution, dismissal, and imprisonment by the Supreme Court. Bouteflika’s prime minister from 2017 to 2019 and leader of the National Democratic Party, Ahmed Ouyahia, was arrested on corruption charges pending an investigation, along with former Minister of Transportation Abdelghani Zaalane. Ouyahia had resigned in March when Bouteflika withdrew his candidacy for a fifth term. Abdelmalek Sellal, former prime minister from 2014 to 2017 and presidential campaign manager for Bouteflika, along with his Minister of Trade Amara Benyounes, were also arrested. All have been accused of using their positions to award contracts to cronies and enrich themselves, but they represent only a sampling of a wide network of officials and decision makers who thrived under Bouteflika’s 20-year reign.

Pivotal regime political and security stalwarts have also been sent to prison. Said Bouteflika, the former president’s brother, and Generals Bachir Athmane Tartag and Mohamed Mediene were taken into custody for questioning. Like many other relatives of statesmen in the Arab world, Said became an unelected leader of the country. When the president was incapacitated by a stroke in 2013, he became its strongman. Tartag and Mediene were the embodiment of the oppressive deep state. However, the threesome’s apprehension does not mean that their legacy is ending as it should be since the military institution and the security services have not properly conducted the purge necessary for the success of a post-political transition.

Equally important has been the apprehension and arrest of important business leaders, like Mohieddine Tahkout, who benefited from closeness to Bouteflika and his family. His and others’ connections to the regime have exemplified the position of the Arab private sector regarding change in the Arab political makeup. By its very nature, the private sector is not independent of the oppressive, rentier Arab state and thus cannot fully participate in its dismantling. Therefore, the arrest of Tahkout and others on graft charges may not be enough for the demonstrators who, lately, have insisted on the departure of everyone who is a part of or affiliated with the established political order bequeathed by Bouteflika, including General Gaid Saleh himself.

Indeed, for any process of change that the Algerian military wants to set in motion, there must be a reckoning with the past and its legacy. But it is doubtful that Algerians today want to debate the events of the 1990s, when the military-security apparatus squared off with hard-core Islamists to produce the country’s dark decade. It is also doubtful that a full accountability for the transgressions of the past, whether in the private or public sector spheres, will be done or will even be possible. What is sure, however, is that the military, which has taken it upon itself to steer post-Bouteflika development, must try hard to be transparent and honest so that it can maintain a modicum of credibility during the coming negotiations.

Multilateral Dialogue Is Essential

The military succeeded in forcing Bouteflika to resign because of health reasons. In reality, it extended his regime an additional time by invoking Article 102. Now, the nullification of the July 4 presidential elections brings Algeria back to where this all started. In other words, with no clear-cut provisions to chart what happens after the 90-day interim period, the country is looking at a constitutional vacuum in the presidency, although Bedoui’s interim government can continue to act in caretaker mode. None of this is good news for the military or the civilian opposition and street protesters, especially with the continuing instability in Libya and the uncertain security environment in the Sahel.

The needed dialogue between the army and security services and the protesters must begin promptly to produce a document containing mutually recognized founding principles of a new republic.

The needed dialogue between the army and security services and the protesters must begin promptly to produce a document containing mutually recognized founding principles of a new republic. In a sense, such a document would represent a negotiated settlement between the military and the opposition akin to bargains leading to political transition. Reaching agreement may be done under the umbrella of a broad constitutional assembly led by Algeria’s Constitutional Council, one that gathers moderate regime elements, civil society actors, representatives of protesters, members of professional associations unaffiliated with the FLN, women’s groups, student unions, and others. It might also be wise to ask for regional and international assistance, both to help overcome likely obstacles and to provide observers for the process. This assistance could be offered by Tunisia (which succeeded in organizing a peaceful transition) and the United Nations.

This constitutional assembly should be empowered to negotiate important elements of a pact for the future Algerian state. But negotiators would do well to keep in mind that whatever authoritarian measures have controlled Algeria since its independence may have finally run their course. Political ossification has been responsible for the state of uncertainty facing all sectors of political society and for the flagrant corruption that was quickly exposed once street demonstrations started. A meaningful and purposeful dialogue should be undertaken by the many stakeholders in the country. Its first principle should be to lay down the foundations of a democratic state that is governed by laws of accountability, adheres to the rights and principles of good governance, and ends the current corruption that is still exploiting the memories of the struggle for independence from French colonial rule.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here