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The end of Bouteflika’s Algeria?

Posted By on March 27, 2019 @ 12:30

It may seem a long way from Australia’s strategic environment, but Algeria plays a significant role in global affairs through its participation at the UN and in most of the multilateral organisations. So it’s worth keeping abreast of the extraordinary events there over recent weeks as massive popular protests demanded (successfully, it seems) the end of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Bouteflika may have announced a resignation of sorts, but the regime remains.

Algeria is tough, it has a brutal history both recent and modern, and it’s consequently a hard place to handle. First, a bit of background, because the events of the past few weeks are part of a long struggle for Algeria’s soul.

Algeria’s war of independence from France was long, bloody and vicious, on both sides. Charles de Gaulle was determined not to lose Algeria, which had been ‘incorporated’ into metropolitan France as a full département, unlike any other French colony at the time. About a million French settlers lived there, all of them determined to remain French. After years of suppression, de Gaulle finally concluded that Algeria was lost. There followed a brief flirtation with the idea of partition (France would have retained the coastal regions, and the Algerians would have been left with the large—but largely desert—remainder).

The war continued, rife with fearsome human rights atrocities on both sides, until the French pulled the plug in 1962, evacuating virtually all of the French settlers (pieds noirs or colons) with them. This too was a brutal process, with the colons offered the stark choice of ‘the boat or a coffin’. They were not well treated back in France, still less the local Algerians who had sided with the French but were abandoned in France or slaughtered in Algeria by vengeful victors. The total death toll of the independence war is unknown but usually said to be in the many hundreds of thousands.

Not a good start for the new state, led by the revolutionary Front de Libération Nationale. The FLN quickly adopted a Soviet-style state system, both politically and economically, and kept to it through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Algeria seemed also to align itself largely with the Soviet bloc internationally, but in fact this was more to do with the FLN’s uncompromising commitment to the worldwide anti-colonial movement.

Algeria is rich in oil and gas, but more than 30 years of Eastern European–style governance left it seriously stunted. From the 1980s, the government set about a degree of economic reform and infrastructure-building, but there was no sign of greater political openness until mass protests in which up to 600 people were killed in 1988.

Major catastrophe struck again in 1991 when the fundamentalist Islamist party Front Islamique du Salut won massively in Algeria’s first multiparty general elections: the army refused to let FIS take power and another civil war ensued. This delivered a truly dreadful period of killings which lasted almost 10 years, and only started to calm when the army felt confident enough to allow new elections in 1999. That was when Bouteflika was first elected (unopposed).

This brings us to the current period. The government’s reaction to the constant threat of terror attacks was to withdraw further behind a curtain of impenetrability. Its obscurantism gave rise to the term le pouvoir (‘the power’) to describe the ruling elite—a self-selected group of insiders from the FLN, the army, the state oil company, the intelligence services and the ex-servicemen’s organisation. Ministers came and went but le pouvoir remained.

Bouteflika’s election in 1999 started a slow process of normalisation, but the army remained constantly alert for any sign of resurgence of Islamist activism, and le pouvoir made sure it held the strings. Bouteflika took steps towards greater political freedom, though always within the limits allowed by le pouvoir. He even managed to attain a certain personal political popularity with his policy of ‘national reconciliation’, and was re-elected in 2004. Thus encouraged, Bouteflika had the constitution changed to allow him a third mandate of five years, and then won the 2009 elections, again with a substantial majority.

But that marked the beginning of the end of Bouteflika’s legitimacy. He succeeded, even within the limitations of le pouvoir, in bringing back a sense of normality to Algeria—in part through reforms, and in part because the Islamist opposition was exhausted. His rule really ended in 2013, when he suffered a severe stroke. He withdrew almost entirely from public life and has made virtually no public appearances since. He was often reported to be dead. That left Algerians with mounting resentment against le pouvoir.

So when the ghostly figure of Bouteflika was announced to be standing for yet another—unconstitutional—fifth term as president at elections scheduled for next month, much of the population rose in anger. To rub salt into the wound, the formal notice of his candidacy was conveyed not by Bouteflika, who was in hospital in Geneva, but by his staff. A later photo of him in a wheelchair allegedly leaving Geneva to return to Algiers didn’t help much.

The good news is that the public uprisings by tens of thousands could take place at all and without anyone being killed. That’s a point in Algeria’s favour as a sign of increasing stability, even responsibility. Second, the demonstrations against Bouteflika—which were essentially against le pouvoir given that Bouteflika has really been only a shadow figure for more than five years—attracted the support of not just ‘students’ but also of eminent regime figures such as judges, and reportedly even the occasional general (which, if true, is a remarkable breach of the military solidarity behind le pouvoir). Third, and most importantly, Bouteflika—or his colleagues in authority—quickly decided to appear to give way rather than tough it out. Bearing in mind that this is the regime who fought the FIS to the death, that’s a big step.

So what now?

Maybe nothing much and for quite a long time. That’s possibly what le pouvoir hopes, though the army has now called for Bouteflika to be declared unfit to rule. Bouteflika has announced that he won’t stand again, but he has not—yet—said that he will resign as president. The scheduled elections have been ‘postponed’, but no one knows until when.

The next step will be a constitutional convention of some sort, though its details are completely unknown and selecting convention delegates could be difficult and controversial. The type of constitution is apparently up for grabs. Once convened, the debates over nothing less than the future of Algeria will surely be fraught with problems. And in the meantime, Bouteflika remains president in a sort of extended fourth term, possibly hoping that this extension can be prolonged indefinitely. Already it’s clear that the people aren’t satisfied with Bouteflika’s ‘in principle’ removal at some point in the future: demonstrations continue around Algeria.

What’s the future? True reform is particularly hard given Algeria’s history. That’s not to say that it can’t be done; Tunisia did it, in a most civilised and successful way, only a few years after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ejected in 2011. But Tunisia is not burdened with Algeria’s horrendous past.

Algeria is entering a period of great uncertainty and possibly great change. In the best of circumstances, a regime might emerge rather resembling that of the new Tunisia, with more or less stable democratic institutions and general respect for the rule of law. In the worst circumstances, Algeria could lapse back into authoritarian and/or military rule, Islamist revolt and civil strife. At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that the army will ever step aside to allow an Islamist takeover, which means it will continue to hold some spoken or unspoken power in the country.

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[1] successfully, it seems: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47585732

[2] army has now called for: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47710945