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Algeria After Bouteflika

Nadir Djermoune
Joe Hayns
Roberto Mozzachiodi

Million-strong protests in Algeria have forced President Bouteflika to call off plans to stand for a fifth term. Yet powerful elites are working to maintain their grip on the transition.

Protesters in Algeria in March 2019. Voice of Nigeria

The popular wave of rebellion that broke on 1 March, in million-strong protests felt across the country, has undeniably shifted Algeria’s political situation. Yet if there is a change at the level of consciousness, the basic balance of forces is yet to move.

The basic demand at the origin of this human tide was opposition to current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s campaign for a fifth term in office, particularly in light of his obvious ill-health. On Monday he called off plans to stand again in the April 18 vote, while also postponing the planned presidential election.

The protests began out of moral opposition to a regime that has long hid behind Bouteflika’s age and illness. Using this same moral register, protestors have expressed their rejection of a ‘thieving and corrupt’ regime, demanding its immediate downfall.

However, the strength of this movement across the country has already taken the revolt beyond a simple rejection of Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term. The rebellion against the president, in office since 1999, has now become a call for a much deeper political and social change.

A Sick President

This movement didn’t fall from the sky, through spontaneity alone: in fact, cultural, political, and social protests have continued throughout Bouteflika’s two-decade rule. The announcement of the sick president’s intention to stand again in April’s presidential elections sparked a revolt, which then reached a crescendo on March 3, the day the list of candidates was closed.

Most obviously, the question of what direction events will take in the near future depends on the outcome of the elections. But in the last instance, the movement’s development depends on its level of organization, on the type of leadership that emerges, and the relative weight of the various social and political forces involved. This will be determined by fierce struggles over both its slogans and immediate demands — a fight which has already begun to come to the surface.

At the organizational level, the movement has taken a form similar to France’s gilets jaunes. Following anonymous calls on social media, protests began on February 22. They were then spread by students over the following week, before the huge demonstrations involving over 1 million people on Friday March 1. The movement has no leadership. It refuses all official political intervention. And yet it is superbly organized and disciplined.

Sociologically, this is a popular movement, in the sense of being composed of people of every age and social category. Still, it’s important to note the strong presence of youth, and especially working-class young people — mainly secondary-school students, who have set the rhythm of the marches with chants from the soccer terraces. Also present is what we might call the “middle layer,” and it’s in this category that we find an especially strong presence of women.

The presence of industrial workers is clearly strong too, but not as a distinct part of the protests. They are a sociological element of the protests, rather than a distinct social force therein. Socio-economic slogans are, for the moment, absent; there was little response to the call from some for a general strike on March 1 (a five-day general strike began on Sunday 11). But, in this sociological melting pot, there’s a fusion and a harmony among the marchers — as they say, “Everyone is Against the Immoral, Thieving, Corrupt Government.”

Regime Crisis

At the formal level, the current regime is embroiled in a political crisis. The dominant parliamentary regime is a four-party coalition: the two largest parties, namely the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Democratic National Rally (DNR), and two much smaller groups, the Algerian Popular Movement (MPA) and the Rally of Algerian Hope (TAJ). This coalition is widely recognized as fused with the military, the police, the country’s biggest trade union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTT), and the FCE bosses’ organization.

There has been a latent crisis for some time, as manifested through the attacks and score-settling within the institutions themselves: the possibly unconstitutional replacement of the president of the Popular National Assembly (the lower house) last October; “Cocainegate,” involving the discovery of seven hundred kilograms of coke in May 2018, and Bouteflika’s subsequent firing of the “country’s highest-ranking security official,” General Abdelghani Hamel; and in-fighting amongst both the army and police.

The parliamentary opposition against the ruling coalition is itself liberal, and even what is called “ultra-liberal.” This latter faction does not have any strong parliamentary expression, though includes oligarchs like billionaire Issad Rebrab, various media groups, certain low-weight parties, as well as one current presidential candidate, retired general Ali Ghediri.

This political contradiction takes the form of arguments over what constitutional reform should follow after Bouteflika. The incumbent coalition has proposed an “inclusive conference” after the April 18 elections; with the re-election of Bouteflika, it will control the direction of this “reform.” Aware of the trap, the divided liberal opposition has demanded elections without Bouteflika. They think this will allow the weakening of the crisis-hit presidential coalition — hence the quarrel over his bid for a “fifth term.”

New Force

However, what was long a latent crisis has now come out into the open. This owes to the intervention of a third actor in the equation — the popular classes.

To pose this situation in terms of the alternative between revolution and reform is a formalist approach which relies on a static, even scholastic, vision of history. Political breaks cannot be decreed and cannot be resolved a posteriori. There is no “Great Event.” And for the moment, the crisis is unfolding in terms of immediate demands linked to the outcome of the presidential elections. The result will surely be the fruit of struggles, with all their share of chance and contingency. And the possible outcomes center around three main hypotheses:

  1. The presidential coalition opts for confrontation and keeps Bouteflika as its candidate. This would mean the elections not taking place; indeed, how could they, given the new balance of forces imposed by the streets? This outcome would involve the intervention of the military, in order to establish a state of exception allowing it to organize a “transition.” This solution could easily garner broad consent, even among the masses, given the current level of consciousness and organization.
  2. The resignation (or withdrawal) of Bouteflika before the elections. This would create a “juridical void,” and effectively cancel the elections. They would thus be delayed, even without army intervention.
  3. Thirdly, there’s the possibility of moving in the direction of a negotiated transition via a national conference on constitutional reform, before then moving to new elections.

But time is running out. The masses in the street are putting the pressure on; in these conditions, history is speeding up. For the moment, the issue is concentrated in a war between protesters’ demands. The slogan “Against The Fifth Term” aims to weaken the presidential coalition, for want of removing it outright. The slogan “Reform the Constitution” (after or before the elections) looks to organize a smooth transition under the current regime’s leadership. As for the call for “A Constituent Assembly,” this slogan has the function of keeping the breach open and preventing a total consensus between liberals from which discordant voices are excluded.

However, there has been hesitation among the political forces that have traditionally demanded a Constituent Assembly. If such forces long debased this worthy slogan — putting it forward while the stakes were low — they today seem to have abandoned it or, at least, fallen silent now that the stakes are raised.  Some liberal groups have rushed to develop a position that would “unite all Algerians,” while others have pledged critical support for Bouteflika. Both are now trapped by these stances, as a new consensus is being formed without them.

The political groups that have decided not to participate in elections since “the conditions are not in place to participate in a transparent way” have been left on the sidelines. But those issuing appeals for Popular Committees in the [working-class] quartiers, in the municipalities and the universities, in order to prepare a Constituent Assembly, remain trapped in an abstract formalism. While the success of such a Constituent Assembly does indeed require the existence of Popular Committees, and the resultant counter-power, it’s also necessary to ensure its democratic and progressive character, in order to avoid a fate like Khomeini’s Iran.

When history speeds up, the masses build their own representative structures at their own rhythm. Political organizations can accelerate this process, by raising their own voice. Yet those who call only for the resignation of Bouteflika are in reality pointing the way to a postponement of the election, which will merely suit the regime.

Neither the illness of the regime’s leading candidate or the masses’ descent onto the streets were seen in advance. They are not part of some historic calendar — indeed, this was also the case of the revolutionary upheavals of the twentieth century! But if a meaningful democratic dynamic is to develop, it is necessary to seize the opportunity to keep the breach open, before the neoliberals succeed in closing it.

Plan B

At another level of analysis, one particular presidential candidate stands out: Ali Ghediri, a retired soldier, who appears as a potential Plan B. He’s certainly a late arrival on the scene, but his appearance allows us to detect a scheme that may be at work.

Ghediri seems to represent a fraction of the military spoiling for a fight. This is a revolt of the backstage, but a backstage that’s almost family-like: bigger than [former President of Tunisia] Ben Ali’s entourage, and even the al-Assad clan [the ruling family in Syria]. This is a bureaucratic-bourgeois group with huge clientele. It is better anchored among the population than the Egyptian bureaucracy, and less elitist than the Moroccan royal family, and so difficult to control or manipulate.

Whatever these plans, a breach has opened up in the ruling system. This could benefit whichever is the most tactically adept faction within the ruling coalition and the liberal opposition. We should thus watch Ghediri’s moves very closely.

For the moment, the regime hasn’t sought outright confrontation; it could easily deploy its base, its clientele, in the streets. The fact it has not yet done so only means that discussions are still ongoing.

But, the movement itself is growing, going far beyond the “initiators,” if indeed they do exist (a reference to the claim that the protests were orchestrated by a fraction of le pouvoir, the regime). And the pressure the demonstrations are putting on these discussions is growing. The whole battle is to be fought between the option of “reforms” (and who will organize them) and, on the other hand, the possibility of a Constituent Assembly (and, of course, the question of who would organize it).

Looking at the regional and geopolitical level, can we chalk up this revolt as part of the process that began in Tunisia, the Arab Revolution? Or should we see this moment as a wider crisis of capitalism?

Without doubt, the revolt could set off shock waves for Algeria’s neighbors: for Tunisia, where the breach opened by the 2011 revolution still hasn’t been closed, and for Morocco, where the Rif revolt opened up another. The plots today being discussed are not only taking place behind the scenes of the Algerian regime. And that’s not to mention a structural social and economic crisis whose effects demand a response.

Today there is a rediscovered dignity among Algerians. They feel the joy of again being able to think of a future without futility, and of preparing for struggles to come. We can only hope that the country is not again being led into the abyss.