Listen to the street: The new Algerian transition

Algeria’s Hirak movement is rejecting the continuation of old ways in new forms. How will the army respond?

The Algerian army has a problem. The country’s octogenarian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, fell from power in April under the pressure of the Hirak, an autonomous protest movement that emerged in February 2019, gathering millions of people in twice-weekly marches. But this left a power void that no existing elites were able to fill: none enjoyed sufficient legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Since then, the army has found itself obliged to openly assume the role of the country’s decision-maker. Algerians have long been aware of the military leadership’s omnipotence in the country, but the façade of a civilian president had helped it avoid direct answerability for its actions. Since the president’s ousting, the army’s only solution for avoiding conflict with the huge popular protest movement – which is now asking for a transfer of military power to civilians and the establishment of the rule of law – has been to push for the appointment of a new head of state – anyone – and quickly.

In September army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah announced the presidential election would take place on 12 December – the poll had already been cancelled twice under pressure from the street, and does not appear to be enough to quell the crisis. The general has failed to devise a political architecture that legitimises the vote process, and the maintaining of a non-elected interim government beyond its constitutional term, have together created an ideological vacuum that every week is filled with the slogans of millions of demonstrators all over the country. By becoming, de facto, the only possible forum for any negotiations on a new pact between the government and the people, the Hirak  has profoundly shaken up the balance of power in the Algerian political system.

So, beyond the stalemate of aborted elections dictated from above, the challenge that the Algerian army faces will be to find a way to accommodate the new decision-making power requested by the Algerian people, while redefining an institutional framework that ensures its own legitimacy.

An army without a plan

A close ally of Bouteflika, Gaid Salah adapted quickly to the upheaval of the political landscape after the eruption of the Hirak protests. He positioned the army as the only institution capable of “saving the country”. The “split” from the “mafia“ of the former regime had to be made concrete by new elections, which he attempted to give credibility by throwing in prison oligarchs and patrons of the former president on corruption grounds. Gaid Salah also deliberately excluded from the transition narrative structural elements of the old regime, such as: the National Liberation Front, formerly the country’s only party; the intelligence and security services; and the UGTA, the only central union recognised by the authorities. He gave incessant speeches about the necessity of elections, drowning out the interim president and head of government Abdelkader Bensalah and Noureddine Bedoui, in the process. Gaid Salah also dismissed the “mediation and dialogue committee”. This was a body of self-proclaimed civil society activists, sponsored by the regime to compensate its lack of dialogue with the street. He did so after its members recommended the resignation of the interim government as a first step to dissipating the post-Bouteflika crisis of representation denounced by the Hirak.

Gaid Salah’s central role enabled the army to take total control of the country’s resources, which over the last few years had been more widely redistributed beyond the established circles of the regime through the proliferation of corrupt networks. But with no clear political project for post-election reform, the regime had also put off civilian allies that it may have been able to enlist to give a more pluralistic veneer to the presidential elections and enable the army to return to the corridors of power. A group of candidates and political parties had emerged that were close to the army and in favour of it retaining its privileges, while they also enjoyed the legitimacy of not having supported Bouteflika. These included figures such as the former prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche, former minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, and president from the 1990s Liamine Zeroual (1994-1999). But they are now refusing to take the risk of standing for election in the current climate. Likewise, there are opposition parties approved by the regime that also supported a transition negotiated with the army before the eruption of the protests, such as the Islamist party “Movement for Society and for Peace”. But it is now refusing to sign off on the electoral process out of fear of being sacrificed by Gaid Salah should the popular pressure after the elections become too strong. Even the option of facilitating the victory of an apolitical candidate from civil society will not bring more credibility to the polls, especially if such a figure does not receive the structural resources to rebalance the influence of the executive over the military.

Since the transition began, the chief of staff’s hegemony has not enabled a nationalist political leader to emerge either. This is an option that may have appealed to a proportion of the Algerian people. Instead, the credibility of Gaid Salah’s “patriotic” appeals against supposed foreign conspiracies opposing elections has not overcome the national humiliation felt following the imprisonment of around 100 political dissenters sentenced for “attempting to harm army morale” and for “violating the unity of the national territory”. This campaign of repression has become only stronger since June 2019. Those locked up are often ordinary citizens who took part in the Hirak, but also include respected political figures such as Lakhdar Bouregaa, 86, a hero of the war of independence.

The Hirak: the place to negotiate

In the absence of concrete proposals from the army, and with the collapse of the institutions of the state, the Hirak has become the only forum for discussing the nature of change in Algeria. It is now the driving force in the country’s political life. Its rejection of violence has given citizens a certain influence over the authorities and its proxies: it enables them to peacefully flesh out an end to the dogma of presidential elections as the only means of peacefully changing the system from within. This was a belief that enabled Bouteflika to hang on for four consecutive terms.

The Hirak has also enabled Algerians to move on from the trauma of challenging the army’s legitimacy inherited from the false dichotomy of either opposing “terrorists” or supporting the military. The army has favoured this narrative ever since it interrupted the voting process in 1992, a move that started the 1990s’ so-called civil war. The current protests now directly warn Gaid Salah each week that they will not allow elections: this time Algerians are refusing to be sidelined from transition negotiations. This is in contrast to the opaque in-house army arrangements that brought peace back in the country and paved the way for Bouteflika’s first mandate in 1999. As protesters have refused to delegate their demands for a civil state to political parties, and reject the interim government and the current constitution as representative, the Hirak has empowered them to place themselves at the heart of the real political theatre.

Protesters have succeeded in forming a diverse opposition block, with people coming from all ages, social classes, ethnic backgrounds, and political orientations. In so doing they have also managed to replace the favoured narratives of political and media elites, such as rumours of a “war of clans” between Bouteflika and the secret services. Such narratives have now been superseded by slogans and behaviours that rest on a consensus about the nature of the Algerian state that they want to see emerge. These include, among other things: the affirmation of ethnic and religious plurality (as opposed to the army’s attempts to present Berber culture as disruptive to the national identity); the equal representation of women; national economic sovereignty (by denouncing corruption and, more recently, the law on hydrocarbons); respect for freedom of expression (by supporting associations of prisoners of conscience and demanding their release); rejection of foreign powers’ support for the regime (one of the slogans suggests “organising elections in the Emirates”); and solidarity between Algerians (by using all the same watchwords throughout the country, and in the worldwide Algerian diaspora).

A sign of its deep roots in Algerian society, the actions inspired by the Hirak increasingly spill over into its marches. Offices in charge of voter registration and organising elections are closed in order to prevent elections being held. Demonstrations in front of the parliament and other institutions are multiplying. Town hall employees, teaching bodies, and the national union of lawyers have refused to staff voting offices. Calls for a general strike have been approved by multiple independent unions of civil servants. Magistrates’ associations launched an initiative to boycott the courts, paralysing the country in the process.

Whether the elections take place or not, this amplification of the Hirak as the central guarantor of the legitimacy of the transitional process should reinforce protesters’ demands for a genuine reform of Algerian institutions and, in particular, the army’s role in them.

Time to compromise

It is unlikely that such a hotly contested transition will allow the regime to return to the status quo of the Bouteflika years, organised around: an army that is above dialogue with the people; a bureaucratic president; co-opted parties with no base in society; and a rent-seeking parliament with no connection to the people. Indeed, this configuration would not resolve the issue of citizens’ exclusion, which continues to drive millions of people into the street. The cohabitation of new and old decision-making institutions, therefore, is the issue that must be resolved if we are to hope for an end to the crisis.

For this, it is important to clarify how a real split with figures from the former regime and its authoritarian practices can be achieved by the army leadership and its political circles. A growing number of high-ranking officers are becoming irritated that the credibility of their institution as the guarantor of the country’s security is being jeopardised by Gaid Salah’s frequent indictments against the people. To re-establish the army’s legitimacy as a key institution, most of them believe the growing conflict between its leadership and the Hirak on the appointment of a new president should played down, especially as the possibility of a large-scale repression and its legal consequences remains taboo for those involved in the civil war.

Restoring peaceful dialogue is precisely what many civil society autonomous bodies close to the Hirak have attempted to do by suggesting roadmaps proposing the resignation of the interim government and the consecration of Algerians’ right to protest as prior conditions for any negotiation. Although quite laudable, these initiatives have failed to establish political dialogue with the country’s real decision-makers because they assume that the authority’s legitimacy depends on its own desire to reform itself.

The Hirak’s persistence with its most well-known slogan – “No to a military state” – is a reminder of what is at stake: it is not the consecration of a transitional pact on shared power, but rather the renegotiation of the very nature of political power and the rules of conflict, starting with the actual balance of power. That can only be done by relying less on the government’s and military elites’ goodwill and by focusing more on the emergence of local initiatives similar to the Hirak. Since the beginning of the movement, public consultation committees for a new constitution (the current one giving full power to the next president) or for the organisation of election committees to form an assembly have emerged. Although limited for now, these initiatives translate a desire for institutional autonomy that could be reinforced by the imposition of a presidential figure.

The international community

Should the Hirak’s actions in the coming months take a more pragmatic turn, this could have major consequences for the position of Algeria’s international partners. The likelihood of a general strike (especially if it affects the hydrocarbons industry); the appeals for international solidarity on the liberation of prisoners of conscience; the diaspora’s demands to fight against international networks of corruption; and the pressure on arms sales and international security cooperation all mean that the international community is already well and truly involved.

The Algerian people’s rejection of foreign interference has always been a central element in the post-colonial era, and has been further reinforced by the Hirak’s unwillingness to be manipulated by external agendas. However, it must not prevent international partners, and especially the European Union, from trying to understand the central issue: the translation of negotiations between Algerian leaders and protesters into institutions that oversee the transition. Only a better understanding of the stakes – far removed from the usual questions around “the terrorist risk or migrants”, or support for one party over another – will lend credibility to international players’ interest in the country’s future stability.

This commentary is also available in French.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Visiting Fellow

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