Some observers might think that the Algerian people have no reason to demonstrate after their president’s resignation. After all, the uprising started against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s candidacy for re-election to a fifth term and it’s no longer relevant. The issue is a bit deeper.
The peaceful demonstrators are not uncompromising. The fact is that the regime has not given up anything and the demonstrators are not fooled by all its tricks. The regime first suggested an unfinished fifth term for Mr Bouteflika. The second trick was bolder: the cancellation of the election and the extension of Bouteflika’s fourth term (unconstitutionally, of course).
At the same time, the Algerian leaders promised a political transition. We can call it the ‘diplomatic trick’ because they relied on two diplomats, two former foreign ministers (Lakhdar Brahimi and Ramtane Lamamra) to convince some European capitals rather than the Algerian people.
We are now facing the ‘military trick’, probably the ultimate asset of the Algerian regime. This is why we are seeing the first signs of actual repression (arrests, intimidation, harassment of demonstrators …) after relatively peaceful weeks. After the shallow layers of the regime, the protest movement has to deal with its hard core: the army.
The Chief of Staff’s assault on the Algerian Revolution
On March 26, more than a month after the beginning of the uprising, Ahmed Gaid Salah, Chief of Staff of the Algerian army since 2004 and Deputy Minister of Defence since 2013 (President Bouteflika being officially Minister of Defence), decided to sacrifice the Algerian president and called for impeachment on the grounds that he was unable to rule the country.
To save the Algerian regime, the 79-year-old general decided to rely on two tools: the constitution and propaganda. Oddly enough, he suddenly started to talk as a spokesperson of the Algerian Revolution in a perverse way – by distorting the demands of the Algerians.
The need for a political transition is now off the table and Mr Gaid Salah wants a strict implementation of the constitution. When the Algerian leaders – including General Gaid Salah – cancelled the election and asked for an extension of the president’s fourth term, they did not much care about the constitution.
Under military pressure, President Bouteflika formally resigned and the constitution became the Chief of Staff’s tool to save the Algerian regime. Abdelkader Bensalah, the president of the upper house of the Algerian parliament, an apparatchik rejected by almost everybody in the country, became interim president. He set the new presidential election for July 4.
In other words, the Algerian regime did simply what it should have done in 2013, when Mr Bouteflika got his stroke and became unable to rule the country and to address the Algerian citizens; too little and too late.
Mr Gaid Salah, who is actually in charge, expects the Algerians to allow the people who lied, cheated and deceptively governed the country for years (including him) to act as if six years did not pass and as if an uprising did not occur. For the millions of demonstrators, more numerous and determined from week to week, this is unbearable: they want a new regime and, above all, they want the current regime’s men to be held accountable.
The head of the Algerian army is not very credible with his constitutional rhetoric. There are two obvious inconsistencies. Firstly, the Algerian constitution (which is a dictatorship’s constitution) does not authorize him to deal with political affairs as he is currently doing. Secondly, he acknowledged that the former president was not really in charge, hence the impeachment option; so the current government – appointed in obscure circumstances – is not legitimate. The current president is not entitled to appoint a new government before the election according to the constitution.
His propaganda is not better than his legal rhetoric. Some staged arrests of selected oligarchs close to the Bouteflika brothers cannot make the Algerian people forget that he was the brothers’ protector for years, that he supported the outrageous re-election of 2014 – already after the stroke – and that he was ready to accept the re-election of 2019. The other components of his crude propaganda do not impress anymore: a classical conspiracy theory involving inner enemies and France (knowing that France never opposed the Algerian regime), and terrorism.
A steady resistance
Despite the threats and propaganda, Algerian people were more purposeful than ever on April 12, and Ahmed Gaid Salah was one of the main targets of their banners. Good news for them: they seem much better in politics than the regime. Concerning the balance of power in the streets, police forces – despite some ugly methods – seem overwhelmed and unprepared.
We are dealing with an authentically popular revolution and not a bourgeois revolution – even though the middle class has joined the popular classes. People’s ‘common decency’ (George Orwell’s famous concept) prevent them from accepting any bad compromise some elites may want to accept. The message is clear, echoed by some opposition figures: the current regime is not entitled to organise any election or to manage any transition. The planned election seems doomed.
The solution can therefore only be extra-constitutional. To defuse the crisis, power should be transferred to men and women of good will whose reputation may reassure the Algerian citizens. An independent body could also arise from the demonstrators. But nothing organised by the current president and the current government can work. And more generally, Algeria should remember once for all that no military solution ever worked. The so-called civil war of the 1990s started under a military regime and Bouteflika was brought in 1999 by generals.