Democracy Delayed: Is Algeria Heading Back to the Future?

Written by | Tuesday, November 24th, 2020

Last November, a plebiscite to approve a new draft constitution for Algeria resulted in an important victory for the popular uprising movement – “Hirak” as Algerians call it. More than three-quarters of those entitled to vote abstained, though 66.8% of those who voted endorsed a text which its authors claim consolidates democracy in Algeria. The new text explicitly allowed the army to intervene abroad and in domestic affairs. In any case, it has been doing that since independence from France in 1962. The Hirak which last year brought millions of Algerians of all generations out on the streets to demand democracy succeeded in ousting the twenty-year autocrat Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was trying to win a fifth mandate as president despite his ill health.

Many among the ruling civilian and military oligarchy who were close to Bouteflika have since been imprisoned and brought to trial on charges of corruption. Months of demonstration however, failed to impose the democratic reforms most Algerians were dreaming of. Lack of a united front among Hirak leaders and a brutal repression against them explain this failure. On the top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed Algerian rulers to force the Hirak off the streets but the empty polling stations on 1 November demonstrate that the spirit of the movement is not dead. The contrast between the streets full of millions of people on 1 November 2019 and the empty streets last 1 November – with a record low turnout of 23.7% – speaks for itself.

For the first time since independence, the authorities published the true results of the vote rather than trumped-up figures. They are on a hiding to nothing. The system has, for now, reverted to the brittle nationalism and lack of political and economic freedom, which have characterised Algeria since 1962. The majority of Algerians today have lost any hope of enjoying the political pluralism that the generation which started the fight against France on 1 November 1954 had enshrined in their initial declaration which called for “the restoration of the sovereign Algerian state, democratic and social rights within the framework of Islamic principles and preserving fundamental freedoms without distinction of race or religion”. As Algerian leaders ask the population to endorse a new constitution which they argue is more democratic, they conveniently forget that the promises made sixty-six years ago have been honoured essentially in the breach.

The president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and the real power-broker, army chief of staff Major General Said Chengriha, have no intention of letting 42 million Algerians have a voice in debating and shaping the future of this oil and gas rich nation. Their caste interests come first, buttressed by a command economy, a vast bureaucracy and ever-present security forces. The COVID-19 restrictions of movement helped to kill off the Hirak in February. Never have the media been more muzzled since 1962 and many journalists have paid the price of speaking out last year. On national television, ministers and senior officers put on display their lack of culture and awareness of the outside world. Never has the army, which since 1962 pulled the strings behind the scenes, put itself so much in the front line. Algerian leaders speak from the high hills which dominate the beautiful capital, lecturing the millions who live below.

Those millions had demonstrated for months last year, avoiding the endless provocations of the security forces to divide them. To the surprise of many European media, the Islamist element was not out in strength; young people, not least young women, were dressed in western clothes, usually speaking excellent French and English as well as their native Arab or Berber. The slogans were very savvy, quite up to the standards of the May 1968 student revolt in Paris. To protest the then president Bouteflika seeking a fifth mandate despite his ill health, the slogan “Seul Chanel fait Numéro 5” was not simply witty, but demonstrated a real awareness of the outside world. The Hirak was always careful to avoid insulting the army, but did not shy in reminding its senior officers of the endorsement of democracy enshrined in the 1 November 1954 declaration. For Algerians, that document remains the real constitution of Algeria.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune as the new president quickly stated his intention to push through much-needed reforms. Algerians were told that the new constitution would broaden democracy, ensure the rule of law, and guarantee the freedom of the media. Reality on the ground quickly contradicted those brave words which younger Algerians found very difficult to believe. Tebboune is clear that he wants to reform Algeria and to promote faster economic growth, but he controls none of the levers he needs to bring about change. No economist worth his salt will write a serious blueprint, not to mention that the intellectual or managerial elite of yesteryear have long fled abroad, or are in self-imposed internal exile.

The Algerian president also lacks civil servants of the mettle of those who gathered to think through the reforms more than thirty years ago. Algeria’s senior civil service is a pale shadow of its former self. The refusal of Algerian leaders to dialogue with civil society means that the talent which is plentiful among younger well educated Algerians lies fallow. For years now, young educated Algerians have voted with their feet. A generation of brilliant technicians and diplomats has left the scene and will not be replaced easily. Many senior Algerians were not happy, nor was the French president, François Mitterrand, who did nothing to support Algeria’s reformers internationally because he could not understand that a better managed Algeria was essential, not only for Algeria but for France. Paris still retains greater influence on EU decisions than any other European capital. This does not help the EU crafting a forward-looking policy on North West Africa.

A third factor will make any reform very difficult to push through in the current climate. Last year witnessed hundreds of businessmen, most of them cronies of Bouteflika but not all, thrown into jail on charges of corruption. This forced the closure of many companies in the private sector, as bank accounts were frozen and a stream of inquiries launched to track corruption. The consequences have been a rise in unemployment, a cascade of unpaid bills – in short, a paralysis of certain important sectors such as construction. Most of the arrests and trials, including that of Bouteflika’s brother and two former prime ministers, have not been conducted according to the due process of law. The settling of scores among the elite – for this is what the campaign against corruption really amount to – has also, and for the first time in the history of modern Algeria, thrown dozens of generals and senior police officers behind bars.

Since the election of Tebboune, these trials have continued, there is no end in sight. The economic consequences of this state of affairs are little short of catastrophic as private sector entrepreneurs, already hobbled by very tight regulations, fear for their companies. All know that a sword of Damocles is hanging over their head. So long as these trials continue, there is no chance of the private sector investing seriously. As for the public sector, many of its workers, old and young, higher or lower up the hierarchy, demonstrated along with the Hirak last year. Defiance, fear and a deep seated but nonviolent refusal to play according to the rules imposed by the army, characterise large sections of Algerian society.

Economic figures in such a context are of limited help in guessing what may happen next. With oil prices around $40 per barrel for the Saharan Light that Algeria exports, the country’s foreign income in 2020 is forecast to be $20bn, a figure, which is unlikely to change much over the next year or so. Hard currency reserves stand at around $45bn, which means the IMF is unlikely to step in. The president has in any case ruled out such a scenario. Algeria also remains a country more closed to journalists than virtually any other in the world. It seldom features in the international media. Today it is a sad and repressed country in which the pandemic has dovetailed the penchant of its leaders for insularity, giving them a further excuse to tighten its borders and keep out foreigners. The regime has taken on the traits of its most vicious caricatures. Having rattled on for so long in a meaningless, vacuous, monotonous idiom, it has ended up splendidly isolated, cloistered, out of touch, with no one left to chat to but itself.

The exuberance, the witty slogans of last year’s mass rallies where three generations marched through the streets of major cities arm in arm are a distant memory. The history of Algeria, where the average age is 30, teaches us however never to trust the surface calm. How and when new waves will arrive is anybody’s guess, but as recent history amply demonstrates, change can come quite unexpectedly. Algerians have learnt from the events of the last eighteen months that, for all its brave talk of democracy, EU leaders, let alone French ones, will continue to put their mouth where their immediate economic interests are, such as they see them. This reluctance to speak out stands in sharp contrast to Belarus and Ukraine, and could well comfort Turkey and China as each seeks greater influence and market share. That may turn out to be the unintended consequence of the lack of EU strategic thinking on North West Africa.

‘Algeria Takes a Step Forward’ – Op-Ed by Francis Ghilès – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

The Op-Ed can be downloaded here

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