Algeria, rising

Hugh Roberts, 10 mars 2019

The Algerian state is in crisis because the popular refusal of a fifth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has immense constitutional implications and confronts the Algerian army commanders with a massive dilemma. Algerian public opinion has not been repudiating Bouteflika personally; it has been indignantly rejecting the suggestion that, in his now permanently crippled, wholly incapacitated condition, he should be considered eligible for another five years in office. In acting in this way, the Algerian people have been defending the constitution, not violating it. Article 102 clearly defines the procedure to be followed “[w]henever the President of the Republic, because of serious and enduring illness, finds himself in a total incapacity to exercise his functions”. This procedure has not been followed, when it should have been set in motion long ago. Following his stroke in April 2013, it was clear that Bouteflika was already incapacitated when he sought a fourth term in 2014. Public opinion was slow to react then, in part because the scandalous nature of what was happening had not fully dawned on people. But the notion that the decision-makers could try it on yet again, five years later, when Bouteflika’s incapacity had long been evident, was the drop that made the vase overflow. The problem for the army is that, in rejecting a fifth term for Bouteflika, the People are rejecting the army commanders’ preferred option and – whether they realise it or not – challenging the generals’ hegemony over the state.

Unlike local and legislative elections, which, however imperfect, are indeed elections, what Algerian officialdom calls presidential elections are not elections at all. There is no question of the ‘candidate of consensus’ failing to win and no possibility of the other individuals allowed to pose as candidates getting anywhere near his tally of votes. The real election is conducted well in advance of polling day by a secret electoral college consisting of the regime’s top decision-makers, that is, the army high command. Its decision is then tacitly proclaimed by the president-elect himself in announcing his ‘candidacy’, which is promptly supported by the state-controlled façade parties, the Party of the National Liberation Front (Parti du Front de Libération Nationale, PFLN) and the Democratic National Rally (Rassemblement National Démocratique, RND), and the fix is in. The function of the nominal ‘election’ that subsequently takes place is to dignify the decision already taken in secret conclave by implicating the public in it, and the function of the ‘election campaign’ is to stimulate the political reflexes of the people so as to motivate them to vote and, by voting, ‘adhere to’ the decision that pre-empted them and so reaffirm their allegiance to the state and the men who control it.

The particular procedure whereby Algeria’s president has been chosen up until now has followed directly from the hegemony of the Popular National Army (Armée Nationale Populaire, ANP) in the independent Algerian state. The ANP is the source of political power (the PFLN is simply its master’s voice in these matters) and presidential power is the power that the army high commands delegates to the president, whom it accordingly makes certain is a man of its own choosing, while authorising a few other people to ‘run’ (although there is no race) as pluralist window-dressing to humour Algeria’s western partners and boost turn-out. This system has proved acceptable to public opinion in the past, most notably in 1995, when millions willingly voted for Liamine Zeroual, but also in 2004, when Bouteflika’s second term was strongly supported, but it has now broken down, to the army’s acute embarrassment. For the decision that Bouteflika should have a fifth term was not taken by Bouteflika himself, who may be incapable of taking any decisions at all, nor was it taken by his brothers, Saïd and Abderrahim, let alone their entourage of clients and cronies. The brothers and their allies will certainly have proposed it and lobbied for it but it was the army commanders who made the call – and got it wrong.

Evidence that the demonstrators are aware in some degree at least that they are tacitly challenging the ANP high command is provided by their watchwords: silmiya, silmiya (‘peaceful, peaceful), sha‘b wa shorta, khawa, khawa (people and police – brothers, brothers) and jaish wa sha‘b, khawa, khawa (army and people – brothers, brothers). These have clearly been intended to be disarming, and they have been effective so far. The ANP’s reaction has been hard to read; Chief of Staff and Deputy Defence Minister Lt. General Ahmed Gaïd Salah has sent out mixed messages, vaguely reassuring at one moment, warning with implicit menace of the danger of instability and insecurity the next. The editorial in the ANP’s magazine El Djeich on Friday was a particularly striking instance of official flannel, claiming the people are, as always, at one with the army (that is, royally ignoring the people’s implicit critique of the high command’s judgment) while committing the army commanders to no clear perspective or line of action at all. This suggests that the generals have not had a contingency plan in the event that the Bouteflika option fell flat, almost certainly because this was in fact their default option, given their inability to agree on an alternative. There is a profound reason for this.

In December 2004, President Bouteflika told a conference of the national war veterans organisation (Organisation Nationale des Moudjahidine, ONM) that the era of historic or revolutionary legitimacy was coming to an end. This seems to have been intended to snub the ONM, but it was nonetheless true. Every president of Algeria has been able to claim a measure of historic legitimacy in view of his participation in the war of independence, a fact that has served to legitimate the ANP’s decision to delegate presidential power to him. This declaration was not followed up at the time, when its enormous implications needed to be debated. For, if a time was coming when demonstrable revolutionary virtue could no longer legitimate the ANP’s choice of president, what would take its place? More recently, in 2012, Bouteflika returned to this theme in a speech at Setif in which he memorably observed of the generation that fought the independence war and had subsequently ruled the independent state, “its garden has ripened” (tab jnanou) , meaning that it had come to the end of its time. Once again, however, he shrank from exploring the implications of this, namely that a quite different basis of legitimacy was required for the succeeding generations of Algeria’s governing elite.

There are only two clear bases for legitimating Algeria’s head of state, once historical legitimacy is exhausted: legitimation by the Western powers, who have so frequently arrogated to themselves the right to decide when a foreign ruler is legitimate or not, or legitimation by the people of the country in question, in their capacity as the recognised electorate. The tendency to operate the first formula, at least in some degree, has already been at work in the Bouteflika presidency; his original sponsor in 1998-9 was Major-General Larbi Belkheir, long known to be France’s man in the Algerian elite. The extent of Paris’s tacit hold over the Algerian presidency was made clear in December 2011 when the package of pseudo-reforms which were the centre-piece of the regime’s response to the ‘Arab spring’ was presented to the French National Assembly by foreign minister Mourad Medelci, as if the Algerian government was answerable to the French legislature and needed its approval. And any doubt about the true state of affairs should have been dispelled by the content of the national budget voted in late 2015, which contained measures that were clearly contrary to the national interest while serving foreign interests, a fact that prompted war heroine Zohra Drif and other veterans of the war of independence to alert public opinion to what the presidency had become.

The army commanders have been prepared to accept this degree of informal external influence and legitimation, because it has not infringed their formal prerogative of choosing the president. The exhaustion of historical legitimacy means that their choices from now on will lack the indispensable ‘nationalist-revolutionary’ fig-leaf. But the recourse to national-democratic legitimacy will mean the end of this prerogative and the generals may resist this, at least for as long as the modalities of a democratic procedure for choosing the president remain to be defined.

They will have to give some ground, however. The ANP’s longstanding claim to be “the worthy heir to the ALN” (the National Liberation Army” of 1954-1962) is now rivalled by the People’s claim to be the worthy successor of the revolutionary generation as a whole. The demonstrations have united the Algerians as never before, totally transcending regional, generational, ideological and identity fault-lines: women (in huge numbers), men and children, leftists, liberals and conservatives, Islamists and secularists, Arabic speakers and Berber speakers all have revelled in their shared Algerian identity as the foundation of their common interest and personal pride. But there has been, in addition, an explicitly nationalist dimension to the demonstrations; the national flag has been everywhere, surviving veterans of the war of independence – notably Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif – have been marching alongside their fellow citizens and the ONM, long a pillar of the regime, has supported the protest. The demonstrators have not been repudiating the tradition of the national revolution that founded the state, but consciously reviving and reinvigorating it. The slogan, El-Jazaïr jumhuriya, mashi mamlaka [‘Algeria is a republic not a monarchy’], is a protest against the virtual privatisation of the Algerian state by self-serving cliques and announces the People’s ambition to repossess it. But achieving this will be far from easy; as in the original national revolution, negating the discredited ancien régime is the (comparatively) easy part; constructing a viable alternative will be fraught with difficulty.

Both the army commanders and the Bouteflika camp know this and can be expected to manœuvre to minimize the challenge they face. They have already floated the idea of conceding the protest’s most immediate demand – no 5th term – by postponing the presidential election for 10-12 months, in theory to allow time for a national conference to consider the constitutional changes that a re-founding of the state as the ‘Second Republic’ will require. The problem with this is that Bouteflika would remain in office when he is already almost universally regarded as entirely incapacitated; quite apart from his inability to discharge his normal presidential duties, a national conference convened in his name would in reality be arranged by others with no constitutional authority to do this and could be widely contested. An alternative ‘minimalist’ response would be for the army to decide to postpone the ‘election’ for only so long as it takes to prepare a plan B, in which, exercising, perhaps for the last time, its historic prerogative, it would propose a different candidate from the revolutionary generation to serve as a one-term president with the explicit mission of overseeing the needed process of genuine constitutional reform. Possibilities here include former prime minister Mouloud Hamrouche (76) and former president Liamine Zeroual (77), both of whom served in the ALN, and veteran diplomat and former foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, who at 85 is much the oldest available but reported to be in good health.

The danger is that the regime will sow dissension within the popular movement by provoking the emergence of a conflict between its pragmatic and maximalist wings. It has often encouraged the radicalization of popular protests in the past as a divide-and-rule ploy and knows all the moves. The anonymous calls for a general strike which inundated social media over the weekend and were partially followed may be a case in point. The popular movement has no explicit leaders who can negotiate on its behalf. Sticking to its peaceful strategy and perhaps also accepting the satisfaction of its immediate demand as the basis for further claims later, while preserving its own unity, may be the wisest course.

Boston, USA

March 10, 2019

Hugh Roberts is the Edward Keller Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History, Tufts University. He is the author of The Battlefield: Algeria 1988-2002. Studies in a broken polity (Verso 2003; p/b 2015); Berber Government: the Kabyle polity in pre-colonial Algeria (I.B. Tauris, 2014; p/b 2017); Algérie-Kabylie: études et interventions (Éditions Barzakh, 2014).

An edited version of this article has appeared on the London Review of Books blog on March 11, 2019: