The recent Algerian awaking which began in early February 2019 has surprised the establishment and North African political analysts. Bouteflika’s regime has since early February been confronted by the biggest protests, in various cities, since he became President on 27 April 1999. Algerians have rarely been allowed to show dissent since the bloody civil war in the 1990s that, according to various records, left 200,000 dead and 15,000 forcibly disappeared. Families are still searching for loved ones.
The protests began in 2018 and were originally against Bouteflika seeking a fifth term of office, but they became a nation-wide movement when the president published an open letter to the Algerian people on 10 February 2019, asking for support to complete his mission and reform. He said that ‘although my health is not as good as before, I am only responding to people’s call to stand and that is why I am standing for re-election to complete reforms needed’. He continued: ‘If you give me the honour of your precious trust on 18 April 2019, I will invite within this year all forces of people to hold a national symposium, which will focus on reaching consensus on reforms’. One wonders why he had not done so in previous years! His message was simply – un message fort de continuité – ‘Let us carry on’.
The protesters rejected his call for support, particularly as his Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia accused the protesters of wanting to turn Algeria into another Syria, and called on the army to intervene to end the rebellious actions of activists.
It all began when Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been ill and wheelchair-bound since suffering a stroke in 2013 and had required regular hospitalisation in France and Switzerland since 2015, announced on 10 February 2019 from his Geneva hospital bed that he would seek another five-year term and that he had appointed his former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal as his campaign manager. Algerian political parties and civil society received this announcement as an insult and a continuation of Bouteflika’s unpopular regime.
Bouteflika returned home on 10 March 2019 and discovered that tens of thousands of Algerian had been protesting in every city since the beginning of February. The next day, he received the army chief of staff and deputy defence minister, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who had up to now been a close confidant of Bouteflika. According to Algerian Media,the General briefed him on the situation in the country. On the same day, Bouteflika and his inner circle sought to appease the protesters. He sacked the old government and appointed a new one. He also announced that the presidential elections scheduled for 18 April 2019 would be postponed and a national commission would be set up to discuss reforms and set a date for the election. He said he did not intend to stand for re-election but would remain in office until a new President was elected. This statement infuriated Algerians nationwide and the protests continued, attracting increasing numbers of people.
The protests became bigger and better organised by civil society, lawyers, students and others, including journalists in the public media and Algerians working in European cities. Protestors demanded that the army intervene to find a peaceful solution to end Bouteflika’s regime, saying that they would continue their peaceful protest until their demands were met.
It must be remembered that Bouteflika was Minister of Foreign Affairs and the closest adviser of the late President Houari Boumédiène from 1963 until he died on 12 December 1978. At the time he saw himself as Boumédiène’s successor, but Bouteflika fall out of favour with the military brass and went into self-imposed exile in Switzerland and the Gulf Kingdoms until 1987.
THE MILITARY INTERVENTION
On 26 March, the army Chief of Staff and deputy defence minister, General Ahmed Gaid Salah made a televised speech to his Troops at Ouargla, asking the Constitutional Court to use article 102 of the Algerian Constitution of 2016 remove the President due to his health and incapacity to govern country. The text of Article 102 is as follows:
“Whenever the President of the Republic, because of serious and enduring illness, finds himself in a total incapacity to exercise his functions, the Constitutional Council shall meet as of right and, after having verified by all appropriate means that the incapacity indeed exists, shall propose to the Parliament by unanimity to declare a state of incapacity.
The Parliament shall declare the state of incapacity of the President of the Republic in a joint session of both chambers by a two-thirds (2/3) majority of its members, and shall appoint the President of the Council of the Nation for a maximum period of forty-five (45) days as interim Head of State, who shall exercise his powers in accordance with the provisions of Article 104 of the Constitution.
If the incapacity continues beyond the period of forty-five (45) days, it shall proceed to a declaration of vacancy caused by legally mandated resignation according to the procedure stipulated in the paragraphs below and the provisions of the following paragraphs of this Article.
In case of resignation or death of the President of the Republic, the Constitutional Council shall meet as of right and declare the definitive vacancy of the Presidency of the Republic.
It shall communicate immediately the act of the declaration of definitive vacancy to the Parliament which meets as of right.
The President of the Council of the Nation shall assume the duties of Head of State for a maximum period of ninety (90) days, during which presidential elections shall be organized.
The Head of State so designated cannot be a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic.
In case of coincidence of the resignation or the death of the President of the Republic with a vacancy in the Presidency of the Council of the Nation, for whatever cause, the Constitutional Council shall meet as of right and declare by unanimity a definitive vacancy of the Presidency of the Republic and the incapacity of the President of the Council of the Nation.
In that case, the President of the Constitutional Council shall assume the duties of the Head of State on the conditions specified in the preceding paragraphs of the present Article and Article 104 of the Constitution. He cannot be a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic”
The protesters and opposition parties rejected Gaid Salah’s proposals and called the application of Article 102 an ‘outdated’ solution, particularly as the president of the Council of the Nation (the upper house), Abdelkader Bensalah is one of the symbols of the old regime. They saw this move as an attempt to preserve Bouteflika’s regime and its associates rather than genuinely meet protesters’ demands.
The protesters and lawyers pointed out that article 28 of the Algerian Constitution of 2016, which reads as follows:
“The consolidation and development of the Nation’s defensive potential shall be regulated by the National People’s Army.
The National People’s Army shall assume the permanent task of preserving national independence and defending national sovereignty.
It shall also assume the task of protecting the unity of the country and the integrity of its land, as well as defending its land, airspace and the various zones of its maritime domain”
does not allow General Ahmed Gaid Salah to remove the President. Other Constitutional experts supported his move on the ground of national security.
The army Chief believed that Bouteflika, his brother Said and cronies had become a threat to national security and he had to take action quickly, particularly as he had been informed by his secret services that the President’s brother and adviser, Said Bouteflika, had been contacting former Military Chiefs and Presidents, seeking support and advice on appointing a caretaker government. It was also reported in the Algerian media and in the French magazine Jeune Afrique that he prepared a dismissal letter to be signed by the President and delivered to General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who would be replaced by either General Mohamed Mediène or General Athmane Tartag.
The protesters were unified under the slogan, ‘Système dégage!’ or ‘System Get Lost!’ and in their opinion invoking Article 102 was simply a ploy to continue the old regime. They believed that those associated with the Bouteflika regime had no legitimacy either in the present or in the future.
Civil society, opposition political parties as well as the protesters refused an invitation to participate in a dialogue with the caretaker President, Abdelkader Bensalah and his ministers, who had been appointed by Bouteflika before he was dismissed by the Army to organise the election in July 2019. Despite many calls from the caretaker government and the army to take part in dialogue, the people were not convinced that such talks would lead to any meaningful change.
Due to no dialogue between caretaker government and opposition political parties and civil society to take part in July 2019 election, the Constitutional Council was forced for the first time in Algerian history to extend the President’s term and postpone the election.
Meanwhile, the army Chief of Staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who is now de facto ruler of Algeria, turned on his former colleagues. General Mohamed Mediène (dit Toufik) and General Athmane Tartag (also known as Bachir) (both former intelligence chiefs), and Saïd Bouteflika, the brother and adviser of the former President, were arrested on 4 May 2019. They were accused by a military prosecutor of trying to undermine the transition and the honour of the armed forces, and for organising a coup d’état. His aim was to dismantle completely Bouteflika’s legacy and also to investigate his former cabinet ministers and associates for embezzlement of the nation’s wealth. Indeed, several associates of Bouteflika’s former Prime Ministers and other ministers were summoned to appear in the courts in March 2019.
On 9 May, Louisa Hanoune, a Member of Parliament and the head of Algeria’s Workers’ Party, was also detained by military police and was also accused military prosecutor of attending the meeting with Said Bouteflika, General Mohamed Mediène and General Athmane Tartag in which they discussed what advice to give to the ailing president.
Louisa Hanoune has similar trotskyist ideology as Said Bouteflika and, unlike other political parties leaders, she is highly critical of the Algerian army’s involvement in politics. She was imprisoned by the government several times prior to the legalisation of political parties in 1988. In 2004, she became the first woman to run for President of Algeria. To date, she is the only political party leader who has been detained. At the time of writing (24 June), no date has been set up for trial.
Since independence in 1962, the army has been the ultimate arbiter of political life and the only decisive actor. But since February 2019 Algerian streets have became another actor in Algerian politics but no one knows how long. Even if this is a small victory for the Algerian people, I do not think that the entire regime and its system will disappear, particularly as the ruling party (FLN) apparatchiks and business tycoons control political and military leadership.
We are now in the 6th month of continued protests and there is no end in sight. Protests continue every Friday – even during the fasting Month of Ramadan – in every city and the chaos continues. Protesters demand a complete dismantling of the old regime; the army Chief and the caretaker government are calling for a dialogue with protesters’ representative and political party leaders but the caretaker government has not offered any proposal for dialogue. There is also mistrust between protesters leadership, the army and the caretaker government. The danger is that the genuine protesters might be infiltrated by saboteurs of Bouteflika’s régime and terrorists which will give the army excuses to stage a Coups D’Etat.
The roots Bouteflika’s régime and the army who has always been de facto ruler in Algeria, are so deep in Algerian politics and way of life. It will be impossible to remove it completely. Indeed, Algerian politics has always been: “change the régime without changing the régime”.
The opposition political parties, civil society and protesters refuse to dialogue with the caretaker government and demanded a new body to run the country and organise election. The army Chief of Staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, made it clear in his speeches that text of the article 102 the Algerian Constitution of 2016 most strictly apply now.
The unresolved question for the coming months is, how far the military is likely to let the protesters go in their demand for an overhaul of the ‘system’. General Salah himself, though now proclaiming himself on the side of the crowd, was very much part of the old regime.