by Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
On May 9, Algeria’s authorities arrested Louisa Hanoune and charged her with “conspiracy against the state” and “undermining the military.” Hanoune is not involved in the ongoing uprising, but she consistently spoke out against the harsh government liquidation of the Islamists parties in the 1990s. She is the leader of the Workers Party and the first Arab women to run for the position of a head of state. Last week, she accused chief of armed forces Ahmed Gaid Salah of thwarting the ambitions of his people and copying Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, the Socialist Equality Party, and the Islamist party Movement for Equality and Peace criticized Hanoune’s arrest. The critics saw her arrest as a warning to other dissenters. The day Hanoune was held, a state television anchorman was discharged for showing sympathy to the uprising. The day after, retired General Hocine Benhadid, an opponent of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was summoned for interrogation.
The arrest of Hanoune underlined the uncertainty of the three-month-old uprising, but it has not changed the peaceful and upbeat popular mood. Protest leaders do not view Hanoune, like other traditional opposition figures, as an “authentic” reformer.
Over the past three months, the protestors have called for regime change: the dissolution of the government, the resignation of interim president Abdel Khader Bensaleh, and the transfer of power from the military to civilian leadership. In response to growing public unrest, General Salah, the chief of the armed forces and deputy minister of defense, has sent mixed messages. He “supports reform” but insists on “respect” for the constitution. He has made moves that appear sensible on the surface. He pressured Bouteflika to resign the presidency and arrested the president’s brother. He jailed a select group of business leaders, top security agents, and a former prime minister. But he has also taken steps to ensure the continuity of an unpopular regime and an outmoded constitution. He has rushed to schedule presidential elections for July 4, claiming that he is “following the law.” He is protecting a dysfunctional cabinet and an unpopular interim president.
Algeria’s internal developments have regional implications—and are also affected by regional factors. The pro-U.S. leaders of the Arab Gulf and Egypt are all very nervous over the rapid developments in Algeria. They’re weighing the worrisome implications of a free Algeria and its possible demonstration effect across the region, much like their reaction to the 2011 Arab Spring. As the German broadcast Deutsche Welle reported recently, “…[C]oncern is growing that Salah receives support from Arab Gulf states, much like Egypt’s former general … al-Sisi did when he toppled the elected Muslim Brotherhood government there in 2013, putting his own form of repressive rule in place.”
Unlike its relations with Saudi Arabia and its allies, Algeria has a special connection with its immediate neighbor Morocco. Aside from their common border, the two states share a history beyond their common colonization by France. They have similarities in culture, including strong Amghazi (Berber) roots and a background in European education. French is widely spoken in both countries, and they have a love-hate relationship with Europe, particularly France.
But the two states have two contrasting systems of government. Morocco is a monarchy with a moderately active civic society while Algeria is nearly a one-party state with a “revolutionary” ideology. There is great, untapped potential for cooperation between these two resource-rich countries whose combined population make up 20 percent of the entire Arab world.
But cooperation has not been easy in a region where rivalry is the norm. The conflict over the future of the Sahraouis, a displaced minority of south Morocco better known for its Polisario movement, is a major irritant between the two countries. In a new Algeria, this conflict would have a much better chance of being resolved. A promising sign occurred recently when Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani expressed hope about the future of relations between the two countries. He anticipated that Algeria’s “new rulers would open borders as things settle down and institutions are in place.”
Still, cooperation promises major benefits for both. This theme emerged repeatedly at a forum last week at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. Jonathan Weiner, a former special U.S. envoy to Libya, pointed out, for instance, that the current level of trade between Algeria and Morocco is a pathetic four percent, a number that could mushroom if relations between the two countries improve.
There could be positive political implications as well. If Algeria’s revolution succeeds, argued Intissar Fakir of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it would energize reform movements in Morocco, which have experienced ups and downs since the accession of Mohammed VI as king 20 years ago. Similarly, what happens in Morocco will necessarily affect Algeria.
Cooperation between Algeria and Morocco will not occur easily no matter what happens in Algeria. Morocco will have to transform its absolute monarchy to a liberal system where the king no longer dominates. Furthermore, in both Algeria and Morocco, society must come to terms with two long-dormant issues: the gradual integration of political Islam in state building and the full recognition of Berber (Amghazi) identity within the Arab political structure of statehood.
The issue of integrating political Islam in state building can only be done in the wider context of new constitutions in both countries that guarantee religious freedom and institutes the separation of powers.
The Berbers are relatively integrated in Arab-speaking society through generations of intermarriage and the sharing of Islam as a faith and way of living. Berbers are a significant ethnic minority in Algeria, whereas in Morocco they constitute as much as half the population. It is interesting that Hanoune finished a fiery political speech last week by asserting that Algerians can either unite or divide depending how they identify themselves. We all “belong to the Arab world,” she said, “but we are first and foremost Algerians.”
The presidential elections in Algeria are only eight weeks away. Time is running out to hold a competitive race, and judges have refused to participate in the electoral planning. The ease with which the army is arresting politicians, former top security figures, and billionaires reflects the growing nervousness of the military. The protestors are becoming more vocal about Salah. The impasse may have reached a tipping point. Sooner or later, Salah will have to make a painful decision: to accept regime change or crack down on dissent. No expert is willing to bet on Algeria’s future now.
The liberation of Algeria could open dialogue with Morocco. But the regional implications could be even more significant. A democratic Algeria could spark renewal across North Africa and the rest of the Arab world.
Ghassan Rubeiz is an Arab-American writer, journalist, and commentator on issues of development, peace, and justice. He is the former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.