by Gregory Aftandilian
Although large-scale protests succeeded this past spring in forcing the resignation of Algeria’s aged and feeble President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, his removal from office has not quelled demonstrators’ demands for genuine civilian and democratic rule. They fear that the military establishment, which they believe is pulling the strings in the country, will play the game of musical chairs, putting one of their own—albeit in civilian attire—in the presidential office after manipulating elections, which are now postponed until December.
The Army’s chief of staff, General Ahmed Gaid Saleh, is currently the real power in the country. On the one hand, he is trying to placate the demonstrators by using the judiciary to prosecute several high-level government officials, including the former president’s brother; and on the other hand, he is attempting to limit and curtail the protest movement’s access to the capital, Algiers. Such a balancing act is unlikely to stymie the popular anger, however. While many Algerians do not want instability after having endured a bloody civil war in the 1990s, the younger generation that makes up the bulk of the protesters—those who have no direct memory of the civil war—see a bleak future as long as the regime remains in power. They are likely to continue to challenge le pouvoir, or the real powers in the country—the political, military, and business elite.
American and European policymakers would do well to underscore to the Algerian authorities that the upcoming elections in December should be free and fair and that the military should return to the barracks so a genuine civilian government could be formed. These policymakers should not be swayed by the argument that the generals will likely claim, that they cannot let down their guard lest Islamist extremists exploit instability and try to seize power.
A Delayed but Significant Arab Spring
Eight years after the so-called Arab Spring, Algerian young people took to the streets in February 2019 to demand the resignation of Bouteflika and regime change after the president indicated he would seek a fifth term in office. Not only did they see Bouteflika as an aged and out-of-touch leader who had been stricken by a stroke six years earlier, but they also regarded him as symptomatic of Algeria’s old guard, members of which had long rested on their laurels of having participated in the anti-colonial struggle against the French in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many of these leaders increasingly became corrupt and distant from the day-to-day struggles of most Algerians. Moreover, the younger generation of middle class Algerians—university students and aspiring young professionals who have little prospect of finding meaningful employment and who make up the bulk of the protesters—came to believe that they had nothing to lose by challenging the authorities.
Using the old colonial post office building in Algiers as their gathering place, they defied the authorities and staged weekly demonstrations, achieving a victory of sorts when Bouteflika announced in April that he was stepping down. An interim president, Abdelkader Bensaleh, was chosen to rule until the elections that were to take place in July, but the real power rests with the military establishment, led by Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh.
Initial Unity between the Protesters and the Army…
Ironically, it was Gaid Saleh, once a staunch Bouteflika ally, who helped to bring about the president’s fall. He and his fellow military generals, like the Egyptian military in early 2011, came to believe that to preserve the military’s standing in society, they needed to side with the popular will. In other words, Bouteflika, like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, could be sacrificed for the larger goal of the military’s institutional future. Moreover, if the military officers had given orders to fire on the protesters, there would have been no guarantee that the rank and file troops would have obeyed them. The generals probably believed that it was better to be on the side of popular sentiment and try to manage the process. Gaid Saleh also tried to placate the protesters by promising to go after the corrupt “gang” around Bouteflika.
For their part, the protesters were keen to keep the military from using violence against them. They chanted that the “army and people are brothers,” similar to the refrain heard in Egypt in early 2011 that the “army and people are of one hand.” They wanted to make sure that the military officers did not feel threatened in a way that would cause them to lash out.
…But Now Serious Fractures
This initial and very tenuous alliance was short-lived. Many of the protesters came to chant for a change of regime, not just of the people on top. Under the Algerian Constitution, Bensaleh was to be interim president for 90 days after which presidential elections would be held on July 4. However, in early June, Algeria’s Constitutional Council canceled those elections after it rejected, without explanation, the only two candidates who submitted their papers on time. It then called on Bensaleh to set another date for the elections, stating that this was his “essential mission.” However, it appears that the army’s high command had early knowledge of the delay. A few days prior, Gaid Salah reportedly told his subordinates that the election date of July 4 was not a firm one. Later it was announced that the elections would take place on December 12.
Significantly, in mid-September, the brother of the former president, Said Bouteflika, as well as two former intelligence chiefs and the past head of the former ruling FLN (National Liberation Front) party were tried and convicted in a military court for “conspiring against the army” and against the “authority of the state.” In fact, Said Bouteflika was believed by many Algerians to have run the government for the past six years while his brother was largely incapacitated. One of the former intelligence chiefs, Mohamed Mediene, ran the domestic security service for two decades and was a shadowy figure; many Algerians believed he held the fate of presidents. This group of defendants was sentenced to 15 years each in prison. Further, Khaled Nezzar, a former defense minister, and his son Lotfi were tried in absentia and sentenced to 25 years for corruption; they are believed to be living in Spain.
While these arrests and convictions were likely designed by the army high command to mollify the protesters—who, indeed, welcomed them—they were offset by Gaid Saleh’s decree to stop and seize buses and cars bringing protesters into Algiers. He stated that the decree was needed to prevent those “with bad intentions” who were exploiting the freedom of movement to “disturb the peace of civilians.” He also ordered the arrest of some of the leaders of the demonstrations and closed down opposition websites.
As expected, the protesters sharply criticized these restrictions and crackdowns. Said Salih, the vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, charged the decree was illegal because it violated the constitution, which gives citizens the freedom of movement. Other protesters, particularly during a large demonstration on September 20 in Algiers, have called for new institutions and political reforms before any elections are held and demanded the removal of all loyalists of the Bouteflika regime, including Gaid Saleh himself.
Wanting a Genuine Civilian Government
It is apparent that many—if not most—of the protesters do not trust the military establishment despite the fact that the army high command has not used force against them. One 23-year-old demonstrator told a reporter during the September 20 protests that “the people want the fall of Gaid Salah” and emphasized that the protests would continue because it was a “unique opportunity” to change the “corrupt system.” That month, many of the protesters chanted:
“We want a civilian state, not a military state.” They also expressed distrust of the regime’s offer of a dialogue.
With youth unemployment hovering around 29 percent, the young protesters see no future if the regime stays in power. They view it as squandering the country’s substantial hydrocarbon revenues for a corrupt elite whose only interest is perpetuating the current system. What they fear is that the military establishment will merely rearrange the deck, picking one of their own or a close loyalist to be a presidential candidate and then rigging the election results to put that person in power.
A Dangerous Standoff
Although the protesters have the support of much of the younger generation, they are largely disorganized with no central leadership. Moreover, many members of their parents’ generation who endured the chaotic and bloody years of the 1990s civil war have no stomach for what they see as another potential round of instability; and also understand the deteriorating situation in neighboring Libya as something to avoid at all costs. The regime is undoubtedly hoping that its policies of carrots and sticks, plus the tacit support of the older generation, will be enough to hold the protesters at bay, elect a new president in December, and say that those opposed to the new order are outside agitators and even terrorists “plotting to destroy” Algeria. Although it is clear that the vast majority of protesters, who hail from the middle class and literally wrap themselves in Algerian flags, have no sympathy for the terrorists who have been operating in North Africa under the so-called Islamic State or al-Qaeda banner, the regime may be able to produce a few terrorists to claim otherwise.
Given the adamancy and determination of the protesters, there exists the very real possibility that le pouvoir may in the end resort to force to maintain the regime and the perquisites that accrue to the governing elite. While the protesters may not have the strength to overturn the regime and install a truly civilian and representative government, regime stalwarts may get to a point where they can no longer tolerate large-scale demonstrations in the Algerian capital every weekend. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s recent crackdown on protesters may be emulated by Algeria’s military.
Recommendations for US Policy
Algeria’s military establishment has received outward support from Egypt and tacit support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all countries that have a vested interest in preserving the status quo and opposing democratic change. Its neighbor, Tunisia, which just experienced the first round of a genuine democratic presidential election (albeit with low voter turnout), has been rather silent regarding Algeria’s internal developments, perhaps not wanting an inflow of Algerian refugees if a violent confrontation ensues there. France, Algeria’s former colonial power, is trying to straddle the fence, praising Algeria’s “new chapter” while giving the interim government time to pursue the supposed transition. Moreover, both France and Italy fear an influx of migrants from Algeria, which would likely fuel right-wing, anti-immigration parties in their countries. Energy data from 2018 indicate that 10.7 percentof all non-EU natural gas imports (into the European Union) came from Algeria; cutting these imports could mean significant energy problems in Europe. Hence, European countries are not inclined to back Algerian protesters to the point where they could topple the regime; in their view, instability could generate outflows of people as well as and stop exports of energy products.
The United States has never been a key player in Algeria, but that does not mean its influence is negligible. Its mutual legal assistance treaty with the country allows the FBI to train Algeria’s law enforcement agencies. The US State Department’s counterterrorism programs help the Algerian government with counterterrorism activities along its borders. Moreover, US private sector firms are involved in bolstering Algeria’s hydrocarbon sector. These policies and activities give Washington some leverage with the ruling elite.
American policymakers should encourage Algeria’s military establishment to discuss meaningful reform measures with the protesters so that the upcoming December presidential elections are free and fair and opposition candidates are allowed to campaign without interference or intimidation. Given President Donald Trump’s fairly good relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron, he could coordinate a joint message with Macron and perhaps with other European leaders to the Algerian authorities about the need for genuine opposition representation in free and fair December elections. US diplomats should encourage the protesters to come up with realistic demands on political reform that would not spur the military establishment to believe that the opposition is out to weaken their institution. A civilian democracy and a strong military do not have to be at odds, provided that the military desists from interfering in the political process. Hence, there must be assurances all around for Algeria to move forward.