In Algeria, head of Constitutional Council’s resignation could signal end of standoff

Belaiz’s departure and Gaid Salah’s emphatic statement in support of protesters drew hopes that the country’s leaders would meet people’s demands.
Sunday 21/04/2019
Algerian demonstrators with painted faces hold flags during antigovernment protests in Algiers, April 23. (Reuters)
Algerian demonstrators with painted faces hold flags during antigovernment protests in Algiers, April 23. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The head of Algeria’s constitutional council stepped down April 16, ceding to nationwide protests calling for the overhaul of the ruling elite after the ouster of long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The resignation of Tayeb Belaiz, a former justice minister and judge, could be a sign that Algeria is nearing an end to the standoff that pit protesters against the political establishment.

Belaiz, 70, was one of the senior political figures whom demonstrators focused their ire on after Bouteflika’s resignation two weeks ago.

Belaiz, acting President Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui — dubbed the “three Bs” — are the top political figures Algerian protesters called on to step down.

Protests have taken place in Algeria’s main cities each Friday since February 22 calling for sweeping political change. In addition to giving voice to popular disillusionment against the regime, the movement exposed divisions within the ruling elite. Cracks also emerged between the police and the armed forces, a fierce, behind-the-scenes struggle over the country’s political direction.

It shed light on the many competing powers behind Bouteflika and his inner circle, which analysts said was the outer shell of a regime made up of interdependent political and business interests, many involving the country’s powerful army generals and their families.

On February 10, Bouteflika appointed Belaiz to oversee the constitutional council for the second time, in violation of a constitutional provision that limits him to one term. Belaiz oversaw Algeria’s 2014 presidential elections, which Bouteflika won with more than 81.5% of the vote despite not participating in his own campaign.

Belaiz’s departure comes as controversy mounts over the prospect of presidential elections within 90 days, as stipulated by the constitution. Officials plan to follow the constitutionally mandated time frame but protesters say the deadline — July 4 — does not allow enough time for the opposition to mount a competitive campaign against a political establishment that has dominated Algeria decades.

In solidarity with protesters, mayors across the country refused to cooperate with national authorities, while judges, whose approval is needed to validate election results, have pledged to boycott the vote.

Algeria’s powerful military chief, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, vowed to steer a peaceful transition and sought to build rapport with protesters by addressing their demands publicly each Tuesday.

“All options are open in the pursuit of overcoming the different difficulties and finding a solution to the crisis as soon as possible,” Gaid Salah recently said.

He said he would ensure that demonstrators are not subject to police violence or manipulation and singled out country’s former intelligence chief Mohamed Mediene, known as “Rab Dzayer (“God of Algeria”) because of his far-reaching influence, for playing a “destabilising role” in the crisis.

Mediene was involved in a bitter rivalry with Gaid Salah before he was fired by Bouteflika in 2015.

Gaid Salah denied that the army played a role in ordering violence against protesters April 12, when the country’s elite Special Intervention Group unit was deployed in Algiers after four female protesters were stripped by police, sparking public outcry.

“The decision to protect the people with all their various quarters is an irreversible decision from which we will never deviate,” Gaid Salah said, defending the military.

“Stemming from the strength of the ties and confidence between the people and their army, we have given clear and unequivocal instructions to protect citizens, specifically during the demonstrations,” he added, in a clear rebuke of police Chief Abdelkader Kara Bouhadba, who was appointed February 14 by Bouteflika.

“The army makes no decision at the expense of the people and the homeland,” Gaid Salah said. “It ensures that not a single drop of Algerian blood is shed although this might not please some hostile parties that are upset by the peaceful way of the marches.”

Belaiz’s departure and Gaid Salah’s emphatic statement in support of protesters drew hopes that the country’s leaders would meet people’s demands, including that the country’s remaining top officials step down and the electoral process is reorganised.

“The statement by the army leader gives us hopes to move onto a peaceful path of transition that satisfy the demands of the protesters,” said rights lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi, who, along with other opposition leaders, has advocated to have the country’s transition period overseen by three independent figures.

Algerian writer Abed Charef said Gaid Salah’s recent statements had sent a strong warning to regime hardliners. “It was a necessary form of deterrence in these moments of hesitation and doubt,” he said.

Algerian political scientist Louisa Dris-Ait Hamadouche said Belaiz’s resignation was a “clear signal that having the elections within 90 days is politically impossible.”

Former Algerian Prime Minister Ali Benflis, who leads another opposition group, said Gaid Salah’s guarantees could be the “way out of” the “impasse.”