Algeria’s crisis raises questions about role of the army

The army is structurally unable to give up the privileges it has accrued because of its tangled interrelationships with some political parties.
Sunday 26/05/2019
A widening gap. A flag-clad Algerian woman raises a placard reads in Arabic: “No to the military regime”as demonstrators continue their protests in Algiers, May 10. (AFP)
A widening gap. A flag-clad Algerian woman raises a placard reads in Arabic: “No to the military regime”as demonstrators continue their protests in Algiers, May 10. (AFP)

Since the so-called Border Army, also known as the Oujda Group, occupied Algeria with the force of arms at the dawn of the country’s independence and usurped power from the civilian “Temporary Government of the Algerian Republic,” the country has lived under a closed system that never gave much importance or attention to the principle of power sharing, which had never been an item on the ruling junta’s agenda. The ruling clan viewed civilians possessing technical or cultural skills solely in terms of how they could be exploited to conceal military rule.

Since then, the idea of revolutionary legitimacy has been instituted as the foundation of the Algerian state. There is no other political legitimacy outside the circle of the figures of the said revolutionary legitimacy. Only those who had participated in the Algerian liberation revolution have the right to assume public responsibilities, political or other.

Each successive government claimed to embody the aspirations of the people, accusing any opposition of being treasonous to the revolution even when the dissidents were participants in or leaders of that revolution. Many were exiled, imprisoned or eliminated.

In 1994, it was the turn of General Liamine Zeroual to become president but he had to resign five years later because of harassment and the overbearing intrusion of his military comrades. In 1995, the generals chose Abdelaziz Bouteflika for president. He was the only Algerian head of state who was not the direct product of the army, not because he did not want to be part of it but he had been rejected by the Moroccan Army because of his small stature.

Bouteflika remained in power for 20 years and left only when the Algerian people furiously forced him out in disgrace, despite the army supporting him for a fifth term as president.

Next the army, honouring a constitution that it had never honoured before, appointed Abdelkader Bensalah as interim president. It is clear, however, that the office of the Army Chief-of-Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah is the de facto leader of Algeria since it reluctantly removed Bouteflika under popular pressure February 22.

Historian of the Algerian revolution Mohamed Harbi once said: “Algeria is not a country with an army; it is rather a country occupied by its army.” That quote is still valid today but can we characterise the Algerian political regime of the past 57 years as a military dictatorship?

Military rule is when the military usurps political authority through a coup and then directly rules the state. On the other hand, when the military exerts influence or control over public affairs but is not always directly involved in the political process, that would not constitute full military rule.

That was Algeria’s case, except during Houari Boumediene’s rule and during the war against terror and the so-called Black Decade in the 1990s. Outside of that, the Algerian Army exercised guardianship over governmental activity but did not rule directly.

In this sense, we can call the Algerian political system semi-military even if its most important and powerful institution is the army. Historically, the latter was composed of three military groups: the internal army, which bore the burden of armed rebellion against the coloniser; the army composed of those defecting from the French Army to the revolutionary struggle; and the “Border Army,” which was encamped on the Algerian borders with Morocco and Tunisia during the revolution.

In a historical first, this time it was the Algerian people who demanded the removal of the president. For three months, they have been demanding through unrelenting demonstrations and marches a transition towards a democratic system and a civilian state.

The following question arises for the first time in the history of modern Algeria: Can the army play a role in ensuring the transition to a real civilian democratic system and then withdraw and return to its original duties?

For numerous and complicated reasons, one must be very optimistic to answer this question with a “yes.” The military considers itself Algeria’s guardian and justifies this role by invoking the legitimacy conferred to it by liberating the country from France and saving the republic a second time by waging a war on Islamist terror for a whole decade and winning it.

Except for the Islamists whom the army deprived of establishing an Islamic state, Algerians acknowledge those roles of the army and say the army is the only state institution that has remained cohesive and guaranteed security and national unity. Do such justifications entitle the army to the prerogative of appointing and removing presidents forever?

At a time when Algerians are peacefully trying to establish a democratic state based on the rule of law and in which the army will only be one republican institution among others, Gaid Salah says the army is an institution that is above the people and above the state, as demonstrated by his negative attitude towards the popular movements and demands of millions of demonstrators.

The same demonstrators have come to believe that the army is the enemy that protects the system, as shown by the signs and slogans hoisted and shouted in recent marches.

The Algerians have also become convinced that the military establishment, even if it has somewhat wavered under the pressure of the “smile revolution” and at least under the leadership of Gaid Salah, is not ready to give up its political guardianship over the Algerian people and will not meet all of their demands.

The army is structurally unable to give up the privileges it has accrued because of its tangled interrelationships with some political parties, such as the National Liberation Front, as well as with some businessmen and because of decades of control over most of the political and economic aspects of the state — without forgetting foreign influences and meddling, of course.

In Algeria today, neither the existing leadership nor the current circumstances and prevailing mindsets are favourable for a decisive break to occur and for the Algerian Army to return to its barracks and function as a constitutional institution that protects the security of the homeland without any paternalistic tendencies.