Algeria’s Islamists join opposition to new constitution

Islamist formations are boycotting the constitutional amendment process but are likely to take part in early elections based on the same process.
Saturday 12/09/2020
Abderrezak Mokri, leader of Algeria’s Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) Islamist party, speaks during a press conference at the party’s headquarters in the capital Algiers. (AFP)
Abderrezak Mokri, leader of Algeria’s Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) Islamist party, speaks during a press conference at the party’s headquarters in the capital Algiers. (AFP)

ALGIERS–Algeria’s Islamists have chosen to join the trenches of the front opposing the new Algerian constitution. During the voting session on the new constitution that took place in the lower chamber of the parliament, the Islamist MPs walked out, in a step that consecrated their political wavering towards decisions by the authorities, and thus remain true to their tradition of switching positions in the political scene. Now that they have boycotted the new constitution, it is very likely that they will decide to take part in the expected early elections that will be framed by that very same constitution.

Representatives of the two largest Islamist parties (the Peace Society Movement and the Justice and Development Front) boycotted the voting session on the new draft constitution, claiming their opposition to the document, thus joining the stances of several other parliamentary blocs.

The authorities only needed the votes of the pro-government majority bloc, made up of two majority parties (the National Liberation Front and the National Democratic Rally) and their satellite parties, to pass the controversial document by an absolute majority at the lower chamber. The task at the higher chamber of parliament (the National Assembly) might be a tad more challenging but it shouldn’t be a problem for the government to have the document approved there, too, given the dominance of the loyalist parties over the chamber and their principled alliance with the presidential third bloc.

However, the Algerian president’s office had made public the background and discussion documents received by the committee in charge of amending the constitution and attributed one of them to the Justice and Development Front. This has angered the second largest Islamist party in the country, known for its more radical stances towards the government, and it quickly issued a statement denying any contribution to the discussion process.

The statement, which was signed by party leader Abdallah Jaballah, denied that the Justice and Development Front had submitted any written text to any official or non-official body regarding its opinion related to the issue of consultations on the draft constitution prepared by the specialised committee.

Jaballah justified his party’s decision to stay away from the consultations by “the authority’s refusal to respond to the party’s proposal to set up a balanced committee to receive proposals and supervise the drafting of the constitution.”

The spokesman pointed out that “the name of his political movement was dropped by the services of the Presidency of the Republic from the list of suggestions and proposals related to the project and published on the presidency’s website, and which had reached 5018 suggestions.” This in turn raised questions about the real motivation behind listing the Justice and Development Front as one of the parties participating in the consultations about the draft constitution.

The Algerian presidency of the republic had published on its official website a detailed list of the names of parties, personalities, and individuals—even those with obscure names or pseudonyms—along with their suggestions and contributions to the public consultations held by the authorities about the draft constitution. The name of Abdallah Jaballah and his Islamic Justice and Development Front were on that list before being deleted later.

The Constitution Amendment Committee, whose presidency was entrusted to the constitutional and legal expert Ahmed Laraba, received more than five thousand contributions, but in the end, none of them was included in the final draft approved by parliament, including suggestions submitted by the National Forces for Reform Coalition which is close to the new authorities.

MP Lakhdar Ben Khallaf offered different reasons for his movement’s decision to boycott the voting session from those which were stated in the movement’s statement. He told reporters inside the parliament that “it was procedural issues with respect to the practices of the parliament’s administration that prompted the bloc’s representatives to adopt the aforementioned decision.” He was afterwards subjected to heavy criticism because his movement was willing to participate in the constitutional amendment process if some of its demands were met.

For its part, the Peace Society Movement was more forthcoming about its reasons for boycotting the constitutional process. The head of its bloc at the parliament, MP Mahdi Zantout, said that “President Tebboune’s unilateral decision to have a popular referendum on the constitution on November 1st, without first consulting with the political class, was arbitrary and abusive.”

Zantout stated, during his intervention in the meeting of the heads of the parliamentary blocs with Prime Minister Abdelaziz Jerad, before referring the draft constitution to the parliament, that “taking unilateral decisions is disregarding all partners, and that the principle in setting the date for the referendum is when the electoral commission is called and following the maturing process of the project which is considered to be the supreme document for all Algerians.”

“The extreme importance of the constitution is inconsistent with the haste that characterised the referral of the project to the National People’s Assembly, because the constitution must be presented and given the time it deserves to be debated and amended, in addition to creating favourable conditions to ensure calm and unhurried debate which should not be limited to the deputies of the lower chamber,” he added.

The Islamist parties had previously been a major actor in the opposition political bloc during the rule of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, under the name of “Coordination of Freedoms and Democratic Transition”, and they rejected Bouteflika’s fourth term in 2014, but they were the first to participate in the legislative and local elections that took place in 2017, which caused the aforementioned alliance to break up.

Despite suffering a painful defeat in those elections, and their claims of “fraud and voter manipulation” by the authorities, these parties still insist on participating in such elections and refuse to respond to calls launched last year for the resignation of the opposition representatives from parliament and local councils in as an act of  support to the Hirak street demonstrations.