Algeria’s new president reiterates reform pledges, protesters divided

One of Tebboune’s first acts in office was to fire Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune.
Sunday 22/12/2019
A promise of reforms. Newly elected Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaks during a news conference in Algiers, December 13. (DPA)
A promise of reforms. Newly elected Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune speaks during a news conference in Algiers, December 13. (DPA)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was sworn into office December 18, succeeding long-time leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was ousted by mass protests eight months ago.

Tebboune promised an “extended hand for direct dialogue” with pro-democracy protesters who had largely opposed the election.

One of his first acts in office was to fire Interior Minister Salah Eddine Dahmoune, who had criticised opponents of the December 12 election as “fake Algerians, traitors, mercenaries, perverts (and) homosexuals.”

Housing Minister Kamel Beldjoud was picked to replace Dahmoune in the new cabinet, headed by acting Prime Minister Sabri Boukadoum, who previously served as foreign minister.

Analysts said the cabinet would work as a caretaker government while Tebboune consults with national figures to select a prime minister who is “most palatable” to protesters.

Algeria’s ruling elite, including the military, said Tebboune will tame the 10-month-old protest movement that jolted the country’s army-dominated regime and threatened to worsen its deep economic crisis.

Many protesters claim Tebboune is part of the regime they are seeking to change.

“The whole country is waiting to see whether the cabinet of Boukadoum will be short in duration or lengthy and what the shape and line-up of the new government will be. It is through the new government that we can identify, with more precision, the policy of the new president,” political writer Sonia Lyes said.

Tebboune, who served as prime minister under Bouteflika, won 58% of the vote in the December 12 poll. The election was marred by mass protests and a low turnout rate of 40%, official figures indicated.

Tebboune is seen as close to armed forces Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has been Algeria’s de facto strongman since Bouteflika’s ouster. He and other military leaders attended the swearing-in ceremony alongside the four defeated presidential candidates.

Tebboune was fired by Bouteflika after he targeted “political money” and corruption but protesters still see Tebboune as part of the regime they want dismantled to establish a “civil democracy, not military state.”

Tebboune outlined reforms in his first presidential speech, many of them claimed by protesters. He announced plans to revise the constitution to introduce a two-term limit for presidents.

Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term — despite his poor health — sparked the protests that led to his downfall.

In a symbolic but important move, Tebboune declared that the president would no longer be referred to as “Your Excellency” (“Fakhamatouhou” in Arabic) but as “Mr President.”

“We are all Algerians. No one is greater than another,” he said.

He promised that young people would have greater access to positions of power through revisions to the electoral law.

More than 53% of Algerians under the age of 30 are unemployed graduates and school dropouts have been a large part of the protest movement.

While Tebboune outlined a strategy to diversify the economy and end Algeria’s dependence on oil and gas exports, his promises of reforms and economic diversification seemed similar to pledges made by Bouteflika a few days before he was ousted.

What remains to be seen is whether Tebboune will be granted leeway from the military to tame protests without violence. Analysts said moving beyond Algeria’s military-dominated regime will be a gradual step.

Tebboune spoke highly of the military, praising the armed forces for protecting protesters and the country and singling out Gaid Salah as the “moudjahid” (“freedom fighter”).

His election left leading protest figures divided over how to move forward. Some advocated accepting his offer of dialogue while others hoped to increase protests to strengthen their hand ahead of negotiations that could lead to “genuine democracy.”

Both camps are waiting to see whether Tebboune releases dozens of detained protesters, including leaders, a central demand of the movement.

“The first step for dialogue is to free the detainees who enjoy the trust of the Hirak (pro-democracy protests),” said Islam Benattia, a leading protest figure. “Their release will ease the tensions and help open the way for wise people among the Hirak and the regime to overcome, together, this crisis.”

“If the crisis persists, the situation will be worse and everyone will lose: youth and old people, elites and ordinary Algerians. If we fail to overcome together the situation, we will regret that we missed the opportunity offered by the protests,” he added.

He was assailed by other protesters on social media as preparing for a “political sell-out.”

Opposition leader Soufiane Djilali and other politicians said they face a dilemma: either accept dialogue or take the radical path of civil disobedience.

“The alternative to dialogue is the organisation of the protesters to defy the authority of the state and go towards civil disobedience and revolution. If they can do that, we will applaud them,” Dijlali said. “Otherwise, two other options are left: abandon the protests or organise the protests into pluralist organisations to fill the political vacuum.”

Analysts said Algeria is experiencing a kind of “political desertification.”

They pointed out the ruling National Liberation Front and the National Democratic Rally both backed the failed candidacy of former Culture Minister Azzedine Mihoubi.

Leaderless protests underlined the weakness of opposition parties, which are struggling to push for broader political freedoms.

“It is not certain that the new president has the power and the ability to enter a genuine dialogue with the protest figures and the opposition because we can easily imagine that the high command of the military has already drawn ‘red lines’ for this dialogue,” said Algiers University Professor Mohamed Hennad.