As Algeria’s protests show resilience, experts fear protracted crisis

Even with once-powerful officials being held to account, protesters plan to keep rallying to pressure military leaders.
Monday 17/06/2019
Demonstrators hold flag during anti government protests in Algiers, Algeria April 23, 2019. (Reuters)
Demonstrators hold flag during anti government protests in Algiers, Algeria April 23, 2019. (Reuters)

TUNIS - When Algiers' Belouizdad football team won the Algerian Cup, for the first time in 56 years neither the country’s president nor the prime minister was on hand to present the trophy.

The absence of top officials at Mustapha Tchaker Stadium on the prominent occasion was an indication of how much the country’s months-long protests have left the military-dominated regime on the defensive. Once viewed as untouchable, those figures are now wary of appearing in public for fear of facing mass demonstrations.

There have been other signs that the ruling establishment is on its heels. On June 4, authorities cleared Algiers’ main mosque for the first time so interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and other officials could perform prayers on Eid al-Fitr.

The move, observers said, shows that Algeria’s protests have altered power dynamics in the North African country.

"We feared them for a long time. Now, they are scared of us," said one commenter who participated in weekly rallies in Oran.

Analysts said the incidents were reflective of a dangerous impasse in which protest leaders and the country’s command have yet to engage in direct discussions that are seen as the only way out of the crisis.

The political climate has been set by months of mass demonstrations calling for a total political overhaul after the ouster of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Protesters’ massive numbers rendered the military’s powerful intelligence apparatus of little use. Their only other option to end the rallies is to resort to violence, which they would turn the leadership into a pariah regime abroad.

Addi Lahouari, an Algerian sociologist, said: “The protests expressed the deep transformations experienced by society, which wants a new governance model.

"The model in which the [Department of Intelligence and Security] DRS picks the civilians to be leaders under their watch does not work in a country of more than 40 million,” he said

"It is untrue that the DRS was dismantled in 2015, as the official propaganda sought to make the people believe. Without the DRS the regime would have collapsed by now...

“The DRS deployed all its fake Islamists and baltaguias (goons) but they were not enough to undermine the protests because the popular revolt is massive. The DRS can abort a protest of a few thousand but not rallies by millions of people," he said.

Other analysts pointed out that the protests allowed Algerians to address some of the ills facing society

"If we look back to where we stood, we can find that the Algerian society suffered from [several] illnesses: the use of violence as means to resolve disputes, the absence of common values, rife corruption and the mentality of leaving the future to be decided by destiny," said former Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour.

"We witnessed that these illnesses were eased or diminished as the protests cemented solidarity, sharing and unity among the Algerians but the regime remains almost the same and continues to ignore the demands of the people."

Algerians said the protests inspired a long-overdue crackdown on corruption. Former Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia was arrested on suspicion of corruption as the judiciary investigates dozens of the country’s most powerful politicians and businessmen.

Protesters rallied near El Harrach prison outside Algiers on June 12 as a police van transported Ouyahia, 66, to jail. Crowds pounded the sides of the vehicle, chanting: "You have devoured the country.”

One protester, Jamal, wrote on social media that watching Ouyahia go to jail was his “happiest moment... since the protests began.”

Former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, 70, was jailed a day later. He was questioned at the Supreme Court over allegations of misuse of public money, abuse of power and illegal favouritism.

Even with former officials being held to account, protesters said they plan to keep rallying to pressure the military leaders who are thought to hold the levers of power.

"Bouteflika is a by-product of the regime,” said sociologist Madjid Bencheikh. “He did not create the system. That means, if the Bouteflikas and all their political and economic clients were purged, Algeria's political problems remain untouched.”

"The army is the centre and the pivot of the political regime," he added.

Bensalah has been tasked with overseeing elections to elect his successor. His mandate was to end July 9 but he delayed a vote scheduled for July 4 because of a lack of candidates.

No date has been set for the next elections and analysts said further uncertainty will hurt the country’s economic prospects.

"We can never catch up with the loss of time in the economy," said Algerian economist Abderrahmane Mebtoul. "A lengthy political transition in Algeria will lead to an economic and social regression as foreign currency reserves shrink sharply from $ 79.9 billion in 2018 to $62 billion this year to $33.8 billion the following year.”