Failure by Algeria’s army to move forward would destabilise region

Were the Algerian high command to shoot its way out of the impasse, it would destroy forever its claim to be heir to the National Liberation Army.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Unanswered questions. Algerian protesters shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers. (AFP)
Unanswered questions. Algerian protesters shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers. (AFP)

Ramadan saw no let-up in the demonstrations that, every Friday, draw Algerians into the streets in towns and villages across the vast country. During Ramadan, police tried to check all those going into the centre of Algiers but fasting did not weaken people’s resolve.

Across Algeria, especially in smaller interior towns, police arrested demonstrators, driving them a few hundred kilometres and dropping them far from their homes. Forcing them to make their way home is not only grotesque but smacks of desperation. The behaviour reflects disarray in the army high command, the generals who seem to be determined not to allow a serious transition towards democracy.

The presidential vote, which had been planned for July 4, was postponed because of a lack of candidates. Only two unknown people had completed the procedure to stand in the election.

Algerian Army Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the de facto ruler of Algeria, and others in the high command are playing for time, hoping against hope that the demonstrations represent nothing more dramatic than a student brawl that will go away. These senior officers, mostly major-generals, number at most a few dozen but they are the embodiment of a predatory deep state that enjoys commissions on many foreign contracts and has no desire to let go of its privileged status.

They were happy to sacrifice former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his close family and business cronies to the clamours of the crowd. They had no objection to arresting the two former heads of security, Mohamed Mediene and Athmane Tartag.

They did not blink at arresting the head of the Communist Party, Louisa Hanoune, probably because she is said to have alleged that Gaid Salah’s family was involved in shady dealings abroad. They underestimated the consequences of letting human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar, from Ghardaia in southern Algeria, die after months of imprisonment and a 50-day hunger strike.

The senior command has been adept for years, as have the security forces, at playing Algerians off against each other: Kabyle Berbers against Arabs, the minority that follows the Ibadi rite of Islam (in Ghardaia, the island of Djerba in Tunisia, the Djebel Nefoussa in Libya and Oman) against the vast majority who follow the Maleki rite.

Algerians, however, are too wise to take the bait. Every week that goes by reinforces their determination to continue making their demands but to avoid violence.

The high command is in an increasingly untenable position. The officers know that the 500,000-strong Algerian People’s National Armed Forces is drawn from every social class and region in Algeria. Many middle-ranking officers have no special respect for the corruption of their seniors. They know their first and only duty is to protect the long frontiers of this country in a difficult region.

They have no desire to bend to strong French pressure to intervene in Mali to “eradicate” Islamic terrorism, fuelled across the region by the misguided French-led and NATO-backed intervention in Libya in 2011. They may not all be democrats but they appreciate that the crowds are constantly calling for dialogue with the army and not denouncing it. When the crowds chant “Tahya El Djazair” (“Long live Algeria”) or the Algerian rap singer Soolking’s song “Liberte” (“Freedom”), they are not indifferent.

The interim president and the government are so obviously straw men that they cannot possibly deliver free and fair elections. The “Hirak” — the popular name of the movement in Algeria — and respected figures in the country such as former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche know the narrow reading of the constitution favoured by Gaid Salah led to an impasse.

The latter has made clear that Algeria’s de facto leaders will have to be institutionally creative, set up a government that includes all political opinions, a prime minister and president who have gravitas and credibility. Only then can the country move forward.

Such a bold step might not be to the liking of the French, who seem to share the counter-revolutionary view that seems to think Arab and Berber people are not ready for democratic rule and need a strong leader. However, the Gulf monarchies have less influence in Algeria than in Sudan. Western influence is stronger and the 43 million Algerians are better educated.

The outcome of this power struggle is far from clear. Were the Algerian high command to shoot its way out of the impasse, it would destroy forever its claim to be the heir of the National Liberation Army, which threw off 132 years of French yoke and the National Popular Army, which replaced it in 1962.

The question remains: Does Algeria’s military high command have the wit, political imagination and institutional savviness to move a country that is key to the stability of the western Mediterranean and broader North-west Africa forward, politically and economically, or backward? The second path would destabilise North Africa more than the civil war in Libya.