In hollowed-out Algeria there is no one to negotiate a transition
Since the demonstrations started in Algeria four months ago, it has been noted that the popular movement suffered from the “Arab spring’s” fatal flaw: the absence of leadership. The youth-dominated protests are a movement without formal organisation, no recognisable representatives.
There is nobody to take their demands to the regime and negotiate a transition to a more democratic system or manage the protesters’ expectations of the nature of such a transition.
The experience of 2011-12 suggested two paths, neither of them ending in satisfaction for the protesters. One path leads to violence; the other to the hijacking of the uprisings by groups that have what the protesters lack, leadership and organisation.
In Algeria, neither has happened, wrong footing observers who do not really know, let alone understand, the country’s history.
It should be noted that any intermediary social and institutional body in Algerian society was hollowed out during the 20 years of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s presidency. This includes trade unions, the employers’ federation, universities, professional and lawyers’ groups, the media and associations involved in any number of social or cultural activities.
The national assembly and the diplomatic corps had been obliged to submit to the relentless cult of personality that turned Bouteflika into a miniature third-rate copy of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong.
Bouteflika curtailed the powers of the powerful security services and dismissed its all-powerful chief, Mohamed Mediene in 2016. Bouteflika forced senior army officers to show allegiance to him, compromising the integrity of the army, which since independence had cherished its autonomy.
This he did by appointing General Ahmed Gaid Salah as chief of staff in 2004, over and above officers whose claims to advancement were superior to the man who is still their boss and the spokesman for the few dozen senior officers who run the country.
This weakening of the army’s integrity has been repeatedly denounced by none other than the former reformist Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche, who himself holds the rank of colonel.
The result of Bouteflika’s rule is that the leadership of Algeria resembles a Berber djemaa without the aguellid, the respected elder who was traditionally the final referee. Nobody knows where power rests, with whom and for how long.
Such a structure may help those who are in power in Algeria keep it but it does not allow them to negotiate anything and certainly not with the protesters.
The structure has been turned inside out of late as Gaid Salah ordered the arrest of dozens of businessmen who were cronies of Bouteflika and others who were not, on allegations of corruption; of former ministers and prime misters, such as Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal; of the two last heads of security Mediene and Athmane Tartag, not the mention the leader of the Communist Party, Louisa Hanoune. Other hierarchs have lost their jobs and seen their passports confiscated.
Despite being under lock and key, the two former heads of security have put their networks into action with the aim of setting one group of Algerians against another. So far they have failed.
The few dozen senior officers for whom Gaid Salah acts as a spokesman, represent a “deep state” that is entrenched and has no intention of giving in to the demands for democracy that millions of men and women have been clamouring for every Friday.
These officers understand that many of those beneath them in the 500,000-strong army do not share their views. They are trying to keep the unity of the army intact but that might prove difficult if the crisis drags on.
The Algerian People’s National Armed Forces sees itself as having inherited the historical and revolutionary legitimacy of the National Liberation Army. It faces a situation in which 43 million Algerians are clamouring for the status of citizens — they no longer want to remain subjects.
The protest movement and those who play a role in its leadership know that, were one leaders to emerge from it, the deep state would attempt to co-opt or destroy that person. They reckon that unless and until Gaid Salah agrees to a genuine government of transition, one whose members would have the political credentials and capacity to deliver free and fair elections, there is little point in coming into the open.
The interim president and prime minister are Bouteflika straw men and most of the ministers are incompetent. All are utterly rejected by the millions of Algerians who march every weekend. It would be easy for those who hold de facto power in Algeria to appoint a government of former political and civil society leaders that would be competent, experienced and honest but they have resisted doing so.
Presidential elections set for early July have been postponed until no one knows when. Only two little-known candidates put their name forward for the now-cancelled poll, which would have made any attempt to have elections ridiculous.
Algeria’s revolt is like none other in the Arab world. The Algerian military, as well as the police and gendarmerie, have kept their truncheons sheathed and know that, were they to resort to violence, their use of force would play out in full view of the world, unlike during the civil war of the 1990s, which played out behind closed doors.
Such an outcome would destroy their historical legitimacy and the respect the military institution — if not its leaders — enjoys among the people. No group has hijacked the revolt and young people seemed as mobilised as ever.
Whatever the outcome of this slow-motion revolt, one can already draw the conclusion that, in North Africa at least, men and women are fully conversant with the meaning of democracy and insist on enjoying their rights which include freedom of expression, to own property and freedom from fear.
The revolt explodes the myth beloved by many in the West and not a few elsewhere, that being Arab, Berber or Muslim disqualifies men and women from aspiring to the same universal human rights as every other human being.