Referendum seen as test for Algerian president, protest movement

Two months to go before the referendum on constitutional reform, many expect the protests to return.
Monday 07/09/2020
Algerian journalists rally in Algiers, August 31, to demand the release of their colleague Khaled Drareni, who was sentenced earlier this month to three years in jail. (AFP)
Algerian journalists rally in Algiers, August 31, to demand the release of their colleague Khaled Drareni, who was sentenced earlier this month to three years in jail. (AFP)

 ALGIERS - Algeria’s new constitution, due to be put to a referendum on November 1, would meet demands by a protest movement that ousted veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika last year, President Abdelmajid Tebboune said on Sunday.

Tebboune also vowed to amend other laws and continue fighting against corruption to enable the state to restore confidence after investigations in 2019 revealed the involvement of several senior officials in corruption cases.

The referendum will be the first test for Tebboune since his election in December last year that followed mass street protests rejecting Bouteflika’s plan to seek a new term after 20 years in power, and demanding the departure of the whole ruling elite.

“The draft meets the demands of the protest movement,” a presidential statement quoted Tebboune as telling a cabinet meeting to discuss and approve the final draft of the constitution.

The draft will be submitted next week to parliament for endorsement before the referendum.

It includes mainly giving more powers to the parliament, prime minister and the judiciary as well as strengthening political freedoms.

The implementation of this constitutional amendment — if approved by the people — “will require adapting a number of laws to the new stage as part of a comprehensive reform of the state and its institutions,” the statement quoted him as saying, without giving details.

The protests, which broke out in February last year, were followed by a series of trials in which former senior officials, including prime ministers, ministers and businessmen, were jailed over corruption charges.

Demonstrations were banned by the government in March this year to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tebboune said the number of corruption cases handled by courts showed a “trust crisis” between rulers and the people over the past years.

“The end of this crisis is a condition for building a new Algeria in which no one will be protected by immunity and influence,” he said.

But with two months to go before the referendum on constitutional reform, many expect the protests to return.

“The will to change the mode of governance is still present,” said political scientist Louisa Driss Ait Hamadouche.


— Grass-root movement —


While the mass demonstrations in the North African nation may be on hold, the anger remains and, many believe, could soon rekindle the street protests.

“Although both hypotheses are possible, the most likely is the resumption of demonstrations,” Hamadouche said.

Anti-government protests led by Hirak — meaning “the movement” in Arabic — last year swept ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.

But the rallies continued afterwards, demanding the ouster of the entire state apparatus, which is reviled by many Algerians as inept and corrupt.

Mahrez Bouich, another political analyst, believes Hirak protests will continue “until the people’s demands are met.”

Not only do the original grievances driving protests remain, frustration has grown.

Anger has been compounded by a government crackdown against demonstrators, a rise in unemployment and a slumping economy.

“It is a popular phenomenon… caused by a build-up of frustrations and attacks on freedom, by a political system that refuses to change,” said Mansour Kedidir, a political science researcher.

Yet while Hirak is a grassroots movement whose lack of a formal leadership structure gives it the resilience to continue, it is weakened by internal arguments.

Ideological splits between progressives and conservatives, as well as between secularists and Islamists, mean its divisions can be exploited by the authorities.

A government crackdown on critics — including journalists, opposition politicians as well as Hirak members — has stifled some of those willing to speak out.

Last month, two journalists were jailed for two and three years respectively, including for covering Hirak protests as reporters, in sentences criticised by international rights groups.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch condemned the treatment of detained activist Abdellah Benaoum, a 54-year Hirak protester in poor health held by police since December, on charges including “undermining national unity” and inciting an unauthorised gathering.

He is one of some 45 Algerians held for their role in the movement, the New York-based group said.

“His imprisonment epitomises the authorities’ determination to crush a nationwide, peaceful movement for democratic reform,” it said.

While the half-year suspension due to the coronavirus crisis stripped the protests of momentum, the pandemic also fostered the creation of community and online solidarity networks.

Many Hirak-linked groups fear the referendum will simply be a means to paper over problems, without any deep-rooted reforms.

For many Algerians, struggling to pay rent and purchase daily food, the intricacies of constitutional reform might seem of little immediate interest.

But protests against poor living conditions, especially among young people in the south of the country, may dovetail with Hirak demonstrations.

They just need a spark to light the flame, “like dry tinder,” Kedidir said.