Algeria’s bloodless coup

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s latest attempt to buy time and the way ahead for the three week-long popular uprising against his and the military's rule.

Image credit Farah Souames.

Veteran Algerian human rights lawyer Abdennour Ali Yahia once said: “[Abdelaziz] Bouteflika doesn’t want to be Le Pouvoir, but rather the political system as was the case for Houari Boumediene, or Fidel Castro in Cuba. He wants to lead everyone, the army included. This is the fundamental problem.”

Boumediene governed Algeria from 1965 until his death in 1978. Ben Bella was the first President of Algeria from 1962, at independence, until he was overthrown by Boumediene.

Boumediene’s critics labeled him a dictator (he ruled via a Revolutionary Council made up of military men until 1976), but they never denied his presidential charisma and revolutionary vision. He maintained what resembled a social and economic balance though his presidency. His regime, however, was undone by the country’s dependence on oil revenues and stagnation in the rest of the economy.

Bouteflika served in Boumediene’s government as minister of foreign affairs and was his expected successor. Bouteflika only became president twenty years later when the country was struggling with a horrific civil war.

The backdrop to almost any analysis of Algerian politics, is recognition of the army’s ability to manipulate the ruling elite. With the protests in Algeria continuing for the fourth weekend in a row, the message from the street now is a little different from the previous protests. While until now people chanted “No-to-a-fifth-term,” this time it was relevant since Bouteflika announced last week he was not running for a fifth term, but postponed elections indefinitely.)

In recent days, the protesters’ demands have taken a different turn (they’ve been out in the streets since March 12th): denouncing the entire system—opposition parties, parliamentarians, and army elites included. Protesters, while keeping their cool and intensifying humor and sarcasm, are reaching a point where they are articulating their demands for what they want to see happen next in a way they have not before. And far away from the mediatized protests, we have seen public forums in the form of neighborhood councils, students filling auditoriums across the country to have open debates among themselves and with their professors, and lawmakers striking impromptu meetings to discuss formulating somewhat of a roadmap for what’s next.

The government’s strategy to bide time until the president dies in power is becoming more and more difficult as more pressure is mounted by the popular movement.

It is reported that President Bouteflika is no longer the decision-maker, but his entourage is. Lawmakers have especially been angered by the confusing messages coming from El-Mouradia (the Presidency). For example, in the most recent letter attributed to Bouteflika, he states that he never intended on running for a fifth term. This is in direct conflict with the fact that he had two campaign managers and somehow was able to collect 6 million signatures and deposited his candidacy file by proxy. The legitimacy of Le Pouvoir is fading by the day and the recent nominations of Ramtane Lamamra and Lakhdhar Brahimi are not helping to convince the people that meaningful change is happening.

Anti-constitutionally yours

The legitimacy of the Bouteflika government had never been more punctured than when the country’s lawmakers (of all ranks) took to the street to protest and denounce the breaches to the constitution.

Article 102 of Algeria’s Constitutional Law, states that if an illness “prevents a leader from governing the country, they must step down.”

It’s not the first time that this administration has grossly violated the constitution. A two-term limit on the presidency was lifted in 2008 to allow Bouteflika to run for a third time, a fourth and a fifth time. The most recent one was when he formally submitted his candidacy by proxy on March 3rd.

But this was not the only fishy thing about his candidacy. The next day, the Constitutional Council deleted from its website the requirement that a candidate submit his application in person. A move that pushed lawyers and judges to protest in Algiers and across the country.

In an interview with French TV news station, Europe 1, shortly after his inauguration in 1999, Bouteflika said: “I could have claimed power after Boumediene’s death, but in reality there was a bloodless coup d’état and the army imposed their candidate.”

If anything, this shows an inclination of Bouteflika to think that he is somewhat an heir of Boumediene and a natural fit for the presidency. His and his government’s legitimacy though has never been this low.

A family affair

Humor and sarcasm were once again the beats of the protests.  Once again, Algerian protesters displayed their political wit, dark sense of humor, and geekiness on their protest slogans. One of the funniest signs was a meme using taglines of Marlboro advertising: “You are in a bad shape (‘Mal Barré’), your system is seriously damaging our health.”

Yet, a unifying theme on many of the signs from across the country last Friday carried messages about the protests being “a Family Affair.”

Most of the protest signs targeted France and the US. Some were chanting against French President Emmanuel Macron, who has called for a reasonable transition “Macron, go away” or “Macron be careful, you got 7 million Algerians in France.”  France has been very vocal when it came to mass demonstrations in Venezuela for instance but being as loquacious on Algeria is a different story. France’s stance is dominated by the fear of being on the wrong side of the history. Right now, any speech or action that resembles interference would only make things worse. As for the US, a protest signed read: “Dear USA, there is no more oil left, leave unless you want olive oil.”

Protesters emphasized a clear message that no foreign intervention is being requested or welcomed. Lofty statements like those coming from the Elysees or other foreign governments in these defining moments of Algeria’s transition are not viewed to be useful by the Algerian people.

The street vs the newly appointed transition team

The government has designated a team to negotiate Algeria’s political future, which will be led by veteran UN diplomat Brahimi, an Algerian national who is best known for the failed peace talks in Syria. Brahimi was also an Arab League envoy and reportedly brokered the Taif Agreement ending the civil war in Lebanon). He has always been the go-to person when the government wanted to deny allegations looming over the president’s failing health.

The precursor and most immediate trigger to the most recent protests of March 15th was the day Bouteflika “signed” a decree creating the position of deputy Prime Minister. After appointing Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui as the new Prime Minister, he named Ramtane Lamamra, his advisor for diplomatic affairs as the new Deputy Prime Minister.

All three men appeared last week on national radio and television to address the Algerian people and welcomed them to be part of the transition team. Their media appearances showed nothing but their total disconnection from 40 million people. They were unable to give clear and direct answers to questions asked by journalists, which exposed their poor misunderstanding of the people’s reality and demands. A colleague said sarcastically: “What do you expect from them, they still use fax machines and make little use of their emails, while millennials are out there broadcasting the protests to the world. The gap is real and huge.”

It should be noted that shortly before resigning, former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahiahad, made a veiled threat against protesters: “But, I remember that in Syria it [the anti-government protest] began that way, too; with roses.” Meanwhile, newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Lamamra insisted that, “Syria and Libya made mistakes that we will not make.” However, not even the softer tone coming both from politicians and the army is not enough to convince Algerians to end the protests.

For instance, when asked multiple times about the legitimacy of Bouteflika’s presidency after April 28th, Bedoui didn’t offer an answer but rather passed it on to Lamamra who denied the dismantling of the national assembly.

What’s next?

Developments are happening so fast, sometimes too fast to keep up with. The broad picture looks smooth yet very complex. On March 15th, some policemen marched with protesters, and local TV channels aired for the first time since February 22nd live from the protests scene. Print media is more daring now than it was a few weeks ago. On its cover page for March 16th, El Khabar’s (one of the leading newspapers in Algeria) wrote “Don’t add a minute, Bouteflika.”

This level of open criticism of Bouteflika was unseen in mainstream media at the beginning of the protests. On Friday, March 15, the state-owned TV news channel aired anti-government chants during prime time. These shifts along with defections inside the government and the army could really lead to a positive change.

All eyes are now on the Algerian constitution and the civic movement. The government might resort to Article 107 of the Constitution and declare a state of emergency. This option looks almost impossible when one considers the huge civil wave. If declared, protests would have to be halted and the voicing openly of the peoples’ demands would be squashed. This would further delegitimize the government in the eyes of the people and might as well harden the position of the protesters.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.