Algeria's 'Two B's' and the Ongoing Tension Between Military and Civilian Rule

Published August 14th, 2019 - 11:38 GMT
Algerian protesters wave a national flag as security forces stand guard during an an anti-government demonstration in Algiers on April 12, 2019. AFP
Algerian protesters wave a national flag as security forces stand guard during an an anti-government demonstration in Algiers on April 12, 2019. AFP


In mid July, Algeria’s national football team took out their second African Cup of Nations title in Cairo. Amid the joy and elation of victory, Algerian midfielder, Adlène Guediora, spoke unequivocally on the context of the historic victory: ‘the national team’s victory is due to the hirak (people’s uprising)’.

‘Le Casa d’El Mouradia’, a popular anti-regime song echoed around Cairo’s International Stadium and fans chanted ‘The People Demand Independence’. The success of El Khadra, as the national team is known to its supporters, focused the world’s attention on the popular protest wave which continues to engulf the troubled North African state.


 

This Friday, Algeria will enter its 26th consecutive week of popular protests. What started as a movement to topple long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has morphed into a wider set of demands for systemic transformation - protestors seek a new constitution upholding the human rights of all Algerians, a purge of Mr Bouteflika’s allies from positions of influence, a civilian led transitional process, and seizure of assets obtained through illicit dealings by allies of the regime.

protestors seek a new constitution upholding the human rights of all Algerians, a purge of Mr Bouteflika’s allies from positions of influence, a civilian led transitional process, and seizure of assets obtained through illicit dealings by allies of the regime

Following Mr Bouteflika’s departure in April, protesters have turned their attention to the ouster of the so-called ‘Two Bs’, interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui. They have thus far successfully pushed for the cancelation of two Presidential elections which they argue would not have been free and fair and have called for the banning of senior Bouteflika era officials from running in any future contests.

Protesters and other citizens remain fed up with endemic corruption and seek a lasting and stable transition to democracy. Yet just like in 1990, when El Khadra were last crowned champions of Africa, powerful obstacles block any straightforward path to civilian rule.

The military has long-played an important role in Algerian politics and played a major role in dismantling the system of multiparty democracy established in the country during the late 1980s

According to Zine Labidine Ghebouli, a political analyst at the American University of Beirut, two major impediments exist to democratisation in Algeria. By far the most important remains ‘the stagnation of the military leadership’. The military has long-played an important role in Algerian politics and played a major role in dismantling the system of multiparty democracy established in the country during the late 1980s. Whilst some scholars have argued that the Algerian military has professionalised significantly in the last two decades, senior military officials continue to see themselves as playing an important role in the nation’s political development.

The military’s role in bringing about national independence from France in the War of Independence between 1954-62 has conferred significant historical legitimacy on it as an institution. Additionally, military officials remain deeply tied to the regime economically. Swelling military budgets and enrichment opportunities prove attractive to officers.

 

Algerian Army, April 17, 2016 /AFP


Military leaders fear some of the more radical demands of protesters, perhaps most importantly a systematic investigation into the actions of the armed forces during the bloody civil war that engulfed the country during the ‘Black Decade’ of the 1990s. The military would likely seek guarantees from any civilian government that its interests would be safeguarded in the event of a transition to civilian rule.

Such demands place protesters in a bind. Demonstrators have voiced some support for concessions to the military, for instance decision making power over national defence issues and the appointment of a defence minister with a military background. Yet accommodating demands for increasing the military budget may jeopardise other important demands of the protest movement, particularly desires to see improved social services and state expenditure on education, health care and job growth.

A survey of 9000 Algerians, including 1700 military personnel carried out by the Brookings Institution, a Washington Based research group, suggests that around 80% of rank and file soldiers and junior officers support the ongoing protests and hope to see them continued, but it remains clear that any lasting road map for reform will require winning over key military figures to the idea of civilian rule.

A survey of 9000 Algerians, including 1700 military personnel carried out by the Brookings Institution, a Washington Based research group, suggests that around 80% of rank and file soldiers and junior officers support the ongoing protests

The second major obstacle to democratisation identified by Mr Ghebouli is the lack of leadership and structure within the protest movement itself. Whilst the broad coalition of forces assembled under the banner of regime opposition has been a great strength of the movement, allowing it to transcend ideological and ethnic divides, in the absence of a formalised structure, the movement ‘lacks a clear vision for change and is unable to provide a pragmatic roadmap’.

The Brookings Institution Survey suggests that the most trusted individuals among the protesters are ailing former statesmen who served prior to the Bouteflika regime, foremost among them former President Liamine Zeroual

The Brookings Institution Survey suggests that the most trusted individuals among the protesters are ailing former statesmen who served prior to the Bouteflika regime, foremost among them former President Liamine Zeroual. Yet a clean break with the past may require joining on a new generation of political activists and reformers.

Unfortunately, figures such as Fares Mesdour, an economist at the University of Blida, known for his anti-regime stances and Mustapha Bouchachi, a well-known human rights activist, known for his chairmanship of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, lack the trust and public confidence necessary to guide any transition process.

Although Islamist movements in the country remain less influential in the country than elsewhere in the Maghreb, Mr Ghebouli argues that their high level of organisation and activities as providers of charity and services means that they cannot be ignored. A perceived Islamist threat may encourage the military to play a more forceful role in the country’s politics and reassert its centrality to the process of political transition, as occurred in the ‘dark decade’ of the 1990s.

A perceived Islamist threat may encourage the military to play a more forceful role in the country’s politics

The energy and excitement of demonstrators and their refusal to stop short of the achievement of true national independence augurs well for the prospects of democratisation in Algeria, yet as observers of the region know all too well, difficult obstacles remain and the consequences of failure may yet prove lethal.
 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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