Algeria: Hirak and the Ides of December

Summary: Peaceful protests have drawn millions of Algerians into the streets for more than nine months. A presidential election set for 12 December is unlikely to stop them.

Reflecting on the peaceful mass protests that have continued in Algeria since February, Francis Ghilès, senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), in a letter to the Financial Times 25 November asks a pertinent question: “Is this unprecedented — in its length and refusal of violence — mass protest not worthy of being reported because it does not conform to the cliché of ‘violent Arabs and Berbers’?”

Algeria’s Hirak or movement started as a protest against the ailing 82 year old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Even though a stroke in 2013 had mentally and physically incapacitated the president those around Bouteflika who had benefited from his twenty years in office wanted to run him for a fifth term. The people were not having it and beginning on 22 February this year came into the streets in numbers that have reached into the millions.  In the weeks and months that followed, the army Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah was forced, first of all to announce that Bouteflika would not run, then to round up and jail dozens of politicians and business people who had benefited from a regime riddled with corruption. An election for a new president, twice postponed, is now slated to go ahead 12 December. The protests, however, have not stopped.

Writing in Arab Weekly on 24 November Francis Ghilès offers this explanation of why they are likely to continue:

“Whether the presidential elections… take place does not really matter. If they do, Algeria will have a new straw man to represent it internationally but whomever of the five candidates anointed by (General) Salah wins, he will have no political legitimacy in the eyes of millions of men and women, those who for nine months have been marching every Friday insisting they no longer accept to have no voice in shaping the future of Africa’s largest country.”

While the protests have not stopped what has, and what Francis Ghiles and others are lamenting, is international coverage of them. Akram Belkaid, in an article for Le Monde diplomatique titled ‘Le combat solitaire des Algeriens’ writes “all major capitals are silent about the situation in Algeria. In the Arab world, the subject is taboo.” In a critique of French networks, which are widely watched in Algeria, he makes the point that there is much more interest in Hong Kong  – with its images of violent protest – than of the peaceful protests that have gone on for months in Algerian cities. He calls it a “shameful omerta.”

We are grateful to Hugh Roberts, professor of North African and Middle Eastern history at Tufts University, for drawing our attention to his article about the hirak in Algeria which we circulate below. “Algeria: Hirak and the Ides of December” was originally published on the Jadaliyya website 19 November, 2019.

For many weeks, if not some months, now the situation in Algeria has been widely described as an impasse. At the same time, the equally widespread habit of describing the protest movement there as a revolutionary one has encouraged the expectation that the impasse is more likely to be resolved in favour of the “revolution” than in favour of the powers that be. I submit that these are not realistic readings of events or their trend.

Calling a protest movement, however impressive, a revolution does not make it one. The “popular movement” in Algeria, the hirak, was immensely impressive at first, when it successfully opposed the prospect of a fifth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The subjective outlook of the marchers has undoubtedly been revolutionary in certain respects—above all the aspiration to have done with the present regime and see a “second Republic” established and the courage to take to the streets repeatedly to affirm this publicly. Nevertheless, the movement has not been objectively revolutionary at any point. There is not a revolutionary situation in Algeria; the situation is not one of dual power nor is it likely to become one in the foreseeable future, which is the time horizon of practical politics.

The army has been the source of political power in Algeria since 1954 and has not been dethroned. The executive branch of the state, although widely contested, remains internally coherent. The army commanders remain in control of it, as they have just demonstrated in successfully deploying the gendarmerie as a key move in bringing Algeria’s mutinous judiciary to heel. The hirak itself, while impressively combative and determined, has no realizable end in view beyond preventing, yet again, the presidential election from taking place (now scheduled for 12 December 2019). And it is far from certain that it will achieve this limited objective.

In the absence of a revolutionary situation, the most the hirak could realistically hope for was a significant reform—an advance of some kind toward a more democratic form of government and the rule of law—which opened up new political perspectives and established a precedent for subsequent reforms. But such a strategic reform required the agreement of the army commanders, which could be obtained only on the basis of a historic compromise between the army and the popular movement. While this idea has been floated here and there, no such compromise has happened and the way the hirak has evolved since April is a large part of the reason why.

Virtually all media commentary treats the hirak as essentially unchanged since its dramatic inception on 22 February 2019. But in fact, its political content has changed in major respects. Initially, the hirak exhibited the following key features:

  • it was impressively peaceful and self-controlled;
  • it was making a very precise and sharply focused point—no fiffth term for Bouteflika (and subsequently the corollary of this: no extended fourth  term either);
  • it communicated this not as a the vehement expression of a subjective feeling but as the authoritative announcement of a collective decision: makansh khamsa!(“there is no fifth term!”);
  • it grounded this decision in the defense of the constitution (since for an incapacitated person to occupy the presidency was evidently unconstitutional);
  • it made it clear that it had no quarrel with the police: sha‘b, shorta: khawa, khawa (“people, police: brothers, brothers”)  or the army: jaish, sha‘b: khawa, khawa(“army, people: brothers, brothers”).

Since the departure of the Bouteflikas last April, the hirak has, to its credit, remained impressively peaceful. But in all other respects its political positions have mutated into virtually the opposite of what they were originally.

  • Many of its most prominent slogans—“système dégage”, “yetnahaw ga‘a” (“let them all clear off”), etc.—express demands and sentiments (in reality, anathemas) rather than decisions and so lack authority as well as all definition; they are the opposite of precisely focused. What might they mean for practical purposes? Nobody knows.
  • As for the only focused element in the hirak’s stance, its opposition to the holding of the presidential election, this is not grounded in defence of the constitution but in explicit rejection of the constitution.
  • The premise of this refusal of the presidential election is the rival proposal (or demand) for a transition to “a second Republic”. It is taken for granted that this postulated ”second Republic” will prove massively superior to the actual “Republic.” But why this should be so is unclear, since its particular institutional profile and character remain entirely undefined. At no point has any advocate of this vision said anything about the second Republic’s constitutive principles.
  • The posited “transition” is also undefined as to its procedure as well as its destination, except in the version that demands, as its central feature, a constituent assembly. Who, in the absence of an authoritative head of state, will convoke this assembly, who will determine its composition and its agenda and its rules of procedure are questions that no one advocating this ‘road-map’ has addressed at any point. How a genuine constituent assembly can be held, let alone achieve an effective national consensus on a radically new (and improved) constitution, in the teeth of the opposition of the army commanders is unclear.
  • This rejection of the constitution and the presidential election that the constitution not only authorises but actually mandates has consequently led the hirakinto a clear conflict with the army, expressed in vehement attacks on the Chief of the General Staff (and deputy minister of defence), Lt. General Ahmed Gaïd Salah. The hirak’s old watchword, jaish, sha‘b: khawa, khawa, has been a dead letter for months.

This is, I suggest, a very regrettable change. It is hard to see how the entirely admirable aim of the hirak to obtain a better form of government for Algeria can realistically expect to benefit from this turn of events and there is reason to fear that it has condemned the hirak to defeat in the near term.

If we can bring ourselves to reject the soft option of treating this drama as a fairy story with heroes and villains, blaming everything on the villainous deep state and absolving our favourites of all responsibility, it becomes possible to appreciate that the hirak made a major strategic error last spring and has been paying for it. That error was to situate its reluctance to agree to a presidential election on the ground of a radical rejection of the constitution. In doing so it abandoned the moral high ground it had provisionally captured on 22 February and allowed the army commanders to occupy this high ground and hold it thereafter.

The tragedy is that it did not need to do this. It was in principle perfectly open to the hirak to agree with the army commanders that the constitution (specifically articles 102 and 104) required a presidential election to be held but to point out at the same time that the constitution also stipulated that “The people shall be the source of all authority” (article 7) and that “The people shall choose their representatives freely” (article 8). In short, the constitution provided the hirak with the ammunition it needed not to defy the army commanders but to argue with them on the very same ground of the existing constitution and thereby (i) prevent them from seizing the moral high ground at the hirāk’s expense, and (ii) persuade them to accept a deal that allowed the presidential election to proceed on terms that represented a gain for the hirāk and a strategic reform for the state.

A central question for the historian is why the hirak did not take this up this option. It cannot be supposed to have been simply unaware of it. Various members of the civilian wing of the national elite tried to persuade it to think in terms of a progressive historic compromise with the army commanders. Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer, the former governor of the central bank and a leading light of the Reformers grouping in the 1989–91 period, put forward last June a very thoughtful and impressive proposal along these lines. A number of other civilian figures put forward similar visions. In particular, the acting Secretary-General of the war veterans’ association (Organisation Nationale des Moudjahidine, ONM), Mohand Ouamar Benelhadj, made a very pointed comment on the situation on 19 June, when options were still open, criticising the army commanders for relying exclusively on article 102 of the constitution and drawing attention to the importance of articles 7 & 8 and suggesting that the hirak make the most of them. And the most thoughtful of Algeria’s Islamist leaders, Abdallah Djaballah, has repeatedly drawn attention to the strategic importance of article 7.

The hirāk merely integrated intermittent references to articles 7 and 8 into its discourse without giving them particular emphasis, let alone recognizing their strategic significance and developing their possible implications. It failed to appreciate that an opportunity to press for a major reform was there following the Bouteflika’s departure and it let this opportunity go begging.

It has thereby allowed the regime eventually to pose as an equally plausible—if not more plausible—agent of the necessary reform process. Of the five presidential candidates, two, Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, both former prime ministers, have now published their election manifestoes and these signal their intention, if elected, to address at least some of the main problems and grievances that have underlain the popular unrest. Unlike the hirak, the regime has had a strategy and, in the latest phase of the drama, it is that of taking the wind out of the hirak’s sails as far as possible, in order to render it superfluous.

The Algerian state is a chameleon and its capacity for co-optation should not be underestimated. While leaderless and consequently tending to sound badly muddled at the political level, the hirak has been tapping into very deep-seated sentiments and convictions that are undoubtedly those of the Algerian people as a whole, which has given it its staying power. And, since Algeria is full of surprises, some kind of violent event or another could falsify this writer’s current analysis and mandate a different set of expectations for where things will be a month from now.

But on present reckoning, the hirak is not on course to achieve a revolutionary political breakthrough any time soon, if ever. I believe its historic role has been to blaze a trail for the reassertion—after the years of arrogant misrule—of public opinion as a vital collective player in the government of Algeria. And if, in the weeks and months that will begin on 13 December it proves to have succeeded in putting the country’s governing elites on better behaviour, that will be no mean achievement but, on the contrary, an historic and immensely welcome one.

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