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What Algeria's constitutional reforms really mean

Last Sunday saw Algeria's parliament vote to adopt constitutional reforms that will see the country strengthen its democratic standing and introduce key changes. Initiated by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was absent from the proceedings, the amendments to the Constitution were supported unanimously by 499 of the 517 parliamentarians, with 16 abstentions. Though the reforms are on a par with a pattern of regular amendments over the decades, acknowledgement of the reccurring necessity to modernise an outdated system falls short when analysing these reforms as truly challenging the long-standing social and political stagnation in the country.

The draft Constitution contains 74 amendments and 38 new inclusions, with Article 74 the most notable. This article imposes a limit of two terms for presidents and discourages its own future annulment, which happened in 2008 when the article was suspended, allowing Bouteflika to run for a third term. Implementing Article 74 will avoid another Bouteflika-style presidency, as well as preventing him from choosing to run for a fifth term in 2019, though the idea doesn't seem too absurd for most Algerians. Under the revised Constitution, the president of the Republic can only be re-elected once, must prove permanent residence in Algeria for a minimum of ten years and cannot have acquired foreign citizenship previously. Algerians living abroad who have dual-nationality and want to run for presidency, much like 2014 Presidential candidates Rachid Nekkaz, a French-Algerian, and Ali Benouari, a Swiss-Algerian, will therefore be excluded from entering the process.

Other reforms include the establishment of an independent electoral commission, to counter low voter-turnouts and the deep mistrust in the electoral process; more recognised roles for women and youth in the public and civic sectors; and further assembly and press freedoms guaranteed to promote a plurality of opposition within the political framework. These reforms are, however, far from new and have surfaced time and again only to fail to materialise.

The Constitution, in effect since the country's independence in 1962, has seen many amendments over the years as a product of socio-political shifts. Introduced by Algeria's first President, Ahmed Ben Bella, the Constitution implemented a one-party state led by the FLN (National Liberation Front) until 1965 when a military coup d'état suspended it.

A second Constitution was introduced in 1973 by the then leader of the Revolutionary Council, Houari Boumedienne, which emphasised socialism and restored political institutions from military establishments. By October 1988, more commonly referred to as "Black October", Algeria's own Arab Spring ignited, with enraged youth taking to the streets to protest against social and political stagnation caused by the drop in gas and oil prices, high levels of youth unemployment and government austerity measures.

As a result, in 1989 a new Constitution was sworn-in, ending the one-party governance of the FLN and paving the way for a multi-party system with further freedoms of expression, association and assembly; the same proposed reforms have been introduced as "new" nearly three decades later. In 1992, as the civil war engulfed the country, the military coup imposed a state of emergency which in turn suspended parts of the Constitution. This state of emergency was only lifted in 2011 as a reaction to protesters' demands, mirroring almost identically the same conditions that ignited Black October in 1988 but which have failed to produce the solutions necessary to solve the same national grievances.

These reforms, according to Bouteflika's chief of staff Ahmed Ouyahia, are steps to strengthen freedoms and enshrine the separation of power and the principles and values of the Algerian people. They are attempts to address long-held public grievances in Algeria and to pave the way for a chaos-free transition when Bouteflika finally relinquishes his title of "longest-serving president".

Unfortunately there is no deadline to anticipate nor is there much expectation that the government will guarantee the long-overdue review of human rights and the judiciary. According to Amnesty International, the Constitution needs to guarantee basic human rights further and remove certain articles that contradict international law before it becomes a recognised document of justice. Calls have been made repeatedly by the human rights organisation for the Algerian government to bear more responsibility regarding the fate of those who disappeared during the black decade of the civil war and to honour the repeated requests of the families and victims who have rejected the amnesties extended to former-jihadists to obtain justice and reparation. In order to achieve true national peace and reconciliation, measures must be taken to counter impunity by implementing further the reforms that prevent continual human rights abuses; for the Constitution to be clearer on the state's position on torture and forced disappearance; and the complete abolition of the death penalty, albeit it has not been enforced since 1992.

For many, this will do little to reduce the influence of the powerful elite, particularly Bouteflika's FLN and the generals who are arguably the ones who control Algeria administratively. Since the country's independence, it has been ruled by the military, and though the face of the Algerian regime has a civilian mask, the main line of authority stretches down from enforced military approval. However, in recent years, steps have been taken to transform the current political makeup by relieving leading military and intelligence figures of their duties. In September 2015, for example, the early retirement was announced of the head of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), General Mohamed Mediene, in a key political move the likes of which have, since 2013, seen the DRS reduced to its basic function as an intelligence structure without the military or political weight it exercised previously.

Such weakening of the DRS, compliance of an over-politicised army and the slow introduction of reforms cannot, though, be seen as the sole progress that Algeria needs on its road to democracy. Moves affecting the DRS are a necessary end of a phase that taints Algerian history but do not mean the beginning of a new progressive era. Parallels can now be drawn between Algeria's current political makeup and its governance pre-1992, when the president maintained influence over military authority and from where the army gained its domestic legitimacy. This type of regressive dissidence highlights further the archaic functioning of the country at extreme odds with Algerian normative society and confirms how out of sync the current political setup is with the challenges of daily civilian functionality.

Though civilian security forces will inevitably play a greater role in the face of growing unrest due to the ongoing economic crisis, it is still the army that remains the main guarantor of the regime's longevity in face of border instability and its deteriorating relations with Morocco. Calls for change would entail dismantling such an intrinsic power structure, something which former presidents with military backgrounds themselves found near impossible. Any grassroots schism would be met similarly with the violent chaos that gripped the country in the nineties, providing a painful reminder for Algerians what the price of a radical shift in power entails. For those still holding desperately onto the outdated regime, rapid developments within the sphere of Algerian power circles would have severe ramifications and risks in destabilising the geopolitical region. A newly-devised Constitution, set apart from its previous drafts, would imply regime change bowing to foreign influences thereby contradicting the Constitution's article of foreign non-interference in preserving Algeria's sovereignty.

However, there can be no sovereignty without a sovereign people and true civic freedom. Any discursive steps to amend the Constitution will inevitably fail to solve the magnitude of the country's crisis if it does not reflect the broadest consensus possible. There can be no legitimate solution to the current predicament of Algerian society without adopting the path that sees the Algerian people regain their sovereignty under national consensual order. Until then, hunger strikes and protests whereby young men sit outside town halls with their lips sewed shut will join the normative fabric of a stagnant society driven constantly to extremes in order to have even basic demands met.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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