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Algeria’s long path towards democracy

March 13, 2019 at 9:50 am

Judges demonstrating in the streets in Algeria [Twitter]

As of Tuesday, Algeria entered a new stage on the long path towards democracy. The situation has not yet been resolved and the fate of the country is still unknown. However, today’s Algeria is not the Algeria of yesterday and it is unlikely to return to what it was. The streets are feeling the thrill of victory and the ruling elite can no longer use its old methods to keep a grip on power. As long as the issue remains unresolved, though, surprises are still possible.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika may have withdrawn his nomination for another term in office but he did not step down, and it is likely that he and his advisors are looking for a way to extend his stay for at least another year. Before withdrawing his name, he vowed to limit his fifth term to just one year after demonstrations spread across the country. The protestors deserve respect and appreciation for their discipline and peaceful approach.

The president’s decision leads me to believe that the hands of time will not be turned back, as there is a national forum tasked with drafting a new constitution for Algeria. There is also a referendum for the constitution and a roadmap for political reform that will be decided by the forum on behalf of all Algerians, including the timing of the legislative and presidential elections. Furthermore, there is an independent body for elections and a series of major changes are still in place.

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In general, the Algerians and their friends have rejoiced at these dramatic developments, but this joy is accompanied by caution and anxiety. Many of the targets for criticism and anger are still in situ and the likely extension of the president’s term means an extension for the individuals who are responsible for years of stagnation, corruption and disruption of the country’s political life. There are also fears of them undermining reform and turning the positive measures into meaningless formalities. Feared too are the shadowy people behind Bouteflika who have pulled the strings and ruled from behind the scenes. This is why we have heard calls to maintain momentum on the street and continue to put pressure on the leadership and decision-makers as a guarantee for genuine democratic transformation, not least because all of the steps towards reform and change were not possible before 22 February, the first day of mass protests in a country in which such demonstrations of people power are illegal.

A woman holds a banner during a demonstration to protest against candidacy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term in Algiers, Algeria on 1 March, 2019 [Farouk Batiche/Anadolu Agency]

A woman holds a banner during a demonstration to protest against candidacy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term in Algiers, Algeria on 1 March, 2019 [Farouk Batiche/Anadolu Agency]

The Algerian leadership, opposition and public opinion have all proven over the past three weeks that they have learned lessons from the dark decade. The government, army and security agencies opted for self-discipline while the people chose peaceful means of protest and insisted on it. More importantly, the Algerian public were clever enough to distinguish between legitimate opposition to the leadership and concern for the state, its institutions and the army. Opposition to the regime does not automatically mean the destruction of the state; this is one of the most important lessons learned from the failure of the Arab Spring.

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The people of Algeria have shown patriotism and honour worthy of appreciation and respect, although this is neither surprising nor unfamiliar to the country of a million martyrs. As soon as external interference raised its ugly head in Algeria’s domestic affairs, it was denounced, especially the attempts by the US and France to get involved. It was clear how Washington and Paris competed to denounce the attempts of some Arab countries to show their support for one group over another, with some leaning towards the army while others favoured the Islamists. This was reflected in the media coverage in these countries and the output of official spokespersons, which was often inciteful and inflammatory. It is as if they want Algeria to suffer the same fate as Libya, Yemen and Syria.

The important developments witnessed in Algeria in the past few days are paving the way for democratic transition, although there is no guarantee that the country will follow this path to a triumphant and happy end. The whole issue depends on the level of awareness and responsibility possessed and demonstrated by the government, the army, the opposition and the people on the street.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 13 March 2019

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