Algeria has been experiencing continuous popular protests against a possible fifth term in office for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika since 22 February. On Monday, he finally renounced the idea of running at the next election, but he also postponed sine die the presidential election scheduled for 18 April. He is remaining as President and has, thus, extended his mandate. The 82-year-old has been in power since 1999 and has just appointed a new Prime Minister after the resignation of Ahmed Ouyahia.
According to leading economist Omar Benderra, Bouteflika's statement is a crude manoeuvre which sends a clear message that the political transition to democracy can only be instigated by the regime. "It will be managed, supervised and directed by the regime," he explained. "The president is also saying that the constitution is, in effect, no longer in place, because the planned election next month has been cancelled unilaterally." What's more, Bouteflika — "Who is unable to make his own decisions" — has basically extended his own term of office beyond the legal mandate. "This is an unconstitutional reformulation of his previous offer of 3 March, in which he announced that he would stand for a fifth term of office, but which he would shorten." This is the time that he has said he needs to implement reforms which he has had 20 years to do.
As the former President of the Public Bank, Benderra was in charge of the renegotiation of Algeria's external debt during the democratic window under the Mouloud Hamrouche government (1989-1991). He is now an independent consultant and a member of Algeria-Watch human rights association. As such, he knows the Algerian system well, even though it remains a mystery to many.
The decision to postpone the election is "a violation of the constitution and a coup de force," he insists. On the streets of Algeria and on social media, people have denounced this "ruse" to extend the president's fourth term. Protesters promise to continue to hold demonstrations in the midst of a five-day general strike which began last Sunday.
Bouteflika also announced that a national conference will be held to bring together representatives of the protesters as well as veterans of the war of independence. Diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN mediator for Lebanon and Iraq, could lead the moves to democratise the political system.
In appointing Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and his deputy, Ramtane Lamamra, the regime is bringing in its safest pairs of hands. "Bedoui," noted Benderra, "is a trained bureaucrat loyal to a system that promotes soulless and unconscious leadership." The new Prime Minister was the Minister of the Interior during the extremely violent repression of doctors on strike last year. "This is a man who resorted to brutal repression without hesitation. This is his image in the eyes of many Algerians. He will take care of the programme that Bouteflika's entourage outlined in the 11 March statement."
Lamamra, meanwhile, is a diplomat from the National School of Administration which, Benderra pointed out, is like many similar institutions that are linked to the political police in varying degrees. "The Deputy Prime Minister was ambassador to Washington at the height of the civil war, where he was a notorious propagandist in the service of the January 1992 coup d'état which led to a bloody decade of civil war." He will, apparently, focus on Algeria's relations with the Americans and the French.
There is surprise that Bouteflika declared that he had "never intended" to run for a fifth term, given his "health" and his "age". Why, then, was a medical certificate attesting to his "good health"? For Omar Benderra, this is the nature of the regime. "False statements are issued which contradict the reality. This is not so much about Bouteflika the man, who is no longer in a position to control what is written and declared in his name and on his behalf, but about the total disregard for the law that is enshrined in the mores of regime. There is something profoundly abnormal in this regime's disregard for the law and absolute indifference to the logic underlying political relations."
It is also possible to analyse Bouteflika's statement as a sign that he is isolated and no longer has any contact with society, which rejects him at every level. "Although there will be several million people across the country ready to chant the same old slogans, this is dwarfed by massive popular rejection," explained Benderra. "This regime is politically dead."
However, he warns, this same regime has demonstrated that it is based on a fundamental axis of naked violence. It has considerable means of repression at its disposal, although not all of the security forces are ready to engage in an armed conflict with the general population. Indeed, the restraint of the security forces has been a surprising element of the current demonstrations. This has not always been the case. In 2001, for example, the Kabylia region experienced a "black spring" of revolts during which more than 120 people were killed by state forces.
"The army, police and gendarmerie have shown restraint because they all know that the rejection of the ruling bureaucracy is almost unanimous," claimed Benderra. "The arrest of some generals last year means that the army is now divided. There is a power crisis, the intensity of which is unprecedented, with antagonism and protagonists easily identified. This is very rare and has to be highlighted." The last time such dissent evolved into an open crisis was in 1988, during bloody riots.
The restraint of the security forces can also be explained by a reluctance to fire the first shot, for he who does so will be condemned by history; regardless of French support, he will be isolated. Hence, the principals within the regime risk international reprisals that are already known. "NATO, for example, has already expressed its opinion on the Algerian situation and would probably welcome the disappearance of a regional actor who has nevertheless retained a certain degree of autonomy," Benderra pointed out. "The US has affirmed that Algerians have the right to demonstrate, which puts pressure on the regime. Fortunately, France is not the only referee. There are powers behind the scenes who would officially have little enthusiasm for the use of force by the regime but who are, nevertheless, delighted with Algeria's weakening."
What is the role of France? The former colonial power is still suspected of interfering in Algerian affairs and accused of supporting the government. Since the beginning of the latest demonstrations, its silence has been deafening apart from a statement on 6 March by Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. He defended the need to allow the electoral process to take place in Algeria: "It is a sovereign country whose stability is essential." With Washington supporting the people's right to demonstrate peacefully, how can we explain the different approaches of the US and France?
"The support expressed by the French authorities for the Algerian authorities is not the support of the French people, who gain nothing from the sustainability of the Algiers regime," insists Benderra. He believes that this is an expression of solidarity between the ruling elite in Paris and the leadership of Algeria's authoritarian apparatus. This solidarity is not based on public interest or any sound reasoning by the state; there must be specific and limited interests at play. Moreover, there is no valid "security" argument, because the protesters are peaceful, and there is no political or other fundamentalism involved.
"From this perspective, it is the regime that fuels instability conducive to illegal migration," Benderra told MEMO. "It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that there are other considerations. How else can we explain this support, which goes against human rights, Algeria's stability and the interests of the French people?"
The economist and analyst does not rule out the possibility that political advisers from the French or others were consulted before Bouteflika's announcement. "The neo-colonial character of the Algerian regime is an objective political fact that can be deduced from the support from President Emmanuel Macron and his Minister of Foreign Affairs as expressed in the immediate aftermath of the strange letter from the Algerian President." Macron called for "a transition of a reasonable duration" in Algeria.
Other questions remain about Algeria's future. Given that movements such as "Barakat" denounced the president's fourth term in 2014, why was a fifth even considered? "The regime is divided," said Benderra. "There is no doubt that there are some who have tried to manipulate popular sentiment and frustration, especially through social media. The difference between 2014 and 2019, though, is the very significant deterioration in the socio-economic conditions of the people."
This is illustrated by the number of social movements and riots, as does the state of the health and education sectors, as well as increasing unemployment. All this is taking place in a context of scarce resources and the migration of young Algerians seeking better prospects, the so-called "haragas" who burn their passports when they head into exile.
Algeria's economy is also in a mess, with negative projections and no foreign reserves. Omar Benderra describes the country's economic policy over the past few years as an "absurdity" fuelled by expediency. "Since the contraction of oil revenues in 2014, the regime can no longer cover deficits and has preferred to finance them by printing money rather than taking economic and reorientation measures." In other words, the central bank simply issued currency without any financial or other reserves to support it. This currency represents a very important part of Algeria's GDP, but in a country that produces almost nothing, and imports most of its needs, this can lead to uncontrolled inflation. "People are holding their breath about the possibility of hyperinflation combined with the drying up of foreign exchange reserves. That is why, in my opinion, we have seen many elderly men and women on the streets protesting. This is unprecedented."
Benderra took part in many demonstrations from 1960 to 1992, yet had never observed such a demographic composition of demonstrators. "Parents and grandparents are very concerned about the future of their children and grandchildren, so they are taking to the streets. This not only requires an untenable degree of exasperation and indignation but also an immense concern for the future."
In conclusion, economist Omar Benderra believes that civil society is developing, and that the Algerian diaspora in France, the US and Canada could play a role in their country's future by showing and offering solidarity. "Furthermore, the country is full of executives, intellectuals and activists, men and women alike, who have been prevented from speaking out in recent years, but could play can important mediation role." Although they may have to wait for the dust to settle because many do not want to be accused of fomenting unrest, there is optimism that the latest demonstrations will be the beginning of the road to real and lasting democracy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.