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There is no Arab Spring in Algeria; or is there?

A group of people take the street to celebrate after Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika postponed the April presidential election and withdrew his candidacy in Algiers, Algeria on 11 March, 2019 [Farouk Batiche/Anadolu Agency]
Algerians take the streets to celebrate the withdrawal of the Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from the upcoming election in Algiers, Algeria on March 12, 2019. ( Farouk Batiche - Anadolu Agency )

What transpired in Algeria over the last three weeks can hardly be seen as another episode of the peoples’ awakening that swept through North Africa in 2011 as part of what has been dubbed the “Arab Spring”. Then, regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were deposed. The crisis in Algeria is a little different yet it has the potential to produce another Libya rather than another Tunisia in the region. That is of course before President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attempted to defuse the crisis in unexpected turn of events. Or did he?

When the demonstrations against the nomination of Bouteflika for a fifth term erupted on 22 February, his supporter had two arguments. One, the demonstrations are small and limited making them unreflective of wider public opinion. And two, there is no alternative national leading figurehead qualified to fill Bouteflika’s shoes if he goes.

Opponents countered by arguing that a lack of leadership is a system failure rather than lack of qualified individuals. And what if Bouteflika, in a moment of reconciliation with himself and his people, admitted to his inability to run for a fifth term and quit the race altogether?

Just a few days ago its seemed the ailing president was determined to seek a fifth term despite the protests which have grown in size and spread across Algeria with one demand; no fifth term.

Bouteflika: from revolutionary to ailing recluse

When the news broke on Monday that the embattled president is not seeking a fifth term, protests in the country turned into scenes of jubilation and celebration. The bleak mood of uncertainty, with potential for trouble, suddenly turned into a celebratory atmosphere with a sigh of relief.  Sense of hope prevailed once again all over Algeria and it appeared the crisis is over. But only for a while before the trick is discovered.

Bouteflika not only withdrew his nomination but also announced concrete steps to implement an ambitious reform agenda he has already promised his people. He also called for a national inclusive conference prior to new elections to come up with a roadmap to what he called a “new republic” in which transparency and accountability are the corner stone of the new political order. While promising to hand over the presidential powers to the elected president, whenever that happens, he sought to assure worried young Algerians that he heard their message loud and clear and that it is time to act. His first action was dismissing his government, nominating a new prime minister and promising to rebuild the “nation state” on solid grounds starting with a new government of technocrats to manage the country until new elections take place. He postponed, indefinitely, the presidential elections in what appeared to be a serious error of judgement on his part.

In a muted video footage broadcast by the national TV station, the ailing president appeared more lively and relaxed shaking hands of his visitors and talking to them too; something that has been quite a rarity.

Notably; Bouteflika chose his old friend, and veteran United Nations former diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, to broadly announce what the president wants to do. Having Brahimi, who does not hold any public office, face the nation was a means to distance the president’s inner circle from the announcement, a group which are no longer trusted by the people.

Brahimi wading in would not only reassure Algerians but also foreign powers watching Algeria such as France. Had anyone of the current inner circle officials made the announcement in Bouteflika’s name, as is usually the case, people would have little faith in what was being said. Brahimi is not only Bouteflika’s trusted friend, but also a well-respected national figure with a clean record.

Yet all that has, so far, failed to win back the confidence of the majority of young protestors who interpreted the president’s assurances as another trick to extend his presidency without elections. In fact; Bouteflika’s offer is clearly contradictory in tone, lacking a specific timeframe and above all it is unconstitutional.

Algerian President AbdelAziz Bouteflika [FIle photo]

Algerian President AbdelAziz Bouteflika [FIle photo]

In his statement, Bouteflika insisted that he had not thought about contesting the elections for a fifth term because of his age and, most importantly, health. Here he appeared to violate the constitution. Article 88 of the 2008 revised constitution clearly calls for the president to be removed once the constitutional council determines it is impossible for him to carry on his duties. No such recommendation has been made by the concerned council but the president himself has declared he is not well enough to be president!

At the end of the day the legal frame of reference, the constitution in this case, must be respected by everybody including the protestors. Instead what is happening, after nearly a month of street protests, is that ordinary Algerians play by the rules while their president and his supporters do not!

The crisis could have been avoided and the president and his camp had enough time to do so in a way that could prevent it from spiraling out of control. But since that did not happen all options are open and none of them are easy.

The national inclusive conference Bouteflika proposed is yet to convene let alone produce tangible ideas. Since it is charged with coming up with a future roadmap before any new elections could take place that will, further, exacerbate the already inflammatory situation. The conference is likely to take months to conclude its work, meaning the election will be on hold.

On the one hand, elections at this stage seem impossible to organise given the huge mistrust between the electorates and the governing elite. On the other, for Bouteflika to leave without proper agreements for an interim government and president capable of rallying the angry Algerians behind him, is a blind jump into the unknown. But this may not necessarily be a doomed step.

A vacant presidency could spark violence sending Algeria to where it was when Bouteflika first came in to power 20 years ago, however this time it will indeed be another episode of the Arab Spring fiasco.

Algeria’s long path towards democracy

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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