Since they took to the streets in their thousands earlier this year, the people of Algeria have achieved very little. Their demands, meanwhile, have multiplied despite being, occasionally, unattainable goals. When they first came out on 22 February, thousands of protesters wanted just one thing: free elections which the wheelchair bound and clearly ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would not contest. On 11 March, less than three weeks into their protests, they got their wish. On 2 April, Bouteflika resigned, leaving the country in unchartered waters in a turbulent region at a very difficult time. In triumph, the demonstrators escalated their demands.
Seven months later and nothing new has happened in Algeria apart from the investigation and trial of some high-profile officials. Among them is the former president’s powerful brother, Said Bouteflika, who is thought to be the real power following Abdelaziz’s stroke in 2013.
Why has Algeria’s popular movement to revamp the entire political system stalled, with the potential to plunge the country into lawlessness?
Part of the answer lies in the country’s history and the political class that has dominated politics since independence from France in 1962, perhaps even a little before then. Following independence in July that year, the National Liberation Front (FLN) became the only political party in Algeria. Riding high on the victory against the French, the FLN leadership had a near monopoly over national politics which suffocated progress towards a political system open to all citizens.
Infighting within the FLN leadership led to the first military coup, three years after independence. President Mohammed Ahmed Ben Balla (1916-2012), was deposed by Defence Minister Houari Boumédiène (1932-1978) and imprisoned. Those few years as an independent country laid down the foundation of Algeria’s political system in which the old guard not only enjoyed a full political and military monopoly but also defined its future.
Generations of Algerians grew up knowing only the FLN as a political vehicle, from the presidency all the way down to the last local syndicate. A de facto one-party system was in place, with great risks involved for any kind of dissent. Legitimacy was always based on patriotism and FLN membership, or in the case of the military, direct association with the independence struggle. Under this unwritten constitution, Algerian politics spiralled into corruption and nepotism, which became the norm.
Disconnected from what was going on in towns and cities across Algeria, the political elite failed to notice the growing discontent among younger generations who have little or no connection with the glory days of the independence struggle. Aspiring young Algerians thus have had no option but to rebel against what they rightly call the “gang” that denied them, literally, their future. The public revolt that started more than seven months ago has developed into a weekly ritual in which thousands take to the streets making the same demand: the total dismissal of the entire political and military elites and the resetting of Algerian politics with fresh ideas and faces.
The problem is that the spontaneous public outrage has so far failed to produce an inclusive leadership representative of its grassroots origins that could steer the transition from the corrupt, but strong, deep state into a new Algeria with an open multiparty system. Sudan’s recent revolution against its president offered a more workable example, but the Algerians have failed to learn from it. Instead, they keep making the same demands in the streets.
Every possible scenario proposed by the current government has failed to materialise simply because of the huge gap between what people want and what can actually be delivered. Before his resignation, Bouteflika appointed a veteran and well-respected former diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, to head a national dialogue to navigate the country through the crisis. However, the project was dropped before it started because people on the streets across the country insist that the whole “gang” should go because nothing can be achieved with them around.
How, though, can a transition with minimal damage be possible if the entire government, parliament and security apparatus just disappear overnight? The interim President, Abdelkader Bensalah, has announced that elections will be held on 12 December conducted by a new independent election authority, in the hope that the protests will end. He was forced to cancel the proposed July elections due to a lack of candidates. However, nothing has changed, and instead of campaigning for the December elections, the protests are ongoing and, increasingly, are accompanied by arrests and more army involvement to control what is happening. Protestors are making calls for army chief of staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah himself to go, in the belief that he is part of the ruling “gang”.
If the protests fail to produce a workable plan, they are likely to end up achieving very little. In the meantime, they risk dragging the country into a bloody decade like the 1990s, when the elections were cancelled by the army after it looked like the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was heading for victory.
The interim authorities are now attempting to gain the trust of the people. They have jailed two former prime ministers, eight ministers, two intelligence chiefs, prominent businessmen and one political party leader. Nevertheless, the demonstrators continue to make the same demands.
The revolution in Algeria appears to be heading down a dangerous path into the unknown, failing itself and the country. Political parties, long seen as cronies of the system itself, have so far failed to be creative and regain the trust of the very people they claim to represent.
Between now and the December elections, the Algerians will have to settle their case in the same generally peaceful manner in which they have, so far, been able to present it. They must either come up with a workable alternative — like Sudan, for example — or risk a tragic Libya scenario. Algeria’s eastern neighbour has been all but a failed state with its own revolution drawing foreign powers into a proxy war since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
While Algeria has great potential to become a successful progressive country, it also has the potential to reverse all the gains it has made since achieving independence nearly sixty years ago. Why are the Algerians unable to find a way forward?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.