In Algeria, a Test of the Limits of Reform Approaches

10 MINS READJun 4, 2019 | 19:16 GMT
Protesters bearing an Algerian flag march in Algiers on May 31, 2019.

Algerian protesters bearing their country's flag march in Algiers on May 31. Protesters are looking to keep up the pressure on the North African country's ruling elite with weekly rallies despite the end of President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's two-decade rule.

(RYAD KRAMDI/AFP/Getty Images)

A protest movement that won't take no for an answer poses a conundrum for the country's entrenched powers, which must decide whether and how much to give. Another delayed election creates the conditions for a possible showdown between the two sides....

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Third-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.

Two months ago — and just a few weeks before he was to stand for re-election — Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, bowing to pressure from protesters opposed to him standing for a fifth term in office, resigned after 20 years at the country's helm. National elections were canceled soon after the ailing ruler stepped down, and the interim government scheduled a July 4 vote to choose the next president. But under pressure from the protesters, which had coalesced into a powerful nationwide movement, and facing a lack of viable candidates, the rescheduled election now has also been postponed.

In the meantime, protests have continued to grow, with weekly demonstrations drawing people to the streets of Algiers and elsewhere in a notable sign of open, mostly peaceful dissent being tolerated by the country's entrenched powers. Even in the context of Algeria's often-chaotic political scene, these are remarkable circumstances highlighting the impasse between the popular protest movement and the established military-backed government, neither of which want to give another inch in informal and formal negotiations shaping the country's political future.

While the protesters succeeded in forcing Bouteflika out, they have been unable to drive any profound changes in the structure of the Algerian government. Beyond the weakening of the presidential office, with the presidency likely to remain vacant and its powers diminished for some time to come, the system of rule in Algeria remains static. The degree to which any change might reshape the system will be determined by the staying power of the protests and the willingness of the entrenched powers to entertain their demands.

In the midst of this period of change and uncertainty, there are several political developments that bear watching.

The Big Picture

Algeria's government is in the midst of a disruptive period of political transition. The country's persistent protest movement has achieved modest political gains with its unwillingness to back down. But the foundation of Algeria's political system, with a single empowered party backed by the country's military apparatus calling the shots, remains intact. The interplay between these two forces, which could come to a head over the summer, will determine Algeria's future course.

What's Constant?

The Algerian government is still being led through a cooperative, competitive oligarchic system in which power is shared to varying degrees among the military, the National Liberation Front (FLN) political party, business leaders, intelligence services, unions, the state-owned oil and natural gas giant Sonatrach and the presidency. The presidential vacuum represents the only real recent change to that system. And despite the constitutional path to elections, the position has yet to be put before voters both because regime stakeholders cannot agree on a consensus candidate and protesters have yet to agree to allow elections to take place under the current interim government. Many protesters consider the current interim government, led by Abdelkader Bensalah of the FLN, the only political party with power for decades, as politically objectionable as the one that was led by Bouteflika.

But the situation in Algeria, as potentially dynamic as it might seem, could more accurately be characterized as a stagnant impasse instead of a period of dramatic change, because after Bouteflika's resignation, the military retained firm control. The country's war of independence from France, which it won in the early 1960s, endowed the military with a legitimacy that it still relies on to exercise power behind the scenes. The Algerian military's role in the government, in fact, is stronger than ever, in part because the lack of a presidential power removes a key competitor to its political ascendancy.

Despite ongoing protests, military chief Ahmed Gaid Salah has been confident enough in that power to tour the country's military regions, conducting business as usual, not to mention delivering uncharacteristically open statements about the political transition. During the period of increasing pressure on Bouteflika to give up his ambitions for a fifth term, it was only after Salah withdrew his support that Bouteflika offered his resignation. And during the debate over whether the July 4 elections would be scrapped, Salah's statements drew the attention of the news media, and were weighed as an important final word.

In this interim period between presidents, the military has assumed partial authority over the Algerian police and intelligence services that otherwise would have fallen to the presidency. The military displayed its ability to challenge the other poles of Algerian power with a series of arrests in a crackdown on corruption in the wake of Bouteflika's resignation. Among others, the military has rounded up Bouteflika's brother, Said Bouteflika, and two prominent intelligence chiefs, who appeared before a military tribunal in Blida. Others caught in the military dragnet included the head of the prominent opposition Workers Party and prominent business leaders. The arrests made it clear to the country's political stakeholders, whether or not they are linked to Bouteflika, that they are not beyond the military's reach.

In another sign that the fundamental structure of the government remains intact despite the challenge posed by popular demands is the continuing dominance of the ruling party and its coalition partners. The FLN's Bensalah retains decision-making power during this transition period, the FLN and its allies still maintain a comfortable hold on parliament, and institutions such as the Constitutional Council, which have an exceptional amount of power as the period of uncertainty unfolds, are packed with FLN stalwarts. This does not, however, mean that the clan of loyalists who surrounded the former president retains its political capital. Most of the military-led anti-corruption arrests in recent weeks have targeted them.

What's Changing?

If the military and the FLN are constants, what is the variable? At the moment, civil protesters and the political opposition have some sway, and they're using it. Persistent protests have drawn the attention of both domestic and international media, which they have used to press their political demands. And it has become evident that those demands truly matter. To win an election delay — a demand the protesters have made since the July 4 date was set — was a remarkable achievement considering that it represented a direct capitulation by the interim government, making it look weak. After the decision to push the election was announced, however, prominent civil society organizations like the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights criticized the interim government for "extending" Bensalah's mandate. Of course, this type of critique highlights the dilemma in which the government finds itself: It cannot schedule elections without inciting the ire of protesters, but at the same time pushing the elections back also invites criticism.

Some civil society activists have compared the current protest surge — termed "hirak," meaning movement — to one in 1954, when protests against French colonial rule swelled, laying the groundwork for the revolution. Even though few youths in Algeria share a direct connection to the colonial period, its history permeates Algerian political and cultural identity. In a sign of the hope that Algeria's younger generation is feeling regarding the possibility of change, there has been a marked decrease over the past few months in the number of Algerian immigrants interdicted crossing the Mediterranean. In the past, a significant number of young Algerians had left the country seeking opportunity elsewhere.

With both sides digging in their heels, something eventually will have to give, either by compromise or by force.

The Possibilities of the Road Ahead

With both sides digging in their heels, something eventually will have to give, either by compromise or by force. The shift of the July 4 election date, which protesters had rejected as unconstitutional, represents one compromise, but the opposition decries the entire power structure, which it says is corrupt. The regime responded with a hard line, saying it will not concede to protester demands to empower transitional dialogue bodies with any power to affect the governing structure. With the end of the interim president's term approaching on July 9 and no new election date scheduled, Algeria is nearing a period of constitutional uncertainty, and both sides will try to gain from it.

  • A Constitutional Path, or Something New? The protesters insist on change, but there is no constitutional path forward after the first week of July. If Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and Bensalah bow to their demands and step down, the question then becomes: What will protesters demand next? Popular pressure on those leaders developed shortly after the head of the Constitutional Council, Tayeb Belaiz, resigned, showing the protesters that making demands could yield results. The Constitutional Council has the authority to appoint an interim leader should Bensalah step down. If he does feel enough pressure to depart office, it could offer a test of how willing the protesters are to accept a new face from outside the well known political establishment. Or it could crystallize their demands for a radical overhaul of the entire political system, perhaps through a constitutional convention or the national dialogue process that was one of their original demands.
  • How Likely Is a Violent Outcome? Most likely, no serious violence will erupt in the near term, even as the military and police seek to limit protesters' ability to access major demonstrations. But the time is coming when the military either will have to crack down more forcefully on protest, or extend an olive branch and grant more political concessions. At this stage, the protest movement's unique character makes either of the two paths equally probable. Because the protest movement is so powerful, the military is no doubt wary of a forceful response that would inflame the kind of popular unrest and distrust in the government that fueled civil war in the early 1990s. So far, the government has followed constitutional guidelines and precedent, but in the name of regime preservation, it would likely be willing to overstep those.
  • How Will the Country's Economy Fare? Government allowances and state-provided jobs (that are increasingly in short supply) have made unemployment and entitlement a serious issue in Algeria. And in the absence of a stable government guiding policy, which is an unlikely development this summer, the economy will continue to fray. As efforts to secure needed foreign investment are pushed down the road, Algerian foreign exchange reserves will dwindle and its debt picture will worsen. Algeria's companies will struggle to conduct business as usual when some of the business elite have been wrapped up in anti-corruption investigations.

As the summer unfolds, more protests and more political negotiations will no doubt be in the offing. Throughout it all, the continued dominance of the military and the FLN party it supports will remain clear. Going forward, the key variable to watch will be the protest movement, and how confidently it might challenge any political deals that the interim government might offer.

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