In Algeria, a year of weekly peaceful protests has ensued, yet the regime has not fallen. On the contrary, the main pillar of this regime is the military, who handled the constitutional crisis that culminated in the presidential election in December 2019. Following this election, a new president was elected and new government formed under Premier Abdelaziz Djerad together with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
To many, this presidential election changed the Hirak protest movement’s imperatives and dynamic, and to some extent, new demands surfaced from the urban protests story narrative. A majority of Algerians have been noticing that though they indeed got rid of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's system and that there is in fact something on the horizon, nothing is going particularly better in their daily lives.
The radical wing of the Hirak sees some signs of movement but similarly feels that nothing is changing. What do Algerians really want? Does the radical wing in the Hirak need to change? How would the new administration handle these complex demands?
According to the narrative of the silent majority in Algeria, events are as thus: The military prevented a civil war and managed the political stability and security, despite the country’s economic and financial problems. However, the radical wing of the Hirak still sees the new president’s extended hand as a farce covering the country's real issues. Although the overall economic and security situations are the new administration's priorities, the high cost of living and unemployment continue to hit a good portion of Algerian society.
Of late, President Tebboune has put foreign policy and national security at the top of the agenda to help his administration consolidate support from the conservative and nationalist grassroots and elite, while leaving little room for the “Swiss cheese” political opposition and radical wing in the Hirak to stand against the regime and the new president’s policies.
Last year's record
The year 2019 was not a very good year for Bouteflika, with a new political noun having been invented to describe his system – that of "The Gang "("al-Essaba"). The former president’s alliance party leaders are today in prison. His brother, Saïd, and General Toufik, along with the former prime minister are all serving 15-year prison sentences. There have been many developments since last summer's purge by the military.
On the other hand, Louisa Hanoun, chairwoman of the Trotskyist Workers' Party (Parti des Travailleurs), as well as other elements of the Mosaic Hirak, was released – along with opposition figures Lakhdar Bourega’a, Dahmani Nour al-Houda Yasmina and Samir Belarbi. This was a strong message of support to the radical wing of the Hirak from the military and the new president.
While President Tebboune is going forward for constitutional amendments and electoral law reform and will soon dissolve the current Algerian parliament, this will provide a good opportunity to reshuffle the entire Algerian political system in time for new parliamentarian and municipal elections by the end of the year.
The new leadership under Tebboune, who does not have a declared political party affiliation, gives him a large political space in which to maneuver. The National Liberation Front (FLN), however, Algeria’s main political party and one of the Algerian’s State pillars, is in a dire situation. The so-called "Islamists" are in a deep political identity crisis, and the so-called democratic bloc is lost in translation. Its leaders continue to stand with the Hirak protestors, although they have gradually returned to their political routine. A leadership problem is observed in this bloc as much as that of the Islamists.
All sights will be on the Constitutional Reform Committee (CRC). The appointed chairman of the CRC continues to receive support from his peers and the media, but still has opponents from the Hirak movement and civil society activists. On the other hand, the Democratic Alternative, Algeria’s republican current that hopes to topple the new regime, knows well that this is impossible. They should get into the process and participate in local and national elections, and voice their elitist message with a credible leader who can connect with real people.
The regime is also trying to maintain the populist fever that arose in the aftermath of General Ahmed Gaïd Salah’s funeral. The regime continues to underline that there are two camps in Algeria: those who are in favor of the reforms and those who are not. It suggests that today’s politics are not about being a leftist/secularist or a rightist/national-Islamist, but being pro-reform and eventually democratic.
The regime wants to expand the scope of the pro-reform camp and these days criticizes the fragmentation of civil society and leftist political parties through the official media and alleged independent ones for not being active in terms of supporting the new president’s administration and government.
Tebboune's future steps
President Tebboune is planning to build his political road map through the connection with the people and to look for a political partner that might emerge from the Hirak. The vital question for the Hirak is now whether it can grow a more independent voice as demands turn to the socioeconomic.
This is a very risky line since the Hirak has lost enormous momentum in the deep countryside as a result of the military's smart crisis management since Feb. 22, 2019. The Hirak has also lost control of law-and-order operations inside urban areas and outside.
The socioeconomic demands usually are the tasks of the Labor Union (UGTA) that is trying to regain its moral authority after a quarter of a century of the former secretary general ruling the workers' union with an iron fist. The secretary general was one of Bouteflika’s minions. Political and economic reforms were announced in last week’s annual meeting between the president of the republic and the Walis (heads of the 48 Algeria's provinces), encouraging them to be more concerned about people’s demands and fighting local corruption and cronyism. The president also appointed a republic facilitator, who will act as a link between the republic and the people.
Thus it is hard to suggest that this would bring a new momentum to Algeria’s politics. Time and courage are needed to see the real capacity of the new administration. Some cabinet members are already getting conventional media’s and social media’s intention, i.e., Kamel Rezigue, the commerce minister who it seems is gaining some sympathy from the people for his bold decisions related to their weekly shopping basket (al-Qoffa) on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan.
The fall of The Gang, the demystification of General Toufik and Saïd Bouteflika and more importantly the fall of the mask of fear are big achievements for the millions who took to the streets during the Hirak's first act. People today are still cynical toward politics in general. There is a feeling among the people, such that they are anxious about the return of the regime through the remains of the ex-DRS State (the feared Intelligence Service) and its networks within civil society, local politicians, the business community and media actors.
Without a real opposition, professional media, a sharp elite, connected civil society activists and structured labor unions, Algerians can only get the change that the regime wants. Protesters in the Hirak, however, can hold meetings, sit-ins, conferences and make a yearly celebration of their Hirak, but a real Hirak should take a new track.
* North Africa expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM)
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