Desperate for change

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A DEMONSTRATOR carries a national flag during a protest meeting in Algiers at the weekend over President Abdelaziz Bouteflikas decision to postpone elections and extend his fourth term in office. Ramzi Boudina Reuters

Mass protests, initially led by youth, by then embraced by citizens of all ages, classes and ideologies, successfully forced 82-year-old Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to stop his unconstitutional bid for a fifth presidential term.

Elections was supposed to be held on 18 April 2019, but is now postponed. Bouteflika had a stroke in 2013, can hardly walk or talk.  He has since his stroke rarely been seen in public. His last public address was after the 2014 presidential elections when he gave victory speech following his win.

His government is run essentially by close allies of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and the military, which consist mostly of the former armed wing of the party, which fought French colonialism. The small elite is called “le pouvoir” (the power), which includes Bouteflika’s brother, Said, powerful leaders of the army, police and intelligence, including Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the chief of staff of the army, and business tycoons who became fabulously rich because of their political connections through the FLN.

The FLN came to power when Algeria gained independence from France in 1962 after a seven-year violent war of liberation. The FLN would have lost power in the early 1990s already, however, it refused to give up power, and a civil war was unleashed, which only ended in 2002. The civil war left more than 150 000 dead, many thousands have disappeared and economic development has been set back.

Bouteflika, who first came to power in 1999, has not formally stepped down as president. Algeria’s Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia stepped down instead. Ouyahia was replaced by Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who will form a new government.

Protests ran for six consecutive weeks, and in spite of Bouteflika sending in the security forces to stamp on it, the protestors themselves did so peacefully, in good spirit and in the last days many families with children joined. The middle classes, teachers, lawyers and doctors had joined the protests. Protestors had come together mainly at the capital Algiers’, iconic Grand Poste Square.

The government banned state media from covering the protests. The protestors used social media to spread their messages. Civil society organisations were restricted through the 2012 Law on Associations, which makes it mandatory for groups to register with government, which have arbitrary power to stop or cancel their registration and to cut their foreign funding.

Pressure had mounted on Bouteflika even from the country’s governing establishment. More than 1000 judges refused to oversee the planned 18 April 2019 elections if he was the presidential candidate. Bouteflika’s government regularly put pressure on Muslim clerics to preach pro-government sermons.

However, during the current protests, senior Muslim clerics defied the injunction to preach in favour of Bouteflika and his government. Imam Djamel Ghoul, one of the country’s most senior cleric said last week: “Leave us to do our job, don’t interfere”. Most importantly, up to now Bouteflika’s strongest backers, the military conceded last week that their man is finished, when their representative, Lieutenant General Gaed Salah, came out publicly on behalf of the military saying, it shared the “vision” of the “people”.  

Bouteflika, the leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the country’s liberation movement, have been in power for 20-years. Bouteflika and his allies in the FLN has in a compromise appointed Noueddine Bedoui as new interim prime minister until new elections will be held.

Bedoui has promised to form an inclusive government, based on competence, which would include all opposition parties, civil society organisations and the youth. However, so far this has been dismissed by youth groups, civil society organisations and opposition parties as possible ploy to give the FLN ruling group time to regroup and find a more publicly acceptable way to extend its power.  

Algeria has a typical African demographic, with half of the population under the age of 30. Unemployment, especially among the youth, deep-seated corruption and political oppression has unleashed the protests. FLN governments have over the years used oil income to appease the masses, through general welfare programmes, however, the decline in oil prices, and the sheer mismanagement of income has increased the country’s debt levels, has made state funded infrastructure, welfare and redistribution programmes unsustainable.

Algeria has now set up convention talks for a new inclusive democratic future, led by the veteran Algerian, former United Nations diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi.

The idea is for the country to have a national convention, which would include the FLN, representatives of all parties, civil society organisations and the youth, which would chart a new direction for the country. The convention will draft a new constitution, set a date for elections and put together neutral institutions to oversee the elections and the transition to democracy.

The military, which is controlled by leading members of the armed wing of the FLN, which fought French colonialism during the 1954-1962 War of Independence, and which has in the past decades dominated the leadership of the party, has insisted to be part of the convention. Veterans of the country’s liberation struggle will also be part of convention.

Bouteflika must step down. The military must return to the barracks and not be involved in politics as it has been since independence. The country’s established institutions – judges, clerics, business and police – who have propped up Bouteflika – must side with the people. There has to be independent oversight of the coming elections.

Bouteflika has stayed in power for so long, because the opposition has been too divided. Some of the opposition had been co-opted by Bouteflika, either being part of his coalition or being uncritical of him, which has undermined their credibility. Independent opposition groups, civil society and progressive associations must unite on one platform.

Whoever wins the coming elections, must ensure the separation of power between the political party and government, the role of the opposition must be entrenched, and any new political dispensation must guarantee fundamental human rights, freedom of expression and social justice.


William Gumede is Executive Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org) and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).