Granting himself unparalleled sweeping powers, Tebboune’s new constitution promises an entrenched state that cuts off the public’s legal avenues for change not in line with the executive’s wishes.
Algerians have snubbed a vote on a revised constitution the regime hoped would neutralise a protest movement, one at which at its peak swept long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.
The turnout for the referendum was 23.7 percent, electoral commission chairman Mohamed Charfi said on Sunday, a historic low for a major election.
With the "yes" camp almost certain to win, the only real question was how many would take part in a poll also seen as a bid to bolster Bouteflika's successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune, currently hospitalised overseas.
From the exclusive suburb of El Muradiya nestled in rolling hills overlooking the bustle of Algeria’s capital, President Abdelmajid Tebboune gave a long interview to international reporters from the comfort of an Andalusian-styled palace.
El Muradiya is home to Algeria’s rich and powerful. Just outside busy Algiers, it is striking in its serenity with its perfectly manicured lawns and resplendent republican guards on watch.
Removed from the exigencies of daily life in Algiers, and a far cry from being in touch with the reality of the street’s pulse, the Hiraak’s calls and demands never make themselves heard in Tebboune’s dominion.
It was from this perch, that Tebboune, 75, insisted between cigarettes that Algeria is now “free and democratic,” all the while promising a “new model,” and a “new economy.”
For protestors on the streets, hope in the future and Tebboune’s promises are in short supply. In fairness, public support for Tebboune never broke any records.
With an impending new constitution, Tebboune's power is set to expand dramatically with little in the way of public confidence.
Tebboune’s constitution would grant him the same rights previous presidents enjoyed, including being able to appoint and remove a sitting prime minister.
More dangerously, he will be able to veto laws through two methods. First, he may call for a reinterpretation of the proposed bill, requiring a two-thirds parliamentary majority to put it into effect. Alternatively, he will also be able to vote down a passed law in the Senate, which requires a three-fourths majority, through an appointed intermediary. In reality, any law the president dislikes could be quickly nipped in the bud.
For all the talk of ensuring a separation of powers, the new constitution enshrines the President with an additional judicial role as president of the High Council of the Magistracy. The end result? A sitting president would be able to appoint and dismiss judges on a whim, completely eliminating any possible judicial oversight into the legality of his actions.
By appointing loyalist judges, subpoenas for in-depth investigations can never materialise, granting the president and his chosen ones judicial immunity.
But that’s not all. Tebboune is granting himself direct oversight of all regulatory bodies in Algeria, including any auditing of government spending. With a hand in both the legislative and judicial branches, the new constitution would create the most powerful Algerian president in history, building on top of the fact that Algeria’s president is already the Supreme Commander of its national army.
Finally, while the constitution pays lip service to the letter of the law on freedoms of speech, its enforcement is largely dependent on a number of bylaws voted on behind closed doors, limiting authorisation to carry out protests for instance, that makes true free speech all but a dream.
Smoke and mirrors
After a year of the Hiraak’s popular uprising against 20-year autocrat Abdelaziz Boutfelika, his resignation and death threw decades of rigid order into disarray. Tebboune, the latest in a series of unremarkable prime ministers under Bouteflika, was backed by Chief of Staff Gaid Salah, both working together to purge the establishment of Bouteflika’s allies, largely to their benefit.
Algeria’s former opaque system was governed by a four-cornered balance between the executive, intelligence, military, and big money. Bouteflika succeeded in eliminating former-ally-turned- rival General Mohamed Mediene, aptly nicknamed the ‘God of Algeria’, who led the dreaded DRS intelligence agency for 25 years.
Tebboune picked up where Bouteflika left off, consolidating power and eliminating rivals in a new triumvirate made up of a cautious military high command fearing civilians at the gates, his own executive clan, and a newly reformed, subservient secret intelligence agency.
In a move eliciting widespread public backlash throughout the republic, Tebboune took a page from Bouteflika’s playbook and announced a new constitution to be put to a referendum on November 1 2020 — the date coinciding with the beginning of Algeria’s war of independence against France from 1954 to 1962.
Bouteflika himself promised a referendum on a new constitution if he should be re-elected for a fifth term; this after he had changed the constitution twice to extend his stay in office, and once more to return it to its original condition prior to his rule.
As controversial as Bouteflika’s half-hearted offer of a new constitution was then, it’s been received in the same manner now.
What’s wrong with a new constitution to enshrine the freedoms and democracies won by the popular movement? Nothing in principle.
But most Algerians who participated in the year-long Hiraak believe the revolution is nowhere near over. This sentiment was only reinforced by the military’s push for premature presidential elections that saw Tebboune elected, before an opposition could organise itself adequately.
For the late General Gaid Salah, who suddenly pivoted and called for Bouteflika’s resignation, it was the only way to appease the populace while simultaneously presenting a new, less menacing image of the army. Appealing to security and stability, Gen. Salah used his brief glow of political invulnerability to push a chosen candidate for presidency that would ensure his interests, and that of the deep military establishment was preserved.
More critically, Tebboune’s capacity to push for a new constitution isn’t legitimate, according to activists. While he was legally elected in an election he claims drew a 40 percent turn-out, opponents claim less than 10 percent of Algeria voted at all amid widespread boycotts of polling booths.
More dangerously, the new proposed constitution visibly entrenches his position, while granting him sweeping powers; all presented in a top-down fashion without the public’s input. As a concession to these critiques, Tebboune promised that a panel of experts would review the legality of the proposed changes.
There was a caveat. The panel would be handpicked by Tebboune.
“Is there anything left of the Hirak?,” he dismissively retorts when asked about the popular movement.
Resentment is on the rise against Tebboune’s unilateral policies, after a stream of initial good-will gestures he made to the angry populace quickly dried up.
Feeling secure with the end of protests in March 2019 after the covid-19 pandemic’s outbreak, Tebboune hasn’t lived up to his early promises to release dissidents and ensure transparency.
Instead, arrests of government critics are on the rise. This came to a head with the imprisonment of renowned journalist Khaled Drareni, for ‘endangering national unity’.
“The system renews itself ceaselessly and refuses to change,” wrote Drareni. “We call for press freedom. They respond with corruption and money.”
Algeria’s newly minted Caesar is every inch a member of the Old Guard when discussing journalistic freedoms and the right to free speech.
“Everyone has the right to free expression, but only in an orderly manner,” he says.
“It’s normal that someone who insults and who attacks the symbols of the state winds up in court.”
The Second Republic
The controversy surrounding Tebboune’s constitution isn’t just rooted in the legitimacy of his office. It also has to do with the proposed changes themselves.
While Tebboune promises they will usher in a new republic, most see it as window dressing to secure his position.
“It is yet another coup against popular sovereignty,” said Djamal Bahloul, of the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), Algeria’s oldest opposition party speaking to the New York Times.
“The authorities continue to concoct constitutions through technical commissions or experts — while ignoring the people.”
Algeria’s government claims the new constitution will bring a “radical change” in governance by better separating powers.
But Algerians know better. You can have all the laws you want, but when Tebboune’s handpicked constitutional committee proposed a draft constitution to parliament in March 2020, it was quickly rubber-stamped by a majority consisting of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and Democratic National Rally (RND).
Both parties are staunch supporters of the old regime, and held power under Bouteflika.
Abou El Fadhl Baadji, the FLN’s Secretary General describes the new constitution as a “qualitative leap”, giving birth to a “New Republic where justice, law and the equitable distribution of the country’s wealth reign.”
Most see it differently. For one, the new constitution would concentrate power in the hands of the President, and would change very little for the ordinary Algerian.
In spite of the lack of debate and low turnout for the referendum, Tebboune is expected to push the constitution through no matter the backlash. But for everyone set to be impacted by the dawn of Tebboune’s ‘New Republic’, Algeria’s sun is visibly setting.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated on November 2, 2020 to include the latest numbers on the Algerian constitutional referendum.