Algeria’s fate is clouded with uncertainty as unseen forces within its ruling elite battle for supremacy, while doing their best to survive the continuing calls for meaningful change across the country.
A week after Algeria’s ailing 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, the country’s future is still gripped with uncertainty, as it finds itself caught between popular demands for change and a deep state that does not want to relinquish its influence easily.
While jubilation and euphoria are still present on the streets, Algerians are cautious and conscious of the bloodshed and chaos that previously ravaged their country. The fear, often unspoken, is only reinforced by the dark shadow cast by Syria, Libya and Egypt; where popular revolutions were co-opted, subverted or altogether crushed.
Algerians don’t need to look far to find reason for caution. In the late 1980s, the military carried out a coup during the country’s brief democratic revival, followed by the infamous ‘Black Decade’, which involved a protracted bitter and bloody civil war that claimed as many as 200,000 lives.
For many, the most recent revolution is only the beginning, but the question remains, what happens next?
“This is only the beginning of the revolution. The deep state is trying to find the best way to survive and transition into its next shape or form, by appeasing the people with token changes,” Messoud Laarbi, an Algerian political analyst, told TRT World.
Protestors are deeply conscious of the idea that Bouteflika’s removal from power is as much a product of their ability to unite around demands, as it is due to the divisions and struggle for power among Algeria’s hidden ruling elite, who have always presented a united front against the people.
Bouteflika’s nomination for a fifth term speaks much of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its inability to agree on a viable successor. The intervention of the Algerian Army Chief of Staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, only hastened his resignation.
But for many, achieving systemic change is another matter altogether.
The interim leader, Abdelkader Bensalah, a close ally of Bouteflika, doesn’t have the trust of the people. If anything, he is perceived as another face of the omnipresent party that has ruled Algeria since its independence from France in 1967.
This lack of trust is significant given his promise that free and fair elections are to be held within 90 days of Bouteflika’s resignation.
It wasn’t always like this.
When the protests first took off, popular demands were limited to Bouteflika’s resignation.
The regime’s announcement that Bouteflika would withdraw from his fifth term, while extending his fourth was met with a resounding backlash.
Nearly overnight, demands emerged to remove the entire regime as a whole with chants of: “The people want the fall of the system.” (al-Sha‘b yurid isqat al-nidham)
One off-the-cuff remark by a protestor “Yetnahaw ga‘” (Get rid of them all), quickly went viral on social media, immortalised in memes, hashtags, and slogans.
Survival at any cost
In response, members of Algeria’s regime have taken a page from the military’s playbook, appearing to endorse the protests in recent weeks in a bid to preserve their position.
But to no avail. Protestors remain insistent on full regime change.
“They’re all the same. I want them all removed. It’s not until we start a new page that we’ll have a chance to make Algeria great again,” Zakaria Bentahar, an unemployed law graduate, told TRT World.
Bentahar pursued a Masters degree in sociology after realising he’d never find work as a lawyer in Algeria.
In another video, a young man’s emphasis on removing every last regime member including municipal security guards quickly gained traction and went viral.
“We are the sovereigns,” repeats Sofiane, a fashion student in Algeria, throughout the video that has since received millions of views.
“We decide what happens. They have nothing. By God, they’re some 40 in the presidential palace. We’re 40 million. You can’t take us. You can’t take us. The Algerian people, if they put something in their head, I swear to god they’ll take it. As the martyrs did when they freed the country in 1962.”
Even the military, which played a major role in pressuring Bouteflika’s resignation, was unable to avoid public scrutiny and calls for a purge. Instead, Salah’s defection from Bouteflika is widely seen as an attempt by the military to appease the public after it recognised which direction the wind was blowing.
Salah however, has not shied away from trying to establish a reputation as the people’s saviour. Rather, the army chief has turned on his former allies, in a bid to prove his loyalty to the cause.
Algeria’s protesters have now turned their energy to calling for the removal of the ‘three Bs’ from power, namely Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, Interim Leader Abdelkader Bensalah, and Constitutional Council Head Tayeb Belaiz.
But while Salah may have called for the implementation of Article 102, which would have annulled Bouteflika’s presidency due to inability to carry out his duties, what actually happened was altogether different.
In truth, Bouteflika quickly blocked the motion to implement 102, which would have seen an inquiry and unanimous vote by the Constitutional Council, followed by a vote by the upper and lower houses of Algeria’s parliament.
Instead, he submitted his resignation to the head of the Constitutional Council, the highest legal body in Algeria, which is loyal by virtue of the fact that only the president is able to appoint members.
Even Bensalah, the Upper House Chairman now turned interim leader has held his position for 17 years, assuring the regime’s continuity in spite of Bouteflika’s removal.
The military enjoys better footing given its exclusion from the calls for systemic change. Salah has held his position for 15 years, but seems to have won over the sympathies of the public, however temporary.
The Algerian military’s assured role in the transition promises that Bouteflika’s successor will be chosen by the country’s generals, dubbed by Algerians in a popular rhyme as ‘the sons of Paris in the country of Bin Badis’ (an acclaimed revolutionary hero).
House of Cards Collapsing
As Salah secures his position, in-fighting within the opaque regime has reached its highest level. Algerians never have a clear picture of the secretive dealings that take place in the halls of power that come to affect their lives.
Algeria has long been run by a shadowy political collective —referred to as ‘le Pouvoir’, or ‘the Power’, by Algerians, where decisions are reached behind the scenes through a system of consensus.
Instead, Algerians only see the fall-outs, firings and arrests that take place when one faction within the regime outmanoeuvres another, when figures fall out of favour or when allies turned scapegoats are offered up to the public.
In a rare breach of the unspoken rule of silence, Salah publicly spoke out about ‘secret meetings’ that took place between the current intelligence chief, Bouteflika’s brother Said, and the formerly arrested since released head of intelligence, Toufik Medienne, once dubbed the ‘God of Algeria’, until Bouteflika’s faction arrested him in a purge to seize back control of the country.
In Salah’s statement, he outlined a conflict between his faction and Said Bouteflika and his loyalists. His reaction to the move? To dismiss the current head of intelligence, Chief Bachir Tartag and annex his position under the Ministry of Defence according to Echorouk News, removing it from the oversight of the presidency, as was the norm after Bouteflika’s many purges of the encroaching intelligence services.
Allegedly, the clandestine meeting sought to present former president Lamine Zerwal as a transitional candidate, while Salah accused the conspirators of trying to undermine the army and subvert the people’s wishes.
Bouteflika’s brother was also banned from leaving the country.
As Salah reasserts his authority throughout the country, a striking parallel emerges, reminiscent of Major General Mohsen al Fanagry, of the Egyptian military council’s salute of the martyrs of the January 2011 Revolution. Salah also saluted the Algerian protests, promising support for their grievances and demands.
In their speeches, they both echoed their commitment to stand by the people, both warning of infiltrators and a fifth column in the revolution.
While Salah’s intentions have yet to be revealed, al Fangary’s story has gone down in history. In spite of his promises, he would go on to co-opt the revolution and impose a military dictatorship over Egypt through sheer force.
What do the people want?
El Moudjahid, a pro-regime newspaper, suggests that the current interim leader Bensalah be discharged from his position as upper house speaker, to prevent him from becoming the acting president.
Meanwhile, Salah insists that the succession must follow the very constitutional framework he ironically overlooked when calling for Bouteflika’s removal from power.
But even if Bensalah is removed, there is no clear candidate for interim leader that has the approval of the people, and the trust of the regime.
Even Bensalah’s successor would be rejected by the public. To further the irony, even if there is no successor to Bensalah, the Constitutional Council’s Tayeb Belaiz would become acting president, already perceived as a staunch loyalist and Bouteflika’s man.
Instead, protesters are calling for a new transitional system that will purge the country’s political system, ensure free elections, and carry out reforms.
Failing the formation of a new alternative political body, Algeria finds itself at a crossroads made worse by the lack of a united opposition that nonetheless refuses to accept any compromises from the regime.
Given the choice between military-guided elections and the eventual election of an establishment politician with a reformist image or an all out military coup d’etat by Salah, Algeria’s future is firmly caught between a rock and a hard place.