The Algerian Army occupies a delicate position after Bouteflika's resignation. Now it must deliver on protesters’ demands without directly interfering in politics
After twenty years in power, 82-year-old octogenarian Abdelaziz Bouteflika has resigned. Dressed in traditional garments, footage broadcast by Algerian news channels allegedly showed Bouteflika, frail and skeletal, handing over his resignation letter to the president of the Constitutional Council Tayeb Belaiz, in the presence of the President of the Council of the Nation, Abdelkader Bensalah, who is expected to head the interim government.
After six weeks of peaceful protests, which began on February 22 of this year, Algerians have used the street as their negotiating table to object to Bouteflika’s fifth term bid, call for Bouteflika’s resignation and the removal of the whole system, known as 'Le Pouvoir' or 'the power'.
"We believe that no more time is needed and that the proposed constitutional solution of implementing Articles 7, 8 and 102 must be implemented immediately and the process of managing the state within the framework of constitutional legitimacy," Salah said in an address yesterday at the National People’s Army Headquarters. Two hours later, Bouteflika announced his resignation.
A soft coup?
All eyes are now on the military and the subsequent measures undertaken with Bouteflika’s resignation. It is uncertain whether Ben Salah, following rumours his job was in jeopardy a few days ago, will take charge in overseeing presidential elections within the 90 days as stipulated by the constitution. Ben Salah could in fact be replaced by a more widely accepted personality to avoid backlash.
The in-fighting between the power clans was evident from the lack of consensus over Bouteflika’s successor, which is precisely what provoked Bouteflika’s fifth term bid earlier this year in the first place. With the army now holding the reins in siding with the people’s demands in forcing Bouteflika to step down, the clash of the clans is a cemented reality with the army removing the Bouteflika brothers and other influential oligarchs from the picture.
In colloquial fashion, Salah referred to the “gangs” heading the presidency—primarily the former president’s brother, Said—since Bouteflika’s debilitating stroke in 2013 forced his absence from the public eye.
With Said now reportedly arrested and the oligarchs barred from leaving Algeria and facing detention for corruption, the army has stepped out of the sidelines and moved front and centre.
This is not a coup akin to that which overthrew President Chadli Bendjadid in 1992, nor to the military coup in Egypt during the so-called Arab Spring. The army will attempt to interfere as little as possible in the subsequent process, so as not to antagonise the people, but just enough to ensure their objectives in maintaining the stability of the institutions.
There are more questions than answers to what is happening now and all eyes will be on the role of the military in the subsequent transition. Like the clash of the power clans, internal differences between the younger, high-ranking officers and the older generals have become speculative: were the former applying pressure to Salah to make it clear they would not adopt repressive measures like those witnessed during the October riots in 1988 or to undertake a coup like in 1992 which lead to 10 years of a brutal, bloody civil war? If so, will internal strife lead to radical changes within Algeria’s ruling mechanism?
A compromise that satisfies the army and meets people’s expectations is the next step. If the solution proposed by Salah involves Article 7, which enshrines the sovereignty of the people, will democratic aspirations be encouraged or hindered by the army? The army must abide by its promises if it wants to maintain its strong links with the people.
The current transition plan already proves problematic with its reliance on the constitution which has largely been discredited as illegitimate. There are also palpable concerns that Bouteflika will simply be replaced by a clone who will maintain the same system of governance, which for Algerians has represented nothing more than corruption, nepotism, squandering of national wealth and a marginalisation of genuine political actors.
Retrograde forces may also now surface and attempt to control the popular revolt.
Criminal proceedings are expected against the elite which rely heavily on a fair judicial system that can prevent the process from being hijacked by political vendettas. The process depends heavily on the capacity of the judiciary to operate transparently and independently.
The army will play a decisive role in opening up negotiating channels with the opposition and will end up dictating how much say the opposition has in the entire transition process.
Optimism can be drawn from the recognition that all sides seemingly agree on the need for reform. Algeria is not new to transitions or national dialogues; previous mistakes need to guide the process so that they are not repeated and the time, and patience, of the people isn't tested.
The political transition will need the support of certain personalities that garner widespread respect and free and transparent presidential elections are a must.
The “Second Republic" envisioned by the people will be a slow and likely painful process which cannot be remedied by elections or constitutional reform alone. To expect results as quickly as Bouteflika’s resignation came would be naive and counterproductive.
The clear maturity and nuanced understanding of politics and its machinations displayed by Algerians in the last six weeks has been commendable and will no doubt aid the long-overdue process.
Bouteflika leaves the Palace of El Mouradia with no final words for a people he hardly knew. History will not remember him kindly.
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