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Algerian 'reforms' are all smoke, but no real substance

While the international media focuses on events in Libya, Syria, Yemen and to a lesser extent Morocco's referendum today, efforts to address sociopolitical grievances are continuing in Algeria as well.

While the international media focuses on events in Libya, Syria, Yemen and to a lesser extent Morocco's referendum today, efforts to address sociopolitical grievances are continuing in Algeria as well.

Unfortunately, the early sense of optimism among reformers in Algiers is giving way to a sense of disillusionment and the perception of broken promises.

Almost from the beginning the Algerian opposition viewed talks - which came after months of street demonstrations - as stall tactics and political manoeuvres designed to shield the system from further citizen revolt.

According to the Algerian League of Human Rights and the National Coordination for Change and Democracy, the regime has just been "papering over the cracks" with pledges of reform. Needless to say, gaps - from high unemployment to soaring inflation - will need more than promises.

When the National Commission for Consultations on Political Reforms first met in May, change looked possible.

Everything from constitutional reform to press freedoms was said to be on the table as the process got started.

But trouble became evident when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appointed the Algerian senate president, Abdelkader Bensalah, to chair the National Commission.

Observers say the political-military elites, or le Pouvoir - "the Power" - are attempting to present the illusion that political negotiations are taking place across the board.

Yet as one source close to the government told me, at the end of the process any "change will not be radical; it is planned by the system".

The objective of this National Commission was to log the various suggestions and submit a synthesised version of concerns to Mr Bouteflika.

He and only he would then offer a road map for amending the constitution and the electoral system, and upgrading regulations on political parties, media freedoms and women's political participation. But based on his past performance, it appears doubtful he will go out on a limb.

For a month, the senate president and his co-chairs, General Mohamed Touati and Mohamed Ali Boughazi, collected the suggestions of over 250 statesmen, political party members, and leaders from state associations.

This commission also met with former defence minister Khaled Nezzar; former prime ministers Sid Ahmed Ghozali and Mokdad Sifi, and current premier Ahmed Ouyahia.

The trouble is, none of these players have real credibility among average Algerians. The commission's make-up looks as if the system is speaking with itself, and to itself.

Mr Bensalah, General Touati, and Mr Boughazi do represent the three dominant factions in the system, but their allegiance is not to the people. It's no secret that the National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Democratic Rally (RND) and the domesticated Islamist party (MSP), are merely appendages of the ruling elite.

Having come out in full support of the reform process none of these parties would have put forward proposals that are out of sync with the agenda of the regime. The semblance of talks is but a smoke screen, for domestic and international purposes.

The government's approach in Algeria, and the public's response, is similar to what is happening in Morocco. There, pro-democracy activists are dubious about the Makhzen (Morocco's governing elite) enacting far-reaching constitutional reforms.

Many in Morocco's youth-led February 20 movement are wondering whether the measures pledged by King Mohammed VI, who has ruled Morocco for 12 years, and expected to be ratified in a referendum today, will really establish democratic institutions, considering that he remains the commander-in-chief of the army and the undisputable supreme religious authority.

Algerians are asking similar questions. Most of Algeria's opposition parties boycotted the recent talks. Some denounced the exclusion of union representatives and civil society activists.

For Ali Yahia Abdennour, the honorary president of the Algerian League of Human Rights and a member of National Coordination for Change and Democracy, the problem has been a lack of public participation. "We must be close to the people to hear what they're saying," he said.

"And we have to talk to the real people," he went on, "not to a supposed elite which has betrayed the people and decided to back up tyranny to the detriment of the rule of law."

World powers such as the US and the UK have offered mixed messages on Algeria's political reform process. Alistair Burt, the UK's minister for Middle East and South Asia, has enthusiastically welcomed these talks. The US has been more tepid.

Washington views Algeria as a key ally in its global fights against extremism and would like to maintain this co-operation with the current regime.

Still, many in Algeria believe that those who have depleted the country's resources and ruled with an iron fist for almost half a century are the problem and cannot provide the solution.

Their removal from office is necessary, but would not represent a sufficient move toward genuine democratisation.

Indeed, empty calls for constitutional reform - promises Mr Bouteflika has made before - will not suffice this time.

 

Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an assistant professor of comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Connecticut

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