Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

The uncertain next steps for Algeria as Abdelaziz Bouteflika set to depart

Analysis: Several competing proposals for what to do have now been laid out, but deciding the fate of the country will take more than promises

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika applauds while sitting on a wheelchair after taking oath in 2014. AP
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika applauds while sitting on a wheelchair after taking oath in 2014. AP

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s confirmation yesterday that he will step down from the presidency by the end of his term on April 28, will come as a relief to many in the country, but it also brings more urgency to the debate about what should come next.

What happens next will play a large role in determining whether Algeria will be set on the path of greater stability or if the coming period will be characterised by continued stagnation and yet more protests.

More dialogue

The main issue at this stage is whether Algeria should satisfy itself with electing a replacement for Mr Bouteflika, or if the country’s constitutional framework should also be reformed.

The ruling Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) party and opposition Alliance Nationale Republicaine have both called for national dialogue as a means to construct a “new political system”. The call was even supported by Russia. The difficulty is that Mr Bouteflika had already overseen several national dialogue processes, none of which have made any significant difference to Algeria’s political system.

Two dialogue processes were launched simultaneously following the 2011 uprisings. The first focused mainly on local development issues, and the second on the country’s political system. A third round of public consultations was organised after a draft constitution was prepared. Very few Algerians and observers participated in these processes, which was unsurprising given that the overarching concern of limiting executive power was left unaddressed. Unsurprisingly, many Algerians rejected any suggestion that yet more dialogue could be a solution to the current crisis, with some even describing the suggestion as an “unending masquerade”.

The army and the opposition

What appears to be on the cards was suggested by the army chief of staff Lt Gen Ahmed Salah on March 26, when he called for the constitution Article 102 to be applied. That article provides that the speaker of Council of the Nation, Algeria’s upper chamber, would assume take charge until presidential elections are held.

That plan was met with significant opposition and derision by rival political figures and protesters. Many have complained that the plan relies on a constitution so discredited that it has lost any claim to legitimacy. Some have also added, not entirely without merit, that the plan’s only real outcome will be to replace Mr Bouteflika with a younger and probably healthier version of himself, while maintaining the exact same system of government.

Broad segments of the population would continue being marginalised from the political process, their interests not represented and catered for, thus guaranteeing continued instability.

There have been counter plans proposed. One such proposal would be to establish a seven-member “ad-hoc committee” composed of consensual national figures and academics. They will then be charged with forming a 22-member national co-ordination committee to then appoint a new government before the end of the current term. Then it would start drafting a new constitution to be finished in time for a referendum to take place at the start of November 2019.

A call for realism

What is positive about all of the above is that all sides appear to agree that change is necessary and essentially inevitable. Also, all sides appear to be aware that while transitions are positive opportunities, they can also be highly fraught.

Developments in Libya, Syria and Yemen weigh very heavily on Algerians, which probably rules out violence and other sudden shocks to the system.

At the same time, however, circumstances demand far more realism than most parties have engaged in. On the one hand, controlling state institutions cannot or at least should not seek to paper over cracks in the system like they did post 2011. At the same time, a transition cannot be organised without the co-operation of at least some of the country’s most important state institutions, including those that will resist change. Compromise and real reform are the only way forward.

But even if that were accepted by all parties, establishing the right type of process that will allow for improved institutional arrangements cannot be done in just a few weeks. In Tunisia, despite the fact that the revolution did away with the previous regime, it took three years of debate and struggle to adopt a constitution.

It is wildly ambitious to assume that real change in Algeria can be achieved through a presidential election on its own, or that a new constitution can be adopted by November 2019. It is also unrealistic to assume that Algerians will patiently wait for years for a new constitution to emerge. A proper balance between these realities and interests is hard to strike.

There is obviously significant impatience within Algeria to make progress as soon as possible, but there should be sufficient appreciation that the path ahead will require ingenuity, patience, perseverance and solidarity. Anything less could lead Algeria to more stagnation and popular unrest, at a time when it can least afford it.

Zaid Al-Ali is a senior adviser on constitution building at International IDEA and is the author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future

Updated: April 2, 2019 04:55 PM