Algeria's president has partially conceded to protestors' demands — what should we expect next?

Algeria's president has partially conceded to protestors' demands — what should we expect next?
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After weeks of historic popular protests, Algerian politics may be changing. Last week’s announcement by the leadership to postpone presidential elections represents a first — but by no means the last — step in what could be a genuine reform process. Experiences from other North African countries suggest that a meaningful outcome requires power to remain on the side of the Algerian people.

Nationwide demonstrations began on February 22, less than two weeks after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika unofficially announced his candidacy for the elections then scheduled for April. Bouteflika’s candidacy represented a bid (whose likelihood of success was high, given the fractured nature of the opposition and the fraudulent character of previous elections) for a fifth term in office.

Protestors decried the fact that Bouteflika has rarely appeared and not publicly spoken since 2014, having suffered a stroke the previous year. Instead, the country is run by a closed group of military officials, business elites, and individuals close to the president. For many years the government kept the population placated through generous subsidies funded by oil exports, but since the decline in oil prices it has failed to improve socioeconomic conditions. Protestors during the last several weeks objected not only to a fifth term for the president, but also demanded a new political system.

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Both the regime and the protestors have made clear efforts to keep the demonstrations peaceful, largely because of deep-rooted memories of a civil war in the 1990s in which an estimated 150,000 - 200,000 people died. Meanwhile, the regime has been making gradual concessions. On March 3, Bouteflika (via a letter read on state television) promised not to seek re-election after this term, and to begin a new process of constitutional revisions. Subsequently, army chief Gaed Salah, who had originally warned protestors not to provoke violence by alluding to the civil war of the 1990s (which Bouteflika is widely credited with ending), declared that the military and the people had a united vision of the future. Other indications of the regime’s weakening include fragmentation among business class leaders once collectively supportive of Bouteflika, and several defections from among Bouteflika’s allies.

Bouteflika’s latest concession, made last Monday, to not seek reelection and to organize the revision of the constitution was by far the most dramatic, but it does not and will not suffice to end the standoff between the people and the government.

Although the president has brought in a new prime minister to name an interim government until new elections are held, no date has been set for the elections, meaning that Bouteflika has effectively extended his own fourth term indefinitely. The plans for a national conference have been slightly more concrete, with calls for a “consensual and experienced national figure” to lead the process, and a national referendum on the new constitution planned before the end of the year.

In order for these actions to launch a transition in which the Algerian people acquire a genuine, effective voice in governing, power will need to remain in the hands of the Algerian people during this initial period. A full transition cannot happen overnight, or even in a few years, and it will not be easy. But examples from recent attempted transitions in nearby countries suggest it may be possible.

In Egypt, where the military has also played a central role in politics since independence, the armed forces took control following the departure of then-president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and organized democratic elections to replace it (albeit with many criticisms). However, that government and the military soon came into conflict, and the army once again took control. Today Egyptians live under a regime more severely repressive than Mubarak’s; meanwhile the new president, Abdelfatah el-Sisi, has nearly succeeded in passing constitutional reforms that would allow him to stay in power until 2034.

The Moroccan leadership in 2011 responded to street protests by promising reforms similar to those being made by the Algerian authorities today. King Mohammed VI appointed a 19-member advisory commission to lead a constitutional reform process which also incorporated representatives from political parties and civil society organizations. The committee ultimately drafted, within three months, a new constitution approved in a popular referendum shortly thereafter. Despite introducing several explicit guarantees to protect individual rights and expanding the powers of parliament, the extent of these palace-led reforms in transferring power to the people was limited.

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Tunisia’s 2011 protest movement also led authorities to take similar actions called for by Bouteflika, including cabinet reshuffles and the release of political prisoners. As in Egypt, the army’s choice to side with protestors led to the departure of the then-president. In his wake, interim authorities sought to appoint elites perceived as neutral to govern until new elections were held. But protestors – ostensibly representing the Tunisian people – refused to accept any “renewal” of elites. Instead, they negotiated with the self-appointed interim authorities and formed a quasi-parliament to help govern until a constituent assembly had been elected. This experience, while messy, was effective in helping advance what until now appears to be the most complete transition process of any of these countries.

Tunisia is the only country where the power of the people during the uprising period remained equal to or greater than that of the government or the military. Although analysts caution against drawing too many parallels with the 2011 uprisings in nearby countries, it is nonetheless imperative that protestors in Algeria, and those they represent, continue to have a full voice during this initial transition period. This will likely be more difficult in Algeria than in Tunisia, if for no other reason than the country’s complicated relations with many countries, including the United States.

The fact that the people are resisting the regime’s concessions shows that they no longer fear violent repression. If the army truly sides with the people, then it too should embrace genuine change, and give Algerians a chance to participate in governing their country.

Sabina Henneberg received her Ph.D. and M.A. in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the first interim governments in Tunisia and Libya following the 2011 Arab uprisings. She has worked in Africa and the Middle East on international education and civil society development, and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at SAIS, where she continues to research and publish on issues relating to political transitions in North Africa.