Algeria's Establishment Wants Quick Elections. Protesters See It As a Trap.

Ahmed Gaid Salah in 2006.
12 September 2019
analysis

On Friday 6 September, pro-democracy protesters took the streets across Algeria for the 29th week in a row. On this occasion, one demonstrator brandished a placard reading "You can give your speech but I will not vote against my country". Others chanted "Listen Gaid, this is a civilian state. Listen Gaid, this is not a military state".

These messages were directed at Ahmed Gaid Salah, Chief of Algerian Army and Deputy Defence Minister. Days earlier, he had called publicly for an electoral process to begin on 15 September, meaning elections would be held by 15 December. Speaking from a military base, he said an independent electoral commission should be established quickly based on a light revision of the existing laws "rather than a total and deep revision that would cover all relevant texts".

Gaid Salah's preference for speedy elections is well-known. Since Algeria's huge protest movement forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign after 20 years in office this April, the ruling establishment has repeatedly argued for quick elections. What was shocking about Gaid Salah's 2 September address was his boldness in making political demands publicly. Algeria's military has exerted a considerable political influence since 1962, but this has typically operated indirectly so as maintain the façade of a division between the government and the army.

Algerian protesters have been additionally concerned by Gaid Salah's intervention given that it comes against a backdrop of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests. In recent weeks, authorities have detained high-profile opposition figures such leader of the Workers' Party Louisa Hannoun, retired general and presidential candidate Ali Ghediri, war veteran and outspoken critic Lakhdar Bouregaa, and most recently political activist Karim Tabbou.

It also comes as the establishment maintains its tight control over discussions regarding the country's future. The administration of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah, a former close ally of Bouteflika, has rejected multiple requests from political parties and civil society organisations to hold gatherings to develop forward-looking proposals. Instead, it has only allowed one process to take place: the so-called Dialogue and Mediation Panel under the leadership of Karim Younes, a former Bouteflika minister and ex-president of parliament's lower chamber. Younes is also known to be a supporter of Ali Benflis, a former prime minister and now presidential hopeful.

In early July, Younes said the panel would conduct "broad consultations" with stakeholders in preparation for a National Dialogue. This would allow for consensual solutions to emerge and eventually lead to elections.

Most key opposition figures have refused to engage with the process. They have cited its perceived lack of independence and pointed out that their preconditions for talks - the liberation of political prisoners, lifting of media restrictions, and guarantee of the right of assembly - have not been met. Nonetheless, the panel claimed in early September to have held more than 5,000 consultations since 7 August, a superhuman average of over 200 consultations per working day.

Algeria's protest movement is similarly sceptical about the regime-mandated panel. Demonstrators have rejected its legitimacy, with some students disrupting proceedings in protest at one of the panel's rare open gatherings on 18 August.

Despite its closeness to the government, however, even the panel seems to have been taken by surprise by Gaid Salah's 2 September speech. In its wake, the group was forced to backpedal and announce that no national conference was required. A week later, it submitted its report to interim president Bensalah in which it noted: "there is agreement on the need to hold presidential elections within a short timeline". It added: "those consulted did not express a desire to see the interim president resign... but there is demand for the current government to leave and be replaced by a technocrat government".

Bensalah subsequently announced that he had mandated Younes to "lead the necessary consultations towards the establishment of an independent electoral commission". Shortly after, the panel presented draft legal texts and proposed legislation regarding changes to the electoral law and electoral commission to the interim president. The documents were promptly approved by cabinet and forwarded to the parliamentary committee in charge of legal affairs. The whole process took just three days, with no time for debate or public scrutiny. It also seemingly contravened the constitution, which states in Article 136 that only the Prime Minister or parliamentarians can propose legislative texts.

A marathon not a sprint

Under these conditions, it is not surprising that the Algerian movement strongly rejects calls for quick elections. The conditions for free and fair polls are far from present and they see calls for a quick vote as a trap that would allow for the survival of the existing establishment.

Protesters, and the population at large, are instead arguing for a transition period led by individuals who were not associated with the old Bouteflika system. Under this arrangement, there would be dialogue on the way forwards, though this would only be possible once certain preconditions have been met. Only when political liberties are guaranteed, open meetings are allowed, and the army's involvement in politics is restricted could a truly democratic transition take place.

What form the transitional body should take is yet unclear, though largely because there has been no space to debate it rather than a lack of ideas. The two main options currently being proposed are a constituent assembly or a college. If it were the former, the body would be mandated to draft a new constitution, which would likely take at least two years, prior to elections. If it were the latter, its priority would be to create appropriate conditions for a transition and elections including by revising relevant laws, building confidence, guaranteeing a space for dialogue, and appointing a new government to run the day-to-day business of the state.

Either way, the Algerian movement is well aware that this endeavour will take time. While the surviving regime wants to sprint and put an end to this current phase as soon as possible, the people know that their goal of #yetnahaw_ga3 ("they shall all be removed") is a marathon.

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