Algeria’s draft constitution will be put to a referendum on November 1, a symbolic date on which the declaration of the war of independence was made in 1954, and intentionally designated so as to represent a break from the past.
However, instead of offering unity and a path to a new era, the draft has been criticized as being engineered to exacerbate social tensions, and create space for the ruling elite to assert their power over an increasingly divided society and splintering Hirak movement, which has seen its potency significantly diminished. Instead of being a contract governing the relationship between the citizen and the state, critics suggest it has been drafted as a tool for the government to preserve and assert itself.
The process of bringing about change in Algeria has been complicated from the outset. Algeria formed a constitution in 1964, and then another in 1976, and then another in 1989, and then another in 1996 which was then amended on three separate occasions in 2008, 2012, and 2016.
Following the civil war of the 1990s, the reconciliation in 2002 heralded an era in which Algerians demonstrated a preference for peace over upheaval, inevitably leading to a tacit acceptance of the decaying political system as the elite took full advantage of the societal trauma to embed themselves in the government. However, with the emergence of a new generation born after the civil war, the required elements of a popular uprising combined with the perfect storm as President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s allies sought to push the severely debilitated President to run for a fifth term.
Algerians took to the streets and protested in what became known as the Hirak movement. With thousands remaining on the streets for a prolonged period, the army eventually intervened as the late Army Chief of Staff Gaid Saleh overthrew the government. This began the transition process that would bring the simmering divisions within Algerian society to the fore.
The first point of contention was how to transfer power from the army to the “people.”
The first point of contention was how to transfer power from the army to the “people.” A consensus could not be reached over whether a transitional government led by respected individuals should be appointed, whether there should be parliamentary elections, or whether there should be presidential elections.
The ostensible problem with a transitional government was the inability to agree on which national figure should lead. Names such as Ahmad Ben Bitour and Ahmad Taleb Brahimi were touted. However, the army appeared disinclined to consider this option, resulting in suggestions that they already had a candidate in mind and were exploring measures to engineer a transition that would preserve the system and deliver an allied political faction to power.
The problem with the option of parliamentary elections was as much a trust issue as it was a legal one. There was a general aversion to elections through the laws passed under Bouteflika which were seen as engineered to favor pro-government candidates. Moreover, many activists expressed deep concern that members of the caretaker government were those implicated in rigging elections.
The late army chief Ahmad Gaid Saleh asserted the third option, presidential elections. The argument was that this would create a popular legitimacy at the highest state level that would democratize the transitional process and facilitate a more conducive environment for subsequent initiatives.
Moreover, concerns over the growing presence of Amazigh flags rattled not only the political elite, but also large sections of society who began to fear that the environment of protest and revolution would give rise to the re-emergence of separatist tendencies.
Whether intended or not, the decision to proceed with presidential elections split the entire Hirak movement in half. Only 40 percent of the electorate participated in the presidential elections, demonstrating either widespread apathy or protest at the handling of the transitional process. In any event, the absence of an alternative means to register opposition and the notable decline in the number of protests (although they remained large), meant that Abdelmajid Tebboune was declared the elected President of Algeria.
Despite the controversy surrounding the elections, there has been a noticeable element of goodwill towards Tebboune in so far as he has been afforded the political space to present initiatives to facilitate the transitional process. To what extent this goodwill has been given out of concern to manage the quasi-revolution in Algeria in light of Libya and Syria’s descent into brutal civil war cannot be adequately ascertained.
However, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic a few months after Tebboune’s election effectively forced the Hirak to recede and give up the most powerful leverage against attempts by the political elite to alter the democratic process in their favor. This was the turning point in the transition as it eased the pressure on the government, and the Hirak disintegrated as a tangible entity and became an intangible concept deployed by individual groups to promote various agendas.
It is in this climate that the draft of the constitution has been drawn up. Tebboune appointed a constitutional committee without specifying the criteria on which the members were appointed. The Chairman of the committee, Ahmad Laraaba, then stoked controversy when he suggested that the state should not have a religion or an identity, while qualifying his statement by declaring that society was not ready for such ideas and the matter should be approached carefully.
The statement was reminiscent of the social-engineering attempts during Bouteflika’s reign which saw efforts to force women to remove their hijab for passport photos, and to have school textbooks remove the Islamic “bismellah” that declares education begins in the name of Allah. Moreover, it indicated that the state would no longer arbitrate on the issue of Arab-Amazigh identity in the manner that Houari Boumediene had done in the 60s when he declared that Arabic would take supremacy over all languages in Algeria.
The stoking of the identity debate raises fears that the prime beneficiary will be France as the likely resolution to the problem will be to further embed French as a lingua franca.
This has deep ramifications for Algerian society, primarily because Amazigh is a phonetic language that is currently subject to debate within the Amazigh community over whether to adopt Phoenician letters or Latin alphabet. More specifically, the stoking of the identity debate raises fears that the prime beneficiary will be France as the likely resolution to the problem will be to further embed French as a lingua franca as a compromise between the Arab and Amazigh, strengthening French influence at a time when Algeria is keen to limit it.
Moreover, it is unclear whether the elevation of the Amazigh language from one of the spoken languages to a state language means that it will be mandatory for students to learn it in schools. Lastly, there are deep sensitivities to ongoing separatist tendencies that many Algerians fear will act as a conduit for civil strife.
From the state’s perspective, the elevation of the Amazigh language to that of a state language may well simply be part of a policy of appeasement in order to win over an important segment of the electorate who is antagonist to the Arabist elements that the late army chief Gaid Saleh appeared to favor when he swiftly called for the presidential elections.
In a bid to settle the Amazigh question, which had become a hot topic in 2012, Bouteflika himself had added a similar clause in a constitutional amendment to win the Amazigh over as an electorate. The clause has been included in the current proposed draft.
The constitutional committee also caused concern by reportedly proposing the inclusion of an unelected Vice President appointed by the President as part of the political system. For context, the beginnings of the bitter civil war in the 1990s began when the army steered their preferred candidate to the position of Vice President before forcing then-President Chedhli Ben Jdid to resign following unexpected defeats in free and fair elections, thus enabling the Vice President to take over and assume power.
Analysts expressed fears that the army were seeking to include this clause as a means to ensure they could intervene whenever they deemed necessary. After much criticism, this clause was removed from the proposed constitution.
Aside from the fact that the intended constitution differs little from its predecessors, there are also concerns over the process which will see it passed.
The Parliament that is expected to debate the constitution is the same as that under Bouteflika.
The Parliament that is expected to debate the constitution is the same as that under Bouteflika, meaning it does not enjoy any trust from the Algerian electorate. Therefore, there is limited recourse for the citizenry to engage with the drafting of the constitution, even as the elements of civil society who have been nominally consulted by the government insist that their suggestions were largely ignored by a committee that appeared to already have had a constitution in mind before the process began.
Nevertheless, there is an argument among Algerians that the problems of Algeria are not constitutional and that the remedies will not come via a constitution. They assert the real issue is that the spirit of the constitution has never been implemented and that its laws have always been misinterpreted in favor of the state. In other words, the contents of the constitution are less important than the attitude of the state towards the concept of the rule of law.
There is a conspicuous lack of excitement over the draft constitution. There are also accusations of a gradual encroachment on the ability of critics to present their arguments. What is clear is that the state is confident the constitution will be passed on November 1. Still, the concern amongst Algerians is not whether the constitution reflects the will of the people, but that their control over a transitional process that they brought about is diminishing as the state finds itself growing in confidence and able to exert more and more control as time passes.
Enough Algerians are willing to trust Tebboune for the time being, while civil society is deeply divided and unable to present a united front behind a particular trajectory to assert itself. Yet, that trust is dependent upon the ability of the President to maintain enough sense of agency among the people that they do not feel their revolution is being stolen from them.