When Algerians took to the streets and successfully toppled the regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019, there was a genuine belief that this was Algeria’s Arab Spring moment. The prominent figures of the regime were arrested while protesters continued to demand reforms to redefine the social contract between the state and its citizens.
However, euphoria soon turned to uncertainty. The re-emergence of separatist Tamazight voices, and the notable surge in the presence of Tamazight flags as opposed to the national flag of Algeria, rattled the army which swiftly moved to fill the political vacuum and contain such tendencies. Yet rather than establishing a transitional government with universally respected figures, the army instead decided to declare presidential elections.
Subsequently, the elections’ low voter turnout of 40 percent reflected the uncertainty and divisions emerging within the Hirak popular protest movement. Those who participated in the election argued that order was better than chaos that might lead to another civil war. Those who advocated against voting argued that the elections were an effective ploy by the regime to divide the Hirak and contain its potency, even as it considered how to restrain a wholesale revolution against a system it would prefer to predominantly keep in place.
If there were any plans to resist President AbdelMajid Tebboune after he was elected in December 2019, the advent of COVID-19 made this impossible as many protesters left the streets to isolate and facilitate a nationwide effort to contain the pandemic that brought with it worldwide economic crises. Nevertheless, President Tebboune’s legitimacy was generally acknowledged and as he appointed a constitutional committee to draw up a new constitution, civil society groups readily engaged with the committee in presenting suggestions and recommendations.
The process of drawing up the constitution has been marred with controversy.
However, the process of drawing up the constitution has been marred with controversy. While Algerians had begrudgingly accepted the presidential election results on the basis that a prolonged power vacuum would lead to chaos, the regime mistook the qualified vote of confidence as a mandate to unilaterally translate the popular demands into a constitution. The head of the constitutional committee made controversial remarks over the issue of the identity of the state and the Algerian people, re-igniting the perception that Algeria is ruled by an ideological minority detached from the mainstream views held by Algerian society. The issue of including the Tamazight language as an official language stirred the identity debate as Algerians mulled whether such a clause would require all schools to teach the language, or only those in the predominantly Amazigh areas.
Furthermore, the extension of the army’s powers drew suspicion that the regime was seeking to extend its authority. And, suggestions that a position of “vice-president” would be created and appointed by the president led to backlash as critics drew parallels between the manner in which the army cast aside President Chadli Bendjedid in early 1992, following the annulment of the election results, with the military appointing Mohamed Boudiaf in his place—ultimately leading to a full-fledged ten-year long civil war.
While some of these contested clauses were later discarded, such as that relating to the establishment of a vice president, the general perception was that the regime already had in mind what it wanted to include in the constitution and that the consultations with civil society were merely to gauge the extent of potential backlash.
The parliament is the same as that elected during the Bouteflika administration under an electoral process which Algerians never had any faith in.
The controversy over the constitution has been compounded by the absence of a representative parliament which critics argue should scrutinize the proposed draft. Instead, the parliament is the same as that elected during the Bouteflika administration under an electoral process which Algerians never had any faith in.
Despite the growing criticism over the lack of inclusion and genuine reform proposed in the new constitution, the regime nevertheless sought to present it as a revolutionary moment by designating November 1 as the date for the referendum which would coincide with the anniversary of the November 1 declaration of 1954, announcing the war of independence against French colonization.
However, only 23.7 percent of the electorate turned out to vote while just over half of those voted in favor of the constitution. To put this into context, only 13.7 percent of more than 24 million Algerians eligible to vote affirmed their support for the proposed constitution.
The substantially low turnout has made it difficult for the regime to argue that the coronavirus pandemic hindered the electorate’s ability to vote. While debate rages as to whether the low turnout was driven by apathy or boycott, the reality is that such assessments are irrelevant. What is relevant, and abundantly clear, is that the Algerians who overthrew Bouteflika are not enthusiastic over President AbdelMajid Tebboune’s first year in power, nor are they content with the direction the country is headed.
While the Hirak movement is divided over the process that needs to be implemented to deliver on the promise of reform, the poor referendum turnout reveals that there is general consensus that the process proposed by Tebboune’s leadership so far, and his proposed constitution, is not the way forward.
The dilemma for the regime has been exacerbated by the sudden and unforeseen absence of President Tebboune.
The dilemma for the regime has been exacerbated by the sudden and unforeseen absence of President Tebboune himself from Algeria. Less than a week before the referendum, the President was rushed to Germany for treatment after falling ill with Covid-19. Since then, he has not appeared before the public nor delivered an address. There are growing suspicions over the state of the President’s health. Many have begun to draw parallels with Bouteflika’s latter years where, despite the former president’s poor health and clear inability to continue in his duties, the regime kept him in place as a figurehead to preserve the system.
While such comparisons are unfair, Algerian politics appear to have come to a standstill as the regime hesitates to go through with the process of affirming the constitution, as some analysts tout the possibility of Tebboune conceding to public discontent and annulling the referendum altogether. Meanwhile, there is confusion over what happens when the only elected official post-Hirak continues to be incapacitated. This vacuum of legitimacy brings to the fore the deep distrust between the people and the regime which only Tebboune and his qualified legitimacy can bridge.
President Tebboune still has enough goodwill among the Algerian population to oversee the transition process. His remarks condemning normalization of ties with Israel, his insistence on neutrality in Libya, and his management of diplomatic flare-ups with Morocco have presented an image of a functioning state at a time of increasing public concerns over the close proximity of the conflicts unfolding in the region. Tebboune is also reinforced by the absence of alternatives to the transition. Algerians are divided over parliamentary elections under the current election laws which many argue were engineered to favor regime candidates, and over who can embody the desired reforms. Therefore, Tebboune is in no rush to establish a new legislative body or appoint a new government.
However, the current peace and relative stability is becoming increasingly underpinned by fear and concern as opposed to hope. Moreover, as the economy is battered by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and low oil prices, the immense scale of necessary reforms continues to grow. The health sector has fallen short of the required standards and the exceptionally lethargic bureaucracy hinders effective implementation of policy.
The fear in Algeria is that the current situation may be a false peace caused by the coronavirus restrictions which limit effective protest.
The fear in Algeria is that the current situation may be a false peace caused by the coronavirus restrictions which limit effective protest, and a general willingness to see how Tebboune handles the transition. This means that if the regime pushes too hard in implementing unpopular measures that are perceived as an attempt to curb the revolution and re-impose itself, then there is a real possibility of Algerians taking to the streets once more. The constitution of a “13.7 percent” mandate may well be implemented, and Tebboune could declare it as a positive step forward.
Still, in Algeria, silence is not a sign of acceptance. Bouteflika thrived by taking advantage of a generation scarred by the civil war of the 90s and their subsequent aversion to any form of change for fear of going back to that period of brutal instability. Yet, the current demographics are made up of a significant youth population born after the civil war, who are deeply resentful of the lack of opportunities afforded to them as a result of corruption, maladministration, and poor governance.
Moreover, Tebboune’s incapacitation is a stark reminder of how dependent Algeria remains on individuals as opposed to institutions, which underlines the urgent need to establish legitimate legislative bodies that receive an acceptable popular mandate to reinforce the transition process.
All eyes are now on Tebboune and how he manages the scathing assessment of his first year in power.