President Tebboune has his new constitution, which limits presidents and Members of Parliament to two five-year terms and gives the president a lot more power. Some power is taken away. The president must select a prime minister from the party or coalition with the most votes in parliament. However, parliament will no longer be able to curb bad behavior by a president.
The government can no longer punish religious or ethnic minorities to appease Islamic conservatives or Arab nationalists. The main beneficiary of this is the Berbers, as well as the growing number of Moslems who have converted to Christianity. Now the new (since late 2019 elections) president can appoint most senior officials, like the head of the army and the head of the Central Bank, the chief justice of the supreme court and a third of the twelve justices.
The president can now order troops to serve in operations outside Algeria. Many Algerians want troops sent into Libya, at least to provide better border security along the thousand-kilometer-long Libyan border. Other Algerians fear that sending any troops across the border might lead to an escalation that would draw Algeria into the Libyan civil war. Others believe that the new rules allow the army to participate in peacekeeping missions. Army leaders oppose that, especially since that could mean getting involved in the Libyan Civil War. Since independence from France in 1962, Algerian law has banned use of the army outside Algeria. Since 1962 every new long-term (more than a year or two) president, and there have only been five, changes to the constitution were attempted, usually to make the presidency more powerful. This time around the president got more power and the ability to order Algerian troops to operate outside Algeria.
The New Boss
The presidential elections were held on December 12, 2019, despite popular (Hirak) opposition. This was not an instant disaster because the candidate elected, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister, formed his new government by appointing new government ministers many Hirak members approved of, or could not criticize. None of the new ministers had opposed the weekly Hirak protests. Tebboune has also met with Hirak leaders and simultaneously organized an effort to create a new constitution that would make it more difficult for he, or any future president, to again become a corrupt “president-for-life”. The new president, as a former senior official himself, knows that there are many senior people in the government, military and business community who oppose such changes. Such opposition has to be expressed quietly but it is still there and now that the new government is not as dictator-proof as many hoped.
Hirak did not want a new constitution but rather fair elections and less corruption and mismanagement in the government. Hirak lost and the government leaders now depend on the army to keep them in power. That may prove tricky because army leaders want their own people running the government. As often happens when a corrupt leader is overthrown, his key supporters, mainly those who have prospered from the corruption, survive. It is difficult for a successful protest movement to reorganize to get rid of the many corrupt senior officials. The guilty have the money and other resources to hire lawyers and bribe their way out of trouble. Hirak knew they were in trouble with the interim military government refused to delay presidential elections until Hirak could get better organized.
Then things got worse. Even before the November 2020 constitutional referendum, Tebboune recognized the Hirak movement as the main threat to his hold on power. Hirak is the name given to the mass movement that overthrew the previous president and enabled Tebboune to become the new president. Hirak now sees Tebboune as not much better than the man he replaced and in response the government has jailed hundreds of Hirak supporters for continuing to participate in the weekly demonstrations that began in February 2019 to overthrow the FLN party, which had held onto power since the 1960s. That protest movement put the Tebboune into office, although many Algerians were unsure of how much a reformer the Tebboune was. Tebboune turned out to be a reformer, but not in the way most Algerians wanted.
The weekly Hirak demonstrations were halted in March with the imposition of a covid19 quarantine and suspension of court appearances for arrested protestors. That did not stop all the protestors as many continued their activity online, especially on Facebook. There the discussion was more detailed and diverse than the agenda the weekly protests backed. With the courts closed the government allowed the police to arrest and detain “anti-government” suspects for indefinite periods.
In early 2019 the weekly Hirak demonstrations forced out the long-time FLN party president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and that led to a new presidential election at the end of 2019. The weekly Hirak demonstrations continued and were outlawed by the new government. That convinced many Hirak supporters that the demonstrations should continue because there were still government practices that needed to be changed. About the same time the actual demonstrations were halted by covid19 the government was demonstrating more hostility towards the Hirak complaints, many of them justified.
The Facebook Hirak featured the Islamic parties more prominently as many of the Islamic party leaders spoke from exile in the West (mainly France) and were unable to participate in the physical Hirak. Not so in the online version and that upset a lot of the Hirak members in Algeria. The Islamic parties still remined Algerians of the bloody 1990s war against Islamic terrorists, whose goal was to establish a religious dictatorship. The Islamic parties had won a fair election in 1990 and the FLN refused to be replaced by Islamic politicians. The fighting was horrific and destroyed most popular support the Islamic parties once had. That conflict left many Algerians supporting a constitutional change that would eliminate recognizing Islamic primacy in Algeria.
The new government has devoted a lot of effort to identifying all the participants in these online Hirak activities and sought to arrest those still in Algeria. France won’t even consider arresting and extraditing the Hirak posters living in France. Free speech and all that. The irony is not lost on the Algeria-based Hirak members. In Algeria it is still popular to criticize France for its colonial era crimes. Yet France remains a model for what Algeria would like to be. The newly elected government is going after corrupt officials and businessmen but has not yet proved that the new officials are any more effective and less corrupt than the old bunch. Arresting Hirak online critics and journalists who appear to support those critics does not inspire confidence among most voters, especially since te new constitution gives an Algerian president far more power to deal with something like Hirak.
The Fading Islamic Terrorism Threat
Declining Islamic terrorist activity finally reached zero in 2020. There is still an Islamic terrorist threat in Algeria but it is showing no signs of becoming active again. That might change if the government enforces aspects of the new constitution that outlaw Islamic conservative persecutions of dissident Moslems (most of the Berbers) and non-Moslems. Denied their legal outlet for persecuting heretics and non-believers some of the several million Islamic conservatives may turn violent. Meanwhile the covid19 restrictions played a part in shutting down the remaining Algerian Islamic terrorist groups. The decline began in the late 1990s, with the end of a horrific Islamic terrorist campaign against the government and civilians that opposed Islamic rule. Since that conflict ended Algerians have been hostile to any group that backs or participates in Islamic terrorism.
The army continued its aggressive patrolling in areas where was still any current or past Islamic terrorist activity. All of Algeria’s neighbors (Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Tunisia) still have active Islamic terror groups while there are none in Algeria. That might change because some neighbors, like Mali, Libya and Niger are currently dealing with a lot of Islamic terror activity. All the Algerian Islamic terrorists who were not killed or captured have fled to neighboring countries to continue their violent ways. Those exiles will continue to avoid Algeria as long as they can find countries where it’s easier and safer to be an Islamic terrorist.
Many of the surviving Algerian Islamic terrorist fighters and leaders fled into European exile. Some continued their Islamic terrorism, others switched to non-violent Islamic politics. The most prominent example of this is the Moslem Brotherhood. While the Moslem Brotherhood has been successful at getting elected, they soon lose power when their radical fringe demands a religious dictatorship. Islamic party leaders insist they can prevent that from happening. Most Algerians don’t believe it and don’t believe Islamic party politicians will be any better at dealing with corruption and bad government than the more secular Moslem politicians. The Islamic parties are a minority in parliament and don’t appear to be growing.
As a reminder of all this, the European and North African media regularly report on Algerian Islamic terrorists caught operating outside of Algeria. Any of these Algerians who gets arrested gives interrogators the same story; that it is too dangerous for Islamic terrorists in Algeria.
Supporters of Islamic radicalism or terrorism also fled after the 1990s. Most went to Europe, especially France. Nearly a century of French occupation left most Algerians with some knowledge of the French language and customs. Nearly a million Algerians have gone to France, legally or otherwise, since Algerian independence in 1962. Most of these Algerians went to France for economic reasons but in the 1960s most went because they had supported French rule in Algeria. A second surge began in the late 1990s and continued for nearly a decade as Algerians fled to escape the Islamic terrorist violence or because they were Islamic terrorists or known supporters. These two purges rid Algeria of most people who supported French rule or an Islamic dictatorship. This frequent “flight rather than fight” activity has become part of Algerian culture. A current dispute over what is in, or not in, the proposed new constitution has led to critics of the constitution being told to leave the country if they cannot abide the new constitution.
November 21, 2020: President Tebboune completed his covid19 treatment in a German hospital a week ago but has not returned to Algeria yet. Tebboune feared he might have caught covid19 in late October after noting that some of his associate came down with the virus. Tebboune is 75 years old and felt he might not survive the virus and flew to Germany on October 27th to get tested and receive the best treatment available if it was needed. He tested positive on November 4 and then received treatment. He is still recuperating in Germany.
November 14, 2020: Polisario, a Moroccan rebel movement Algeria helped create in the 1970s, announced that it was once more at war with Morocco. This is a problem for Algeria because most remnants of Polisario live in Algeria. Morocco says there are no new attacks by Polisario in the south (Western Sahara). There are UN observers in Western Sahara, to monitor the situation and they report no new violence. There was an incident where the Moroccan border wall was fired on by some Polisario gunmen but the Moroccan troops fired back and the outnumbered Polisario men fled. That is not unusual down there where some armed Polisario men continue to operate as bandits, if they can get past the border wall.
Something is going on in those Algerian Polisario refugee camps. Back in August foreign aid groups operating in Algeria warned international aid donors to be wary of donating anything to the Tindouf refugee camps in southwestern Algeria (Tindouf Province). Local police had a growing problem with the many supporters of Islamic terrorism living in these refugee camps for people from Western Sahara. Algeria has long tried to avoid confronting the growing problem with Islamic terrorists and criminal activity in these camps. That is changing as is the Algerian attitude towards Polisario. This is partly the result of what happened in early 2018 when Algeria assured neighbor Morocco and the UN that it no longer had anything to do with Polisario, a group of Moroccan terrorists that Algeria helped create decades ago. Then an Algerian Air Force transport crashed on takeoff in April 2018 and among the 257 dead were 26 Polisario members. The transport was taking off from a base near the Algerian capital carrying mainly military personnel.
This was more than an embarrassment, it confirmed the accusations that Algeria could not be trusted when it came to Polisario, and perhaps other matters as well. For example, Algeria is one of the few Sunni majority Arab countries that supports the Syrian Assad government. Algeria is a major customer for Russian weapons and admirer of current Russian politics, as in the creation of a “president for life” in what is supposed to be a democracy. That was very similar to what Algeria had from the 1960s to 2019. Back (before 1991) when Russia was the Soviet Union the Russians backed Algerian efforts to support and encourage Polisario and thereby weaken neighbor Morocco. That was because Morocco was, and still is, a centuries old monarchy and a more efficient government than the democratic dictatorship in Algeria. Morocco has accused pre-2019 Algerian leaders of being lying hypocrites and in 2018 the UN and many other nearby nations were agreeing with that. This was one of the reasons the FLN lost power in 2019.
Polisario has always caused problems with neighboring Morocco and the problem got worse in 2013. Algeria and Morocco recalled ambassadors and there was talk of escalation. This made cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts (or anything else) with Morocco impossible. Meanwhile Polisario provided Islamic terrorists safe haven in Polisario refugee camps in Algeria (90,000 refugees) and Mauritania (24,000). This is all connected with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then, Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the region south of Morocco Western Sahara.
Polisario remains powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several refugee camps. In the beginning (the 1970s) Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, that Polisario still had enough diehards out there to keep lots of people in Western Sahara unhappy. This situation has also provided recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. Since the 1990s the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polisario and Morocco. During the 1990s Algeria said it cut off all support for Polisario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences, have just not worked. The contested area is largely desert with a current population of less than 600,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would rather fight for independence than submit to Morocco.
Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders. The area was administered until 1976 as a Spanish colony. Most Western Saharans have made peace with Moroccan rule, especially since Morocco has been spending a billion dollars a year on infrastructure and other improvements and doing so for decades. Western Sahara is a much nicer place because of that. Polisario still has several thousand armed men based in the refugee camps and refuses to accept Moroccan rule of Western Sahara. Polisario has become an outlaw organization with no real purpose. If the fighting breaks out again Morocco could defeat Polisario, but Polisario still has a sanctuary in the Algerian refugee camps. There Polisario discourages any talk of peacefully returning to Western Sahara, even though a growing number of the camp residents are quietly doing that. The refugee camps have become police states run by Polisario and tolerated, until now, by Algeria. As more veteran Algerian Islamic terrorists are captured or surrender the information they provide keeps pointing back to Polisario as a major source of support for AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and its lucrative smuggling (drugs, people, weapons) from the south into Algeria. Polisario was hoping to avoid a major confrontation with Algerian security forces over this that is becoming more difficult to do.
November 1, 2020: The referendum on the new constitution was held and only 22 percent of voters showed up and two-thirds of them approved the referendum. The interim government announced in August that there would be a referendum on November 1st to approve or reject a new constitution. Covid19 restrictions make it difficult to conduct meetings to discuss proposed constitutional changes, and that is what caused nearly 80 percent of voters to heed the Hirak call to boycott the vote. Those who did vote approved the new constitution, partly because many Algerians supported a constitutional change that eliminated recognizing Islamic primacy in Algeria. Islamic conservatives opposed this and called on their followers to vote no. Berbers oppose Islamic primacy and much else about the current form of government. Berber nationalism has long been a problem, in part because of Berber secularism and opposition to Islam. The Berbers, a people related to the ancient Egyptians, were the original occupants of Algeria. Arab armies conquered the country over a thousand years ago, but, unlike other Arab conquests, most Berbers did not adopt Arab language and customs. Today, about a third of Algerians are Berbers, and speak the Berber language, Tamazight. There has always been tension between Berbers and Arabs, and now Berbers are demanding that their language be made one of Algeria’s official languages. Since the 1960s Arab dominated governments refused to consider this. The new constitution gives the Berbers more of what they long sought. While most Berbers supported Hirak, they did so because they shared many of the same anti-government attitudes of non-Berber Hirak members.