Young Algerians won’t stand for the same old, same old
Algeria will hold a referendum in November on a new constitution, proposed after President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who assumed office in December last year, promised political and economic reform to meet protesters’ demands.
However, the first draft is already facing headwinds, forcing the presidency to dial down its significance from a “draft revision” to a “platform for debate” and eventually a “working methodology”. A lot of pressure is on the leadership to show momentum, but the release of the first draft during a pandemic has aroused suspicion.
Nearly 1,500 Algerians have lost their lives to COVID-19 and it is likely that low oil prices and lockdown measures will discourage private consumption and investment,in Algeria’s oil-dependent economy. Double-digit fiscal and trade deficits are expected this year and GDP is projected to contract by 3 percent.
Meanwhile the government is using the pandemic as a cover to enforce draconian legislation, restricting free expression and free speech. Protests are banned and the Ministry of Justice has suspended all court hearings. A law criminalizing “fake news” is now a bludgeoning tool against students, activists, protesters and journalists charged with endangering national unity, public order and state security. Evidence for these “crimes” often consists of Facebook posts, and with court proceedings suspended, state authorities have free reign to arrest, interrogate and detain anyone on vague pretexts.
Only the presidency can grant pardons but the Tebboune administration has so far not demonstrated any willingness to rein in an overreaching imprisonment system nor pacify the protest movement, fearing the power of activists to rally the masses for further demonstrations. President Tebboune has made speeches that evoke a sense of balance between opposing poles in Algerian politics, but there are worrying signs that he is charting the same path through political turmoil as his predecessors.
November’s referendum is not a novelty. Every president who has come to power in Algeria, from Chadli Bendjedid to Bouteflika, has wanted their own constitution, which neither brought about any meaningful reform nor reduced the military’s role. Instead, having tasted power, each presidency seeks more under a new constitution, less to benefit the people but more to buy time, entrench patronage networks and grow their influence.
In Tebboune’s case, the first draft of what is supposed to a consensual constitutional reform, begins with the usual gimmickry of mentioning the protest movement, the Hirak, in its preamble, which gives the impression that the mass movement has had an effect on the new path Algeria is set to take. However, it serves only to “bless” exactly what protesters rejected when his predecessor was ousted. Algeria needs radical constitutional reform, not simple, patchwork amendments.
There is little hope a more liberal Algeria will emerge from the Tebboune Constitution should it be adopted as is.
Besides, the work being done leading up to the November referendum excludes participation by representatives from the Hirak and the political opposition. Instead, the fate of Algeria’s political processes and future lies in the hands of too few, with too much power, haggling behind closed doors. The presidency has sought to allay concerns by establishing a commission to receive opinions and proposals, but this misses the point. All actors must be present during the drafting, not after, as with any normal constitutional reform process, because failure to do so risks inciting more protests and demands for even more radical change.
There is little hope a more liberal Algeria will emerge from the Tebboune Constitution should it be adopted as is. One article, for instance, grants the presidency the power to nominate and appoint members of government, completely bypassing the parliament, which spits on the promise of maintaining checks and balances. Another article encroaches on the parliament’s mandate as the sole legislative body by extending law-making powers to the presidency. The preliminary draft also empowers the Speaker to dismiss an elected legislative assembly, in contravention of the Hirak’s demands.
Indeed, with a presidency vested with so much authority, particularly during the pandemic, it is even likely that the referendum will be tampered with. Inflated turnout figures risk legitimizing a Tebboune Constitution that neither reforms Algeria’s plagued political processes nor dislodges the military’s invisible hand.
There is the additional likelihood that after the pandemic, the deteriorating situation in Libya and parts of the Sahel will be a new distraction, since this new constitution would grant the military powers to intervene abroad. The operational consequences of this are not yet known but if I were the Hirak I would be highly suspicious. An army mobilized for deployment abroad is no different from an army mobilized for domestic missions under the guise of “maintaining public order and national security.” There must be maximum civilian oversight, otherwise it could give the military constitutional inroads back to its reviled role of dominating Algeria’s political processes.
Between now and November, Algerians must remain vigilant and continue to pressure the presidency to act in the public’s interests. The Arab world is replete with examples of what not to do when a country is on a precipice. Lebanon is a cautionary tale of why it is important to act because the consequences of not doing so are too dire; Tunisia should remind anyone what happens when disparate voices, interests and groups fail to compromise; Egypt is a warning about the dangers of a nostalgia for a stability built on the erosion of personal liberties and free expression; Sudan remains a work in progress. It is up to the Hirak to take these lessons to heart.
The Tebboune presidency should not forget that Algerians have had a taste of asserting their will via popular uprisings and any attempted power grabs will not go unnoticed. After all, the government no longer has the means to buy social peace and pseudo-political reforms will not quiet the masses. Even more, a deteriorating economic situation, high unemployment and lower standards of living can easily fuel antagonism against an out-of-touch government that fails to deliver on its promises. It remains to be seen whether the referendum will improve things or re-fashion the old systems to the ire of an already disenchanted youth — enraged by prisons filling up with their own, and excluded from the critical processes that will determine the country’s fate.
President Tebboune is running out of time.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view