As protests enter their seventh month, Algerians continue to demonstrate for change, justice and accountability. Whether they will receive it is another question.
Since February, Algerians have waged a steady popular revolt against former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and an opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country since its independence from France in 1962.
As protests enter their seventh month, Algerians continue to demonstrate en masse against a military-backed government intent on retaining its power. Many however question whether the protests will succeed against an entrenched military.
Algerian Army Chief of Staff Gaid Salah, a former ally of Bouteflika, publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets when Bouteflika resigned his presidency a day later.
Since then, many protesters have been mollified as the Algerian government continues to crack down on corruption within the former regime.
On August 22, former minister of justice Tayeb Louh appeared before the new Minister of Justice Belkacem Zeghmati for an examination into charges of corruption.
Zeghmati is one of the rising stars of Algeria’s post-Bouteflika regime. He replaced the most recent minister of justice Slimane Brahimi, after the latter's removal from power by Algeria’s Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah.
The dismissal is technically unconstitutional given that Article 104 of Algeria’s constitution prohibits the head of state from reshuffling the government without the consent of the parliament, but with public demand to show progress on the anti-corruption front, none spoke out against the move.
Current Minister of Justice Zeghmati himself has returned to power after being demoted by the previous administration. Once the Attorney General of Algiers, Zeghmati was removed from his post after daring to issue international arrest warrants against former Minister of Energy Chakib Khelil, a prominent FLN party figure, his wife and two children.
Following his sacking, the warrants were overturned for ‘procedural violations’, and in 2016 Khelil returned to the country.
In the grip of revolutionary times, he was renamed as Prosecutor General of Algiers on May 16, before being appointed as Minister of Justice on July 31.
Zeghmati is spearheading the current government’s initiative to purge the former regime’s influence and hold it accountable for corruption.
“It’s good, and we needed this. The new regime has no room for traitors, no room for the corrupt. We need patriots, not sons of France,” says Khaled Djmeli, an associate professor of political science at Batna University, speaking to TRT World.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of change we’ve seen. Everyone is accountable. The rich are all under scrutiny. Owners of real estate. Anyone who got rich too fast. They’re all being reviewed, investigated, and examined. Only a few years ago, we found that 500 names granted public housing were children of high-level regime officials. This was common knowledge, but nothing was done about it. Now, the winds of change are here. Let them fear,” he continues laughingly.
Behind it all, the Chief of Staff of Algeria’s army sits undisturbed.
Not too long ago, he publicly stated that the demands of the protest movement were met. That he was able to make the statement without invoking popular wrath speaks much of the concessions he made to them, and even more of the entrenched power he still holds.
Having styled himself in the Napoleonic style, as a saviour of the revolution, Gaid Salah has unleashed the true patriots of the country, once at the disadvantaged end in the previous regime. For now, he takes the credit.
“There’s something different in the air here. Only a year ago, it was all connections and friendships. You’d never be able to apply for anything without a phone call, and possibly a bribe. We had a case where a mayor would call up a housing and development commissar, and ask him to set aside 100 housing units for himself. If he had sold them, he’d be a billionaire,” says Amin, a self-described member of an anonymous civilian investigative task force that researches former corruption. He has asked for his last name to remain anonymous.
“But I’m sure there were many that did the same thing and got away with it. Now though, nothing goes through without proper documentation. Bureaucrats follow the rules of the book, and don’t deviate from them by a centimetre. This is only the beginning,” he adds.
Not everyone buys into the sincerity of Gaid Salah’s stand, however.
“So he stood against Bouteflika. So did the rest of the country. I think most Algerians that now describe him as a supporter of the people were relieved he didn’t crack down on us with the military,” says Mohammed El-Eulmawi, a software engineer who spoke to TRT World.
“That doesn’t make him the good guy. He was best friends with Bouteflika and his brother Said. He used the opening shots of our revolution to purge the intelligence, and his former partner, General Toufik Medienne. They both led the charge in the Black Decade, but only Medienne paid the price,” Mohammed adds.
Dialogue or Monologue?
As the protests continue unabated, a new form of government arises.
Instead of having an election, what began as the National Commission for Dialogue and Mediation, led by former parliamentarian Karim Younes, is slowly changing into an electoral board of sorts.
Once dedicated to reconciling party differences and convincing them to hold elections soon, the ‘National Commission’ as it’s come to be known, is morphing into something else entirely.
Members of the Commission travel to every town, holding intensive meetings with locals, asking them to nominate representatives who can speak for them.
As their roster grows, larger portions of Algeria are technically represented in what many expect could eventually give rise to a form of people’s assembly. With it, comes incredible clout and a large voting bloc that could convince their local voters to choose any given candidate.
“The National Commission is supposed to be impartial. It’s supposed to listen and reconcile, only. But these representatives they’re choosing will of course hold loyalty to Karim Younes, who’s given them a chance at public office. It’s undermining the popular will with political handouts. It’s an exact replica of the revolutionary National Assembly that proposed to represent the people. Instead, its elite directors only represented themselves,” says Mohammed El-Eulmawi.
But the National Commission isn’t welcomed with open arms wherever it goes.
The Chlef, Tbessa and Boumerdes states all banned delegations from the National Commission from coming to choose representatives, leading to clashes between locals and National Commission supporters.
“We didn’t come to negotiate, we came to kick you out,” read one placard brandished at the events.
Algerians remain determined to continue their struggle, conscious of the role counter-revolutionary forces played in Arab democratic movements throughout the region. While many see the military high command as a necessary evil, their slogans are nonetheless clear and direct: “A civilian not a military state;” “A republic not a military barrack.”
Algerians are aware that elections without a transitional government enabled to carry out sweeping change means a return to the status quo, and a victory for the establishment.
For the present, the current interim President Bensalah remains, in line with the military’s wish to hold what many describe as a premature election.
Gaid Salah and the rest of the military high command on the other hand, play for time.
Throughout the country, a new slogan has spread of the last two weeks: Civil disobedience is coming.” It signals a readiness to organise and escalate protests.
A long way from hopes that the army would support the popular movement in its demands, Algerians are slowly realising that Gaid Salah would not change his position on individual or collective rights, freeing political prisoners, or allowing a political transition.
As Algeria charts new territory in seeking democratic self-determination, one thing is certain. The battle for Algeria’s heart is far from over.