What do Theresa May and Abdelaziz Bouteflika have in common? Knowing the end is near, they’re playing to run out the clock.
The people of Algeria, whose massive demonstrations convincingly brought together a wide diversity of age groups and socio-professional profiles, have now won a victory they hope will not be merely pyrrhic. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced on March 11 that he will not run for a fifth term. He has canceled the April 18 election that provoked the protests.
Al Jazeera comments: “Demonstrators who took to the streets en masse against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule reacted in jubilation to his withdrawal from elections but said he now must step down.”
Bouteflika’s proposal amounts to nearly the same thing he was promising when he called the election: to remain president long enough to reform the constitution and ensure, in his words, “the foundation of a new Republic” under his own supervision.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Removal from an existing context. In Algerian politics: a strategy for remaining in place as long as possible.
Although in failing health at 82 and incapable of conducting a conversation, Bouteflika is a “man with a plan.” Al Jazeera describes its contours: “According to Bouteflika’s message, an inclusive and independent conference will oversee the transition of power, drafting new constitutional law and setting the date for new presidential elections. The conference, due to finish its work by the end of 2019, will submit a new constitution to voters in a referendum.”
This recapitulates the confused proposal Bouteflika had made concerning his eventual fifth term. He claimed that he would use limited time — less than a full term — to organize a national debate and reform the constitution, as a prelude to a new presidential election for which he would not be a candidate.
The demonstrators, who saw this as an insult to their intelligence and a travesty of democracy epitomizing the vices of an autocratic system whose corruption has deepened over 20 years, may initially be relieved to know that at least they are not expected to elect a man incapable of executing even the basic duties of his office. But they have called for Bouteflika’s resignation and can’t be satisfied with his proposed plan. One opponent summed it up: “Bouteflika’s measures are not consistent with the people’s will.”
Not since 99.7% of the Algerian population voted for independence from France in 1962 has “the people’s will” been taken into account in any serious way in Algeria. To the extent that it exists, the will of the people has consistently taken a back seat to the power games of those who have fought amongst themselves for control of the unique party itself, the National Liberation Front (FLN), and the government. The worst example concerns the 1991 legislative elections, whose result in favor of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was overturned by the military, urged on in the background by the US and France, who had collaborated on the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein.
In the unfolding of those events, there were some parallels with the current situation. According to one commentator’s description: “As the oil price fell and Algeria’s economy went into crisis mode, the country’s disenchanted youth in 1988 took to the streets in protest against rising unemployment and poverty levels. This in addition to a widely shared belief that the country’s immense gas and oil riches never reached the pockets of the common man.”
The “people’s will” has always focused on making the best of the oil riches for the benefit of the entire population. Every government has tried in its way to respond, but the level of corruption has meant that, instead of using the wealth to diversify the economy, what the people received were the crumbs, while the government managed for its own purposes and consumed according to its tastes the substance of that wealth.
Consistent with a trend seen throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the FIS, before seeing the election results canceled and then finding itself banned, consisted of both a moderate wing and a more radical religious wing, neither of which preached violence. But following its victory in the December 1991 election, “Washington and Paris gave the green light for the Algerian military on 11 January 1992 to cancel the parliamentary elections’ second round and declare a state of emergency. Two months later, the FIS was banned altogether.”
With its leaders either imprisoned or exiled, the party attempted to survive under more moderate leadership. This inevitably led to the splitting off of the radicals who founded the marauding, ultra-violent Groupe Islamique Armé, which launched a traumatizing civil war that killed more than 120,000 people, mostly civilians, over a span of 10 years.
The “people’s will” today once again focuses on the growing disparity between an elite who monopolize the wealth and the people. Islamism is not playing a significant role. The trend of rejecting the oligarchies that prosper while neglecting the common people is spreading with increasing intensity in many countries. Reforms proposed by the elite satisfy no one, as President Emmanuel Macron has discovered in France. One Algerian critic cited by Al Jazeera stated: “We want the current regime to collapse. I don’t trust the old guard to oversee a democratic and independent transition. They will use this conference as an opportunity to find a way to remain in power.”
The jubilation that followed Bouteflika’s withdrawal has already begun to fade. The battle is not over. “This is a strategy to divide us, we should not stop now. We need to keep on fighting against his rule and the regime.”
Algeria played an important role in the symbolism of decolonization that followed World War II and helped define the era of protest in the West associated with the 1960s. Its drama of independence inspired Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat and Angela Davis, while at the same time it provided a case study that defenders of the established order such as the FBI in the US and Ariel Sharon in Israel used to refine their strategies for repressing revolutionary movements.
Algeria may be setting a new example. The existing power structure will do what it can to defend its privileges, but the generation of the war of independence is losing its grip. Bouteflika and his circle acknowledge the necessary transition but will obviously not encourage it. Whether they resist with violence or not remains to be seen. We should all find encouraging the fact that the popular uprising has been resolutely peaceful and focused on attaining its fundamental objective of respecting and indeed developing democracy.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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