President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is a tragic variation on Shaukat Thanvi’s short story “Mir Bedana”, the toothless old man who fantasized he could still frolic. Bouteflika is much worse. He is on a wheelchair after a stroke in 2013. Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Foreign Minister and a friend of the incapacitated President, has the following health report on him: “I think he can hear, but you can’t hear him.”
Robert Fisk of the Independent tells it as it is: “he is being prevented from entering his grave”. But the space in Bouteflika’s heart is not yet devoid of desire. At 82, he was aiming for a record fifth term. But his rendezvous with destiny has been cut by the army chief Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah who, alas, is a loyalist. He owes his stature to the President. So the Gen. has softened the blow by invoking article 102 of the Algerian constitution which calls for a constitutional council which, lo and behold, is headed by another loyalist, Tayeb Belaiz. The Council, asked to certify the President’s health, has 12 members.
These fun and games have been managed by a narrow, incestuous elite which is being asked to shed power by a confluence of circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of youth and middle-class professionals have taken to the streets demanding democratic reforms. What has boosted the power of these protests is because the establishment can no longer conceal the decrepit President from public view.
Arab history has no examples of elites vacating power because the people want them to.
The people smell a rat in the army’s slow moves. They fear that once demonstrations end, the elite will resurface.
The Viceregal presence of the French in Algiers must never be underestimated. The French have coped with stirrings of their own. The yellow vest have been on the streets of France for the past five months. They had started out as a threat to President Emanuel Macron but have, by sheer attrition, been tamed. As a result Macron’s popularity has risen. Since the French have their fingers deep in the colonial pies, whether in Algeria or Mali and Chad, all rich in oil and minerals, they at the moment can set themselves up as a model. Look how patiently the yellow vests are being allowed to dissipate themselves.
The most convenient idea to take root in the minds of the army, businessmen, war veterans – in brief the ruling clique or the oligarchy – is this: not to upset the status quo. The easiest trick is to run fast to stand still. The implication is not that the Algerian army, part of the country’s romance claiming continuity with the war which brought independence from France in 1962, may seize power. It is already the most powerful pillar of the establishment. It needs a pliable front. But decades of non-politics since independence has rendered the soil infertile for democratic political faces to shine. As a consequence there is no noticeable political talent around.
A crucial phase of democracy did flare up but was doused. This brief history appears to have become a victim of amnesia. Some Algerians justifiably claim that they authored the first Arab Spring in 1988 when nationwide violence erupted, demanding an end to one party rule since 1962.
Multi-Party elections in 1991 did deliver a democratic verdict but one not to the liking of the army and its patrons in Paris. The Islamic Salvation Front won nearly two thirds of the seats in the first round. The army panicked and cancelled the second round. That triggered a civil war which lasted a decade.
The myopic elite in Paris, Algiers and elsewhere had learnt no lessons from, say, the coming to power of the Ayatullahs in Iran. The Islamic revolution is a complex subject but, for the sake of simplicity, consider this: the Shah and the notorious Savak shut out all political expression. The mosque became the only ventilator for the people. The mosques were not likely to preach Marxism: they educated the congregations about Islamic tenets to overthrow monarchies. The Shah of Iran was Shia. Consider then the anxiety with which the West Asian Wahabi, Sunni monarchies view Iran. Coordination with Israel has come in handy.
Instead of realizing that snuffing popular discontent by strong arm tactics would heat up the Algerian basement and strengthen anything that grows in mosques, the army chose to throttle democracy by cancelling the election of 1991. At a terrible cost too – taking a toll of 200,000 Algerian lives. Embedded in this brief history is the answer to a question: why did the Arab Spring of 2011 not touch Algeria? Algerians refused to be infected by the Arab Spring. They had fresh memories of a brutal civil war.
True, the army defeated the insurgency. But has the Islamic Salvation Front been totally erased? It would be a mistake to imagine so. Let us for a moment consider the case of the Islamic movement in Turkey. Televised brutalities of Bosnia, Sarajevo, once Turkish enclaves, aggravated anti-West Islamism in Turkey. The Refah party under Necmettin Erbakan came to power. The Army as the guardian of Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s secular constitution, removed Erbakan. It was later, in the second round, that Erbakan’s disciples, Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul launched their secular “Justice and Development Party” which has been in the saddle for the fourth term and there is no end in sight.
The Army in Algeria was able to set aside the Islamic Front with the total support of the West. It has never been properly analyzed what contribution severe repression of the Islamic Front played in the post-9/11 exponential growth of both, Islamism and Islamophobia.
More recently, Egyptian army Chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with full support of the Pentagon and Israel, placed the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in jail. In whose interest was this expedition undertaken? Have those interests been served? The jury is out on that one.
Incarcerating the popular will is never a good idea in the long run. The Algerian army triggered a civil war in 1992 by suppressing the popular will. They must be careful this time round.