Constitutional Reforms in Algeria

Following months of popular protests and demonstrations, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced in March 2011 his intention to introduce important reforms to the Algerian constitution to make it more liberal and effective in the protection of citizens’ rights. He formed a commission tasked with drafting the revised constitution, but nothing was revealed about how this commission would work and nothing spilled over to the public about the discussions within its chambers. Occasionally, some members of the political elite would let emerge a rumor about the status of its work or that a concluding draft was imminent, but nothing more until January 5. That day, Cabinet Director and the President’s Chief of Staff Ahmed Ouyahia revealed the main constitutional revisions in a press conference. According to the supporters of this revision, the draft, which remains subject to parliamentary approval within the next few weeks, introduces important changes to the previous document.

Article 3 bis of the new constitution is definitely revolutionary: it recognizes Tamazight, the Berber language, as a national and official language. This is indeed a substantial step forward in recognition of the rights of the Berber minority and moves away from the stereotypical portrayal of Berbers as expressed in a phrase attributed to a former president that “Berbers are simply Arabs who did not go to school.”

But it is in the political sphere that the more relevant changes are foreseen. The new text reintroduces the principle of the two term limit for the President of the Republic and goes a step further by excluding this provision from any possible future constitutional revision. Additionally, future revisions cannot infringe on other principles such as the republican nature of the state, the multiparty system, Islam as the religion of the state, and Arabic as the national and official language. Other articles shielded from possible revisions include those protecting human rights and citizens’ rights, territorial integrity, and national unity. Many modifications and revisions are devoted to improving the functioning and efficiency of the parliament and the effectiveness of the party groups represented.

The revisions also attempt to moderate the otherwise overwhelming powers of the President of the Republic. The previous constitution, as amended in 2008, gave the president the power to appoint the prime minister, turning the latter into a mere coordinator and executor of the president’s political program. The new revision mitigates this power by compelling the president to consult the parliamentary majority before appointing a new prime minister. This may inevitably lead to the choice of a prime minister designated from the party which has obtained the majority in the legislative elections, something that has not happened since 2008. No provision for the position of vice president is made.

These reforms, if and when they are approved, may indeed offer some hope for a more open system of governance. Nevertheless, it is evident that none of the changes really touch the essence of how power is exercised in Algeria. The adjectives most often used to describe le pouvoir (as the Algerians call the class of decision-makers) are “opaque” and “arbitrary.” The process of revising the constitution itself has been carried out by an appointed commission acting in almost complete isolation and shrouded in mystery.

The issue of succession to the presidency, which stands at the forefront of the debate in Algeria, exemplifies this state of affairs. Because of the opacity of the system, every fact, action, or event is subjected to numerous interpretations, most so discordant from one another as to make any rational and objective reading of the situation practically impossible. The illness of Bouteflika, who has not been seen in public for months, has been the source of much apprehension on the part of the elite and of the population at large. The extensive reshuffling of top political positions and the firing of top military personnel that started in the fall of 2013—culminating with the forced retirement of General Mediene (also known as Toufik) on September 13, 2015—are interpreted within the framework of an ongoing competition between various clans for power to ensure an advantageous position for themselves in the event of Bouteflika’s death.

Mediene was for many years considered the real power holder in Algeria due to his control of the ubiquitous military intelligence service (DRS), which he headed for over 25 years. With its tentacles spread in every corner of economic and political power, the DRS represents the most powerful institution of the country. According to Algerian public opinion, the DRS and Mediene in particular wanted to have the definitive say on Bouteflika’s successor and acted accordingly by initiating anti-corruption investigations targeting the clan of the president, particularly Bouteflika’s brother Said. Many insinuate that Said is manipulating his brother’s incapacity to act due to his debilitating illness to his personal advantage and is cultivating the ambition to succeed to the presidency.

These rumors may or may not be true, but what is important to underline is how the opacity of this system blinds the popular perception to such an extent that the same facts give rise to completely opposed narratives. The first narrative sees the civilian elements within the elite finally winning a decades-old battle with the military to push them aside and liberalize the political system. The opposing vision sees the military trying to save the institutions of the state through their fight to limit the corruption of their adversaries within the circle close to the ailing president. This corruption is so deep and pervasive that even a high-level power broker like Mediene fell victim to it.

This elitist, behind-the-curtains, ambiguous way of exercising power and authority in Algeria will not change through even a wide revision of the constitution, but rather through a process of redefining the social contract between the elite and the masses. This is what is at stake today in Algeria and it is happening at a difficult time, characterized by growing insecurity and instability caused by the destabilization in the neighboring countries of Libya, Mali, and Tunisia. The decrease in oil prices has also dramatically reduced Algeria’s revenues and its capacity to respond to these challenges, limiting the tactics that the state traditionally employed to stem social and economic unrest. The next months will tell whether the political class will begin a serious and peaceful reconsideration of its relationship with the population or if popular demands force them resolve this relationship in a more violent way.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

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Image: Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said that the constitution will be revised as part of reforms promised by him during the Arab Spring. (Reuters)