Algeria enters period of uncertainty as interim presidency expires

Large-scale protests have continued in the capital as Algerians call for change

An elderly Algerian protester holds the national flag during a demonstration in the capital Algiers on June 7, 2019. Interim Algerian president Abdelkader Bensalah on June 6 called for "dialogue" after the authorities ruled out holding a planned election on July 4.  / AFP / RYAD KRAMDI
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Algeria has entered a period of uncertainty as the mandate of its interim president expired on Tuesday and the head of the military assumes an increasing presence in the face of mass protests.

Former interim president Abdelkader Bensalah assumed office for a period of 90 days after his ailing predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was essentially forced from office after the army sided with the popular protest movement sparked by his decision to seek a fifth term in April.

Under his constitutional mandate, Mr Bensalah’s primary responsibility was to organise fresh elections. However, faced with a groundswell of popular protest against the state, his initial offer to stage a new vote was firmly rejected by a protest movement that has come to regard the country's entire electoral mechanism as corrupt.

Army chief Lt Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah has emerged as the primary interlocutor of the regime and the principal voice in determining internal policy. Many of the figures close to the former regime have been arrested on corruption charges under his watch, while prominent figures within the protest movement have been arrested.

Throughout the popular protests, the state has clung on to the country’s constitution as the ultimate arbiter of its legitimacy, citing it with each political manoeuvre as justification for whatever action it undertakes. Now, as it moves beyond its traditional framework, with Mr Bensalah's constitutional mandate expired, the future is uncertain.

“With no constitutional path left, the only solution now is dialogue between the protesters and the regime,” said Doctor Sharan Grewal of the Brookings Institute. “But the protesters are in no mood to negotiate while remnants of Mr Bouteflika’s regime remain in power."

However, with the final public vestiges of former President Bouteflika's regime still clinging to power, any compromise between protesters and the regime must reach beyond the corruption of the present. “As a precondition to talks, the regime will almost certainly have to remove Mr Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and replace them with consensus candidates, likely former statesmen who served prior to the Bouteflika regime,” Dr Grewal said.

Responding to the groundswell of criticism accusing him of usurping civil authority, Gen Gaid Salah used a prize-giving ceremony on Wednesday to slam those calling for the army to make way as “traitors,” acting under the orders of “circles hostile to Algeria”.

Also on Wednesday, large-scale protests broke out in the capital, Algiers, as demonstrators rallied outside the central court, calling for the release of prisoners of conscience. They including high-profile veteran of the war of independence, Lakhdar Bouregaa, who was arrested, according to his grandson, for speaking out against Gen Gaid Salah’s political ambitions.

The most recent series of arrests are said to have occurred on Monday night in Tlemcen, a city around 500 kilometres west of the capital, with three protesters detained over the previous weekend’s unrest. All three were subsequently charged with “contributing to weakening the army’s morale” and “insulting authorities”. According to their defence team, the security services had photographed them during Friday’s protests carrying banners critical of Gen Gaid Salah and chanting slogans against him.

Others have been arrested for carrying the flag of the indigenous Amazigh minority, which was outlawed on June 19 on the grounds that its use is an "attack on national unity".

Journalist Ghada Hamrouche told The National that she believed that, after the long series of concessions given to the protest movement, the army had essentially run out of options and were now seeking to sow division within the protest movement as "they do not have many cards left to play".

Ms Hamrouche said that relentless pressure from the street had forced attitudes within Algeria’s political class to change, prompting them to seek a compromise with protesters and set a new date for elections, free from the political interference that has dogged previous polls.

While that remains absent, unrest is continuing to grow against a regime that many regard as ruling without either an electoral mandate or a sound constitutional basis.