The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on April 16, 2019 on the state of affairs in Algeria and prospects for stability and change. The panelists considered the drivers and implications of the recent protests in Algeria, noting that the mass movement against a fifth term for the ailing Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, appeared to signal the end of an important cycle in the country’s political history. However, they also expressed concern that Algeria’s political upheaval could pave the way for Le Pouvoir (the deep state) to re-establish control and protect its interests.
The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts, including: Amel Boubekeur, research fellow at École des hautes études en sciences sociales; Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center; Mohammed Cherkaoui, senior researcher at Al Jazeera Centre For Studies; and Yahia H. Zoubir, professor and director of research in Geopolitics at KEDGE Business School. The event was moderated by Adel Abdel Ghafar, fellow at the BDC. Members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities attended the event.
Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck began by discussing her experience marching in the Algerian protests earlier in 2019. She said that the protests have displayed political maturity, noting how the protesters’ demands have evolved. Ghanem also noted a few key aspects of the protests, such as their leaderless nature and the importance of Facebook as a platform for organizing. She added that popular movements tend to fade away, as was the case with the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States. Ghanem emphasized that leadership will play an important role in determining how long Algerians continue to go to the streets and in where the protests lead, suggesting that the success of the movement will require institutional development and smart organization. She added that the next step should be for Algerians to engage in civil disobedience in order to further their demands.
Amel Boubekeur continued the discussion by saying that Algeria is entering a new political cycle that will not exclude its citizens. She added that the semi-authoritarian model that has characterized Algerian politics is not a stable form of regime and has resulted in internal dysfunction. Boubekeur also said that the protesters’ demands are clear: to have a supervised transition and to put pressure on the regime. She expressed that, although the protests have been leaderless, protesters have organized and coordinated with one another on various social media platforms. Most protests have taken place on Fridays, which has given participants the opportunity to properly work together and think about their demands during the rest of the week. Boubekeur pointed out that protesters have agreed on certain individuals who should no longer oversee the country, adding that Algerians will continue to place pressure on the country’s institutions, elite, and military until there are transparent elections.
Mohammed Cherkaoui started his analysis by comparing the movements in Algeria to those in other Arab countries, including Tunisia, Libya, and Syria. He stressed that Algerians have continued to go to the streets to demand change since Bouteflika’s resignation, as opposed to protesters in the other countries, who stopped to celebrate the overthrow of their leaders. Cherkaoui added that Algerian civil society is doing a lot more than civil society in other Arab countries today because it is engaged in a push-pull relationship with the regime. However, he also noted that there is a risk that Algeria will end up in a situation similar to that of Egypt, in which the military mobilized and maneuvered into a more prominent role. Cherkaoui added that there is a question in Algeria now of whether constitutional legitimacy can be replaced by “street” legitimacy, which would be based on the support of the Algerian protesters. He also argued that Libya serves as a sort of demarcation line between a more peaceful region in the west – comprised of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – and a region to the east where the military has become an increasingly prominent actor.
Yahia Zoubir said that, in order to understand what is happening today in Algeria, the economic situation must be taken into account. He added that it is necessary to look at the performance of Bouteflika’s fourth mandate, which was characterized by false promises, such as GDP growth, as well as high youth unemployment rates and rising living costs. Zoubir also noted that it is not unusual for movements like the one taking place in Algeria to be leaderless. However, what is notable about the Algerian movement is that, even though there is a lack of leadership on the streets, people have come together to oppose the continuing presence of the same regime figures. When asked about the absence of opposition party figures in the protests, Zoubir explained that this was to be expected, as Algeria is in the first stages of social mobilization.
The subsequent question and answer session focused on what could and should happen next in Algeria. In particular, Ghanem emphasized that elections are scheduled to take place in fewer than 90 days and that, in her view, it is not a positive thing for the country if elections take place at this point; rather, what the country needs is a constitutional assembly that can enable new leaders to emerge.
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