The Algerian regime is stuck. In an effort to find an exit out of the current political crisis, so-called Interim President has blessed the creation of a panel called the “National Body for Dialogue and Mediation,” (the panel) headed by former parliament speaker Karim Younès. The government says the panel has all the freedom it wants to come forward with a plan, but there are several problems here. The first is that the number one objective of the panel, as defined by the regime, is to lead talks about holding a presidential election, an idea that has been entirely rejected by the Hirak protest movement, which favors a transition period to be managed by a caretaker committee, and which will bring some sanity in the political process, including a revision of the constitution, before allowing a presidential election. Recall that the military command, the real power, has been favoring a presidential election, which the opposition and the Hirak consider it to be an effort from the military to appoint their own man as next president, therefore perpetuating a regime of corruption and repression.
The other problem is that all the key figures that enjoy popular legitimacy, from human rights lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi, to ex Foreign Minister Taleb Ibrahimi and many others said they want nothing to do with yet another panel that is under the control of the regime. Indeed one of the key demands of the 40 million Algerians who have been protesting since 22 February, is the wholesale departure of all the remnants of the Bouteflika regime. For the Algerians it makes no sense whatsover to jail virtually all former Prime Ministers and their cabinet ministers for corruption, and allow a few of them to stay in power, including current Prime Minister Bedoui and Interim President Abdelaziz Bensalah, who will be in charge of driving the transition. The latter is still in office, despite the fact that his job expired on 9 July according to the constitution. Any of these personalities who rejected the invitation to the join the panel finds it impossible to negotiate with people who have no reason to be there to begin with.
The National Body for Dialogue and Mediation is another initiative driven by the presidency because the regime, headed by military command and its chief Gaid Salah, cannot conceive the idea that a parallel power structure would form and would challenge their authority. To convince the reluctant ones to join what the regime calls a “necessary dialogue,” they called on what they believed to be “independent personalities,” such as Karim Younes, who has now been completely de-legitimized due to his acceptance of this initiative, just like it happened a few weeks ago to Abdelaziz Rahabi, a former diplomat who tried to bring together various voices, but failed because the initiative was also tied to the regime.
Instead, NBDM has been welcoming individuals completely unknown such as a Mohamed Yacine Boukhenifar, a man introduced as a “young representative of the popular movement”, but failed to convince the heavy weights such war hero Djamila Bouhired, former heads of government, Mouloud Hamrouche, Mokdad Sifi and Ahmed Benbitour, former presidential candidate Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, and even Abdelaziz Rahabi, the man who tried the same idea and realize it could not work. Also on the list are the names of lawyers Mokrane Ait Larbi and Mustapha Bouchachi, Larbi Ben M’hidi’s sister, Drifa Ben M’hidi, Rachid Benyellès, trade unionists Messaoud Boudiba and Lyes Merabet, and the president of the Association of Ulemas (Islamic scholars), Abderrazak Guessum.
Ex Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche and political activist Mokrane Ait Larbi immediately rejected the offer to join. Highly respected lawyer Mostefa Bouchachi said “I do not think that the conditions are ripe to participate in this commission,” and demanded the basic requirements of “releasing prisoners of conscience, stopping harassment against peaceful demonstrators, the opening of the public and private media to all opinions and sensibilities, allowing people to meet, the removal of obstacles to the work of activists, and the departures of the symbols of the regime.” In addition to these conditions, Bouchachi added “we must have guarantees that the regime will respond favorably to the outcome of the dialogue.”
Echoing the position of Bouchachi, former Foreign Minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi said the panel “would be of no use unless it enjoys complete independence, and that it is free in its decisions so that it helps build a national consensus on the best mechanisms to channel the demands of the Hirak for radical change.”
Even the conservatives in political Islam have pushed against all these initiatives driven by the regime. Abdallah Djaballah, the head of the Front for Justice and Development (FJD) said “the regime surprised everyone by appointing a dialogue committee made up of people it never consulted.” Djaballah insisted that those who already joined the panel “do not have the capacity to defend the legitimate demands of the people because the one who designated them has fixed their limited prerogatives to the dialogue around the organization of a presidential election.”
So the Algerian military command is stuck and has no one credible to endorse its plans. The only things the military command has been using is threats and repressive measures of arresting people who did nothing wrong except they demanded democracy. The command has no political capacity to find a solution. All the previous top thinkers of the regime, who have been members of the notorious DRS political police, have been sidelined and so there is no experience in dealing with civilian affairs of such magnitude. Dealing with the military command has become a massive liability not only for politicians in Algeria who are hoping to see their careers last long enough, but also to foreign governments who are concerned about this elongated crisis that seems to find no solution due to the military command’s stance on status-quo.
The road ahead has a positive and a negative outcome. The longer the crisis remains, the better it is for the Hirak movement. The military in Algeria is not a homogeneous body with all its officers accepting a single vision of the country. The longer the crisis, the more General Gaid Salah will be seen by his commanders as the problem. Therefore, a change in philosophy within the military command must take place before we see some serious détente. On the negative side, the Algerian economy has been facing a state of neglect that will have major consequences in the medium term. Algeria cannot afford to end 2019 without a political roadmap that would stabilize it. And its military command should be the first to know that.