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Will the army block democratic shift in Algeria?

Summary: Military has become more powerful than ever and the 'le pouvoir' remains in place

Algeria's army chief of staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah speaks during a meeting in Algiers, Algeria, in this handout still image taken from a TV footage released on April 2, 2019. Canal Algerie /Handout via Reuters/ ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. NO ACCESS ALGERIA. ALGERIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN ALGERIA Image Credit: REUTERS

Cairo: Algerian President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika was forced this week to end his two-decade rule by popular pressure and, ultimately, the powerful military brass.

The question now: Can the protesters usher in democracy?

The Algerians who poured into the streets for the past six weeks seek a clean break with the current political order.

To many, Bouteflika's ouster is only the first notch in their struggle to bring about a democratic transition.

They want to end the monopoly of military veterans, lawmakers, business tycoons, and clan members that has backed Bouteflika for decades and still retains control of the country.

"The system must go," many protesters have chanted in the massive demonstrations.

Will the army brass, though, allow this? They, after all, are part of what's collectively known as "le pouvoir" - the power.

Algeria's first Arab Spring

The last time Algerians tried to bring about a democratic transition, the army felt so threatened that it violently suppressed the uprising.

In 1988, thousands of youths revolted across the country to protest rising prices and high unemployment.

Security forces killed about 500 people and injured 1,000.

The protests eventually led to the fall of the country's ruling party, and to democratic elections in 1991.

To this day, many Algerians call that revolt their Arab Spring moment.

But when an Islamist government was elected, the military annulled the victory, triggering a vicious civil war that killed more than 200,000 people.

Algerians refer to it as the "Black Decade."

Avoiding bloodshed

This time, Algeria's security forces have not used force to quell the demonstrations.

Nor did the protesters, who carried out widespread nonviolent resistance across the nation.

Many analysts said that was due to the memories of Algeria's bloody past.

"The civil war has played a role in shaping people's consciousness," said Andrew Lebovich, a North Africa expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"And it seems to have at least played a role, amid many other factors and influences, in the constant calls from protesters to keep demonstrations peaceful, no matter what."

Conflicting visions

Bouteflika's resignation came after the military's powerful chief of staff, Gen. Ahmad Gaid Salah, demanded that Bouteflika leave office and urged a transition along the lines provided in the constitution.

According to the constitution, the head of the upper house of parliament, Abdul Kader Bin Salah, will become interim leader, for a period no longer than three months, until an election can be held.

Bin Salah is a key ally of Bouteflika.

Salah, in a statement Tuesday, said the army would "support the people until their demands are fully and completely satisfied."

But those demands seem to conflict with the constitutional transition envisioned by the army.

"If these crowds remain large, if the protesters get more frustrated, if there aren't much larger concessions, there is a significant risk of violence in Algeria which, of course, has regional repercussions," said William Lawrence, a political science professor and North Africa expert at George Washington University.

So far, no one has emerged as a clear successor to Bouteflika.

The protesters do not have a clear leader or a clear plan for what they seek.

"There is a certain naivete among the protesters, a lack of understanding of Algerian history and politics," Lawrence said.

"Nobody has stepped up, either promoted by the regime or by the protest crowds, that can grab the reins of the ship of state and navigate the ship."

"Le pouvoir" remains in place.

The army, now more powerful than ever, hovers in the background.

"The military is ruling the country from the tip of a pyramid of power," said Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, an Algerian who is a North Africa analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

"Even if there is a new leadership, we may wait a long, long time until this pyramid of power disappears entirely."

An Algeria man, wearing the national flag across his face, demonstrates to demand sweeping change to the country's whole political system, in Algiers on April 3, 2019, following the resignation of ailing leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The 82-year-old president ceded power in the face of massive street demonstrations that have shaken the North African nation, with state media announcing late Tuesday he had submitted his resignation with immediate effect. / AFP / RYAD KRAMDI Image Credit: AFP View gallery as list

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:6ALGE
Date:Apr 4, 2019
Words:816
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