Tuesday, June 15

Hopes Fade for New Political Course in Algeria a Year After Popular Uprising


ALGIERS — In a Moorish-style palace on the Algerian capital’s airy heights, the nation’s president proclaimed a new day for his country, saying it was now “free and democratic.” The old, corrupt system — in which he had spent his entire career — was gone, he insisted.

“We’re building a new model here,” said President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 75, chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes in an hourslong interview surrounded by aides in his sumptuous office last month. “I’ve decided to go very far in creating a new politics and a new economy.”

But old habits die hard in this North African country that has known nearly 60 years of repression, military meddling, rigged elections and very little democracy. On the streets below Mr. Tebboune’s office, Algeria’s old realities are reasserting themselves.

The state jails dissidents and seats have been for sale — the going price was about $540,000 according to a parliamentarian’s court testimony — in the same Parliament that ratified Mr. Tebboune’s proposed new Constitution, drafted after he came to power in a disputed election in December. But the opposition is hobbled by a lack of leadership and a failure to articulate an alternative vision for the country.

Other advocates for change in the Arab world looked on enviously as week after week, tens of thousands turned out peacefully to protest the continued reign of Mr. Bouteflika, who was left paralyzed after a stroke in 2013. It seemed that the abortive Arab Spring that began in late 2010 was finally being realized.

Algeria, an insular linchpin in the region, is the world’s 10th biggest producer of natural gas and is believed to have the second largest military establishment in Africa. It has been a key leader of nonaligned nations since it fought its way to independence from France 58 years ago.

The military established its pre-eminence in politics shortly after that, and has been at the forefront or just behind it ever since. A civil war with Islamists in the 1990s, in which as many as 100,000 were killed, helped consolidate its grip.

Soldiers in uniform are omnipresent in Algiers. But during last year’s demonstrations, Algerian security forces didn’t open fire on the Hirak protesters, the two sides instead staring each other down in a wary standoff.

Although the army eventually forced Mr. Bouteflika and his governing elite out of office, that was not enough for the protesters. They demanded a full overhaul of the country’s political class, elections for a new constituent assembly to replace the country’s discredited Parliament, and the army’s definitive withdrawal from politics.

They also deemed the army’s push for presidential elections premature. But the army’s all-powerful chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, overruled the movement.

Mr. Tebboune, once an ephemeral prime minister under Mr. Bouteflika, is believed to have been backed for the presidency by Mr. Gaid Salah. He was elected in a vote that opponents said drew less than 10 percent of the electorate; Mr. Tebboune said it was more than 40 percent.

“He didn’t even have a press card,” the president fumed during the interview, casting Mr. Drareni as an activist with dubious credentials. Mr. Drareni once interviewed Mr. Tebboune himself, though, as well as President Emmanuel Macron of France.

He spoke of change, vaunting his new Constitution, which limits a president to two terms and recognizes the rights of the opposition, at least in the eyes of its supporters. But this week, the government threatened to strip Mr. Belabbas, the opposition politician, of his parliamentary immunity.

And for all the talk of a new Algeria, the president employed the old language of the autocrat when he discussed dealing with dissent.

“Everyone has the right to free expression — but only in an orderly manner,” he said. “It’s normal that someone who insults and who attacks the symbols of the state winds up in court.”

An Algerian revolt against the French 58 years ago failed for lack of a clear leader. That resistance to anoint a leader, a tactic to minimize repression, has now also weakened Hirak.

The activists who took a leading role have refused to engage with the deposed leader’s heirs, including the new president.

Behind high locked metal gates, watched from the sun-blasted street by plainclothes officers, Mr. Belabbas acknowledged that the protesters were clear about what they were against — the entire Algerian political system — but less so about what should replace it.

“We never succeeded in defining what we were for,” said Mr. Belabbas, who is head of the Rally for Culture and Democracy party and a member of Parliament.

Caught in the middle are ordinary Algerians — skeptical of Mr. Tebboune’s claims of renewal and of his new Constitution, deflated by the demise of Hirak and angry about the imprisoned Mr. Drareni.

“So, there’s a journalist who speaks. You put him in prison. And that’s supposed to be democracy?” asked Isa Mansour, who runs a small clothing store in the working-class neighborhood of Belouizdad, where the Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus grew up 100 years ago.

“The citizens are fed up with all these promises,” he said. “You can’t expect reforms from the old guard. Algeria is still looking for democracy.”



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