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Algeria, New Constitution and Old Status Quo

Algerian MPs vote during a special parliamentary session. Photo: Fayez Nureldine, AFP

The reform of the Constitution comes in a difficult time for the country’s economy and a crucial time for the succession to President Bouteflika

There was a lively debate surrounding the new Algerian Constitution, approved by the Parliament by a show of hands with a large majority on February 7, 2016 (499 votes in favor, 2 against, 16 abstentions), but more so in the press and on the internet than in institutional bodies. In reality, the official consultations encouraged by the "authorities" had already been launched in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring.



Since then, the discussions, the meetings and the talks for an orderly and peaceful “change”, including those promoted by the government (and boycotted by many), but especially those organized within the ranks of the "true" opposition, had been stranded if not tabled completely. The efforts fell victim to excessively lengthy intervals and especially the renomination and victory — perceived by many as antithetical to the path of “transition” to democracy — of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, President of Algeria since 1999.



The Constitution, in not passing via the referendum to the surprise of many, was given over to (or forced upon?) the citizenry, which, for the vast majority, accepted it without particular enthusiasm or criticism, almost as if it were another document to add to the already long list of the Republic’s founding documents produced or modified from independence (1962) to today. In the media, among the ranks of intellectuals, activists and expatriates, the debate has focused on a few items that nevertheless introduce not insignificant innovations: the officialization of the amazigh language (tamazight), the limitation to two terms of the President of the Repubblic, the prohibition of candidacy to high State offices of “binationals”.



A concession to the Berber people



The demand of the recognition of the language of the Berber people, spoken by approximately a quarter of the population living mostly in the Kabylie region, has for decades been the center of protests, which often ended up turning into violent and fatal clashes. These include the popular movements like the “berber spring” in 1980 and the “black spring” in 2001-2002 (126 fatalities), which sought out the officialization of the language, as well as greater democratic openness and political participation. While the new Charter lists the amazigh language as “official” and no longer just “national”, Arabic remains “the official language of the State” (art. 3) and in order to obtain such an official status, tamazight will have to wait for the work of the “experts” of a new Algerian Academy of the Amazigh language, established under the presidency of the Republic (art. 3 B).



The article which allows the Head of State to only be reelected once after the first five-year term (art. 74), in accordance with the base of any system that can be defined as democratic, is a provision that had been eliminated by Bouteflika himself in 2008. The current president, now in his fourth term reinserts term limits with the same disarming ease with which he amended the Constitution in order to prolong his stay as Head of State ten years over what is legally allowed — an arrogance similar to that of his African counterparts. However, this time, according to article 178-8, this limit can never removed. Bouteflika will therefore be able to terminate the current five-year period, which ends in 2019, and still candidate himself for the fifth and last time. This happens in a moment in which the crisis of global crude oil prices does not help the already struggling Algerian economy, and a country in which social unrest and the population’s restlessness grows.



The dissolution of the secret services



The requirement for “exclusively Algerian nationality” in order to access the highest offices of the State and political functions (ministries, party heads, functionaries) contained in article 51, has been branded as a provision directed against the millions of Algerian-French citizens, and more generally of the large Algerian diaspora which includes many political opponents. Article 73, which concerns the eligibility criteria of the President of the Republic, imposes an even more “identity” based change: the candidate can only be muslim and “purely” of Algerian nationality, never having possessed another nationality, they must be a resident in Algeria in the ten years preceding candidacy, and their parents must also be Algerians from birth, as well as the spouse. National-identity restrictions and closures which are symptoms of a recurrence of the “conspiracy syndrome” (of foreign powers which want to usurp Algerian sovereignty) or the need to exclude possible eligible candidates to Bouteflika’s succession, against which, from the ischemia which hit him in 2013, there are continuous maneuvers and conjectures from the powers that be. The machinations, the real meaning of which is hard to grasp, but which are clearly preparing the environment for a change in leadership that will not shock the foundations of the “system.” One must not forget in fact, that the Constitutional revision was preceded by the historic dissolution of the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (Department of Intelligence and Security), the notorious DRS, or the secret service, which was considered “a State within the State,” the only counterbalance to power (though still military in nature) of the “Bouteflika clan.” From now on, it will be replaced by structures which are themselves under the direct authority of the presidency.



This article was translated from the original Italian