In Algeria, a strike by judges highlights tug of war for power

December’s twice-postponed presidential election will have major impact on country’s future, observers say – whether it takes place or not

A demonstrator carries a sign as teachers and students take part in a protest demanding immediate political change in Algiers, Algeria March 13, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/RAMZI BOUDINA)
A demonstrator carries a sign as teachers and students take part in a protest demanding immediate political change in Algiers, Algeria March 13, 2019
Algerian judges returned to work on Tuesday following a nine-day strike – punctuated on Saturday by violence that broke out when security forces intervened. They were protesting the reshuffling of 3,000 colleagues.
At first glance, it might be thought that the judges had joined much of the country’s rank-and-file citizens who have taken to the streets each Friday – and occasionally on additional days of the week – for the past nine months in mass protests against the country’s power elite. But according to Rachid Ouaissa, an Algerian-born professor of political science at the University of Marburg in Germany, it’s more complicated.
The judges, he told The Media Line, went on strike not to identify with the protesters, but to agitate for the replacement of the justice minister.
“We have ‘telephone justice,’” he said. “It’s kind of a joke among Algerians because a general or the military can call the justice [system]… and change a verdict.”
The people who take part in the weekly demonstrations, on the other hand, “want to change the whole system, not just the [justice] minister,” he explained.
The mass street rallies began in February, when Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s long-ailing president, announced he would seek a fifth consecutive term in an election scheduled for April. The protests took on such a fervor that the military – which has been a major component of the country’s political power structure since independence from France in 1962 – stepped in and ordered him to resign.
The head of Algeria’s upper house of parliament was chosen by lawmakers as acting president, and the election was postponed until July. But that did not satisfy the protesters, who now turned their anger against an entire system of power – and powerful people – they felt had become too deeply entrenched.
Citing a lack of candidates, the Constitutional Council, put in place to oversee a governmental transition, postponed the July election until December 12. But the protesters insisted this would not be enough. Apparently, they still feel this way, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets this past Friday, loudly demanding that substantive change be implemented first.
“Algerians are unequivocally against the election, which they view as a last-ditch attempt by [the country’s] main power brokers to hold on to power,” Ramy Allahoum, an Algerian journalist, told The Media Line.
The judges, like other prominent members of society, he said, would be fine with just token change.
This difference highlights the tensions between those in Algerian society who want a complete political transformation, and those who do not. The divide is becoming especially pronounced in the lead-up to the presidential election, expressing itself not only in regard to which candidate to support, but whether voting should take place at all.
The leading candidates in the five-person field are Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Both served as prime minister under Bouteflika. Yet Tebboune is considered to have been closer, and Benflis is being presented as an “opposition” candidate.
“There is not really a difference between them. One candidate is from one [faction] in the military, and the other is from a different one,” Ouaissa said, adding that neither is offering the change that Algerians are looking for.
“You can’t have real change and a break from the old system with candidates from the [current] regime,” he said. “It’s a joke.”
Allahoum describes one possibility the protesters have in mind.
“The top priority now for Algerians is to elect a constituent assembly that will allow them to set new rules, ideally ones that impose checks and balances on the different branches of government,” he said.
Alioui Mehdi, a reporter for HuffPost Algeria, agrees, telling The Media Line: “To be clear, society is trying to begin anew while the authorities are trying to keep control.”
A presidential election, he adds, will not satisfy the demands of the protesters, making it highly unlikely it will bring an end to the demonstrations. In fact, he is concerned that the election will merely lead to more violence, as whoever wins is likely to use the victory as an opportunity for a crackdown.
“We are certainly in a very sensitive situation. Canceling or not canceling this election will determine the fate of Algeria,” he said.
Ouaissa argues that it is not only members of the Algerian power elite who fear a radical change. It is also the international community, especially France – the largest outside investor – for Algeria is one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, supplying much of Europe’s energy needs.
“Algeria has traditionally been a reliable supplier of hydrocarbons and continues to be one at present. The supply contracts are respected, and a certain number of them have even been renewed in recent months,” John O’Rourke, the European Union’s ambassador to Algeria, told The Media Line.
Ouaissa says that earlier this year, the Algerian parliament passed what he calls “taboo” legislation that for the first time allowed international companies to own a greater share of the country’s oil and gas concessions than domestic firms.
“Now it’s possible for foreign firms… to [hold] more than 50 percent, which is a gift for the French support of the Algerian regime,” he said.
He argues that countries in the region also recognize the potential for economic instability that a change in Algeria might have, although their fears extend to the fact that their own citizens might start demanding democracy.
“It’s the biggest country in Africa and it has one of the strongest armies in Africa,” Ouaissa said. “It will have an influence on the systems in Morocco, Libya [and] Egypt, and [throughout] the Middle East.”
Nevertheless, he maintains hope for Algeria’s future.
“I think there [will be] a change, even if there are elections,” he explained. “The system will never be the same as it was before.”
Journalist Allahoum agrees.
“It’s hard not to be [optimistic],” he said. “This is a country with huge potential.”