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Algerians skeptical of the military state’s new civilian figurehead

The protest movement that took down Abdelaziz Bouteflika is keeping the pressure on his replacement, Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest to reject the presidential election in Algiers, Algeria December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina - RC2QTD9ZGJA7

ALGIERS, Algeria — Five days after his election as Algeria's new president, it's clear Abdelmadjid Tebboune will not be enjoying any kind of honeymoon period.

Following the election Dec. 12-13, Algerians returned to the streets to show their determination for a complete overhaul of the ruling political class. Protesters view Tebboune, who briefly served as prime minister in 2017, as a way for the political-military regime to present a new facade while stopping far short of the overhaul protesters have sought since toppling President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April.

The ongoing protests underscore that the election did not answer the fundamental demands of the Hirak (meaning Movement, in Arabic), the peaceful anti-government campaign that emerged Feb. 22 in response to Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.

For the first time in Algeria's history, calls for an active boycott have found traction, and all signs point to protesters refusing to “go back home,” as the government ordered. Friday’s violent repression of demonstrators in Oran outraged the country, even as Tebboune called for a “dialogue” with the Hirak.

Instead, the message sent by security forces has many Algerians bracing for an authoritarian backlash rather than an official opening toward a disillusioned population that largely abstained from last week’s vote. Indeed, fewer than 40% of eligible citizens voted, according to official estimates, whose credibility is questioned by protesters.

Before he can even think about a dialogue with protesters, Tebboune will reveal his priorities with his choice of government. While his selection will be scrutinized, no one expects to see the back of army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, the strongman who imposed last week’s election on a reluctant nation.

Indeed, Gaid Salah’s reappointment as vice minister (and perhaps even minister) of defense and army chief of staff are all but certain. Tebboune has shown little sign of seeking emancipation from the military leader’s political hegemony. Quite the contrary: His first words of thanks following the election were addressed to the 79-year-old commander.

Gaid Salah’s reappointment will likely be presented as necessary to prevent the reemergence of “the gang,” the term Algerians use to designate the Bouteflika clan and the networks linked to the former security services chief, Mohamed Mediene, aka Toufik. Mediene was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a military court Sept. 25, along with his successor Athmane "Bachir" Tartag; the former president’s brother, Said Bouteflika; and Louisa Hanoune, head of the left-wing Workers’ Party.

The anti-corruption argument, however, is unlikely to win over the Hirak, which sees Gaid Salah as the guarantor of a rejected military state, albeit with a civilian figurehead. Tebboune’s real power is key, as it determines what kind of “dialogue” the state has in mind. Algerians learned long ago to see through such tokenistic processes, which are meant to enshrine already agreed-upon decisions, such as the recent dialogue and mediation commission of former parliament leader Karim Younes.

Political sociology professor Lahouari Addi asks: If negotiation is indispensable, what is its purpose?

The ruling National Liberation Front, Addi writes on Facebook, “managed to sign [a peace treaty] with colonial France. Now that the generals have an official civilian representative in Abdelmadjid Tebboune, it is time to negotiate with him the transition toward the rule of law." First, however, Addi lists 15 demands, from the release of political prisoners to the mandatory retirement of senior military leaders older than 65.

Many observers think dialogue is out of the question until imprisoned activists are released. These include independence war hero Lakhdar Bouregaa; political activists Karim Tabou, Fodil Boumala and Samir Belarbi; and leaders of the Youth Action Rally (RAJ), who have been systematically targeted by the security services.

The filing of criminal charges — for threatening "national unity" — against protesters who displayed minority Amazigh flags has only exacerbated tensions. Remarkably, while some courts condemned the flag wavers, others acquitted them and ordered police forces to return their seized flags.

With their flag flap, authorities only managed to revive a controversy instead of dividing the protest movement. In Berber-speaking Kabylie, resistance to the regime has been so strong that protesters prevented the vote from taking place. Algerians in other regions paid homage to Kabyles for their resistance.

For now, the regime has shown no interest in abiding by the deep changes outlined by Addi and others. Hence the calls for the Hirak to keep exerting pressure without abandoning its nonviolent ethos.

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