On February 22nd, 2019, millions of Algerians took to the streets to protest against the fifth bid of former President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been in power for 20 years. For many who followed and worked on Algeria especially since the 2011 Arab Spring, popular protests against Bouteflika’s reign were long overdue . The country remained “calm” even as Bouteflika suffered from a stroke in 2013, leaving him publically absent for six years. But it took Algerians until 2019 to decide to reclaim their popular sovereignty after decades of forceful political marginalization.
Bouteflika’s rule quickly fell apart as the entire country entered an unprecedented political upheaval. The former President resigned on April 2nd, 2019, opening doors to a potential democratic transition.
Removing Bouteflika from office constituted a significant victory for the Algerian people. Nevertheless, protesters were engaged in a revolutionary process through which they aspired to topple the entire political establishment known as “le pouvoir”. In that context, several political and social actors demanded a transition period before organizing any sort of elections. However, for the establishment itself, the only viable alternative was that inscribed within the constitution itself, i.e. presidential elections within 90 days of Bouteflika’s resignation.
Consequently, the Algerian constitution, amended most recently in 2016, demonstrated a lack of adaptability with political changes. In fact, it is a common critique that Algerian constitutions are tailored according to the President’s wishes rather than the country’s needs. In that sense, it was impossible for the Algerian ruling elite to listen to the population if such a decision would mean canceling the ongoing constitutional process (in this case, elections). However, this process was meant for a normal political situation that does not require fundamental regime change which was hardly the case in 2019. However, this process was meant for a normal political situation that does not require fundamental regime change which was hardly the case in 2019.
At the end of the day, a minority of Algerians endorsed the constitutional process and took part in the December 2019 presidential elections. Despite the numerous calls for reforms, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was inaugurated as he continued promising radical changes , including a new constitution. For several political actors, the system was persisting in its own roadmap, considering a new constitution as the ultimate solution to the country’s crisis. This essentially disregarded the political aspect of the 2019 upheaval, focusing primarily on the latter’s legal details. Nevertheless, Algeria’s crisis was not a simple, momentary legalistic disagreement but a sign of deep sociopolitical fractures that require a political solution.
Constitutions are considered as the supreme law of a society and a binding legal contract between the State, its different institutions and the citizens. Therefore, any political transition would inevitably require a new legal framework. However, such a fundamental process is also dependent on granting the necessary level of political and civil liberties that would empower and enable citizens’ engagement. A constitution is a product of a nation’s consensus, not a tool of political maneuvering.
In that regard, the constitutional reform in Algeria needed to encompass all different classes of society. This country had witnessed a massive protest dynamic that included millions of Algerians who wanted to make their voices heard. Nevertheless, this vital legal reform took another shape as the political establishment had already a set of red lines that are not to be crossed. Algerians had spent over a year chanting against the military-junta and demanding a “civilian rule”. Yet, the new constitution disregarded that demand and kept the preamble and article. 30 which grants the military institution vague political prerogatives related to protecting “national sovereignty” and “Algeria’s vital and geostrategic interests”. Although the military institution is indeed the primary guarantor of any country’s security, such generic rhetoric opens doors to political interference.
On September 15, 2020, the Algerian President announced that a constitutional referendum was set for November 1st, 2020. According to President Tebboune, the new constitution would invigorate efforts for a “New Algeria” that would guarantee freedoms and re-establish trust. At the same time, the Algerian government opted for a series of repressive policies such as imprisoning journalists and activists. In a way, many Algerians regarded these promises of freedom as misleading since they were not even granted the right to oppose the constitutional reforms. Therefore, the human rights record will remain the darkest stain for the Algerian constitutional referendum.
Moreover, the proposed constitutional amendments did not bring significant changes as some may have expected. The new constitution maintained a firm stand regarding the components of the Algerian identity, being Islam, Amazighism and Arabism. Furthermore, it safeguarded the semi-presidential nature of the political system as the opposition remains too fragmented to opt for a parliamentarian architecture of the State.
Nevertheless, the proposed draft signaled a shift in the country’s direction regarding its foreign policy and democratization options. Since independence, the Algerian army has categorically refused to engage in any regional military operations except against Israel. As per the new constitution, Algerian troops could be deployed at the request of the President and with a two thirds parliamentarian majority. Even if a heavy military engagement is still excluded for the Algerian military institution, this reform suggests Algiers could adopt a more radical foreign policy approach.
In addition to the military changes, the new Algerian constitution also alluded to the rulers’ vision about a slow democratization process. Algerians are now granted the right to form political parties only by declaration after years of a mandatory bureaucratic process, managed by the Ministry of Interior, to get permission. Also, the Constitutional Council was officially replaced with a Constitutional Court to protect the judiciary’s independence. Finally, Algerian youth were promised more political and civil engagement opportunities through both the Supreme Council of Youth and the National Observatory for Civil Society.
The new constitution, approved by a popular referendum , came essentially to find a new balance both between the system’s poles and also between the regime and the citizens. As presented by the regime, the constitutional amendments, both as a process and a set of legal frameworks, could not be considered as the final and inclusive answer to the country’s numerous and divisive questions. The process that should have included everyone excluded prominent political and social actors because of the Algerian authorities’ repressive policy . For this reason, the legal texts represent a first step that still needs a firm implementation.
Finally, the Algerian political establishment, like other regimes in the region, saw the constitutional reforms as a tool to avoid radical and abrupt changes. The Algerian government had hoped for a high voter turnout to legitimize the current situation only to face a historic 23.7% participation rate. This meant that Algeria is still struggling with a crisis of popular legitimacy and that elections, despite being a democratic tool, may not always be the answer.
In brief, Algeria’s political problems could be delayed with electoral agendas but cannot be solved without an inclusive process. A genuine democratization process must lead first to a consensus-based constitution and second, to an effective implementation of the amended constitution. Algeria has failed in achieving the first goal; but that may not, and should not, prevent its citizens from hoping to attain the second goal, despite the mentioned shortcomings in the constitutional amendment of November 1, 2020.