Interview. We spoke with Algerian journalist Mustapha Hammoune about the protest movement that has helped to strip Abdelaziz Bouteflika of power. ‘After the country won its independence, the army has always chosen the presidents and made the political decisions.’

Bouteflika out after general declares ‘No more room to waste time’

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has resigned, announcing the end of his two-decade reign on Tuesday, which culminated in a storm of protest and the defection of military leaders.

In recent days, his office had spoken of a transition period involving the formation of a new government headed by Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui. The news of a new government came after worrying statements made on TV by the head of the armed forces, General Gaid Salah, on Saturday night, which led people to fear the worst.

In a serious tone, the general spoke of secret meetings between certain unknown parties to orchestrate a campaign against the army. In the end, the new government is a sign that a compromise has been agreed between the Bouteflika clan and the military. Gaid Salah will apparently keep his dual role as head of the armed forces and deputy Minister of Defense. The sudden resignation came after the general declared Tuesday: “There is no more room to waste time.”

There are many new faces among the 27 ministers in the new government, six of whom are holdovers, and five of whom are women. Notably absent is Ramtane Lamamra, who was appointed deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs just 20 days ago, then immediately went on a diplomatic tour to seek support and was the object of much criticism as a result.

Prior to Bouteflika’s departure, l asked Mustapha Hammoune, a columnist for the Algerian daily Liberté, to give his opinion on the current events.

The movement that began to mobilize on Feb. 22 was a surprise, but was it really so impossible to foresee?

Yes, it was really impossible to foresee. First of all, it was unforeseeable because of where it originated. For the past decade, Algerians have been giving the impression that they aren’t interested in questions connected to politics and power. The repression of all public assemblies by citizens (demonstrations, rallies, etc.), the corruption of the political class and of the business environment (involving privileges and the lack of a separation between public and private), generalized corruption throughout society (affecting everything from public housing and non-refundable loans to subsidies for food and energy) and systematic electoral fraud had pushed citizens away from public life. Everyone was interested only in their own finances. The young people, among whom we find most of those who have been marginalized, think that their only salvation is “harga” (the slang term for becoming an undocumented migrant). This disregard for politics can be seen first of all in the level of electoral abstention, which is always very high.

Then, what has happened in recent weeks was also unforeseeable because of the form it took. Before, society seemed to have been taken over by Islamist ideology and attitudes. All with the blessing of the government, which has always preferred to come to an agreement with the Islamists instead of cultivating a democratic project. Those who become Islamist leaders are those businessmen who are more corruptible than the pro-democracy activists. However, in the course of the current popular revolt, the values ​​of pacifism and tolerance have prevailed, together with demands for justice, democracy and freedom.

Was General Gaid Salah’s speech proof that the army still holds the fate of Algeria in its hands?

That is another challenge to be overcome. After the country won its independence, the army has always chosen the presidents and made the political decisions. With Bouteflika, the role of the military has changed, because the president wanted to decide for himself, as well as for them. But even if he succeeded, at least in part, in removing the generals who wanted to be “decision makers” themselves, he remains dependent on the army, because, not having supported the development of democracy, he needs the army as the foundation and source of legitimacy of his power. General Gaid Salah asked for the application of Article 102 to remove Bouteflika due to being unfit for office. Thus, the general broke the pact and subverted the subordinate relationship between the army and the president.

Can one rule out the possibility that the Islamists will manage to hijack this movement?

One cannot rule it out completely. Of course, they can’t use terrorism, as young Algerians today are more interested in life than in death. Neither al-Qaeda nor Daesh have been able to recruit many in Algeria. But society and the media have been handed over to Islamist hegemony on a silver platter, in a deal that basically said: business and society would go to the Islamists, political power would go to the “nationalist” clans. Moreover, if we exclude the Muslim Brotherhood, which is closer to the Turkish version of Islamism, the other Islamist currents are very diverse and fragmented, and don’t have the degree of organization necessary to launch a movement aimed at seizing power. For now, the revolution is secular in nature—but if the next step, as many claim, is free elections, it will be necessary to deal with the Islamists.

What will happen now? The movement doesn’t seem to have any political representatives that would be able to draw up a roadmap.

True, the problem is the difficulty in coming up with a model of representation based on mutual agreement, and the refusal to be seen as imposing a roadmap on others. This is a revolution that knows what we shouldn’t do anymore: ​​we shouldn’t let the men of the past hold on to power, and we should stop accepting elections conducted under the “supervision” of the powers-that-be. What it doesn’t know so well is what it should promote in a positive manner: which new faces should be in power? Which pathway for the transition to democracy should it support?

However, the main objectives are clear: a clean break with the regime and its representatives, a democratic constitution, free elections. Perhaps the current debates—which, however, have already begun to show the effects of the state of outright war between various clans—will manage to reveal the true representatives of the movement, as well as the particular transition model that should be pursued.

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