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In the quest for freedom and democracy, many countries in North Africa and the Middle East are suffering from instability and political violence in 2016, but Algeria has chosen a safer path. Soon after the popular uprisings in 2010-2011 in neighbouring Tunisia forced President Ben Ali out of the country, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised multilevel reforms in order to calm angry youth protesting high prices for basic commodities. He promised to undertake deep constitutional reforms meant to restore a more free and inclusive society and a democratic state. In a country where politics are complex to begin with, this promise proved to be tough and tedious to keep, but Algerians did see the formal fulfilment of the promise.
In 2011, Abdelkader Ben Saleh, president of the upper chamber of parliament began to organize a series of consultative sessions. This process was interrupted in 2013 when President Bouteflika suffered a stroke. Nonetheless, he again ran for office and was elected to a fourth term in April 2014. He assigned his chief of staff, Ahmed Ouyahia, the task of fulfilling the promise of constitutional reforms. Ouyahia invited 64 political parties, approximately 36 national figures, 12 academics, and several national organizations and civil society associations to consult and submit recommendations for the new constitution in an inclusive national dialogue.
Such participatory reforms do not happen often, yet even so, few opposition members celebrated them. They boycotted the presidential elections of 2014, believing that a constitution passed under the current regime would lack legitimacy. They demanded that the president resign before any reforms were instituted. This opposition consists of the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islah, and Nahda. FFS, the Socialist Forces Front that is popular in the Kabylie region, also refused to participate. While the final draft of the revised constitution included 80 per cent of the recommended reforms, many in the opposition, including those taking part in the boycott, still considered the document to be non-inclusive.
On 5 January 2016, Ouyahia discussed the draft in a press conference, after which it was sent to the ministerial cabinet and the constitutional council for their opinions. On 7 February, the majority of the parliament approved the constitution without further amendment. On 7 March 2016 the new constitution was published in the Official Gazette, which put it into effect and made it binding.
The period between the announcement of the draft and its implementation saw a media campaign intended to explain to ordinary Algerians the changes and their implications on their daily lives. In parallel, political parties supportive of the constitution rallied to persuade their constituencies of the importance of such reforms and the necessity of ensuring smooth approval by both the grassroots and the members of parliament. The president and his circle consistently claimed that it was a triumph for democracy in Algeria, calling it a consensual and inclusive document that guarantees most of the demands of Algerian society and ensures everyone’s rights and liberties.
The amended constitution came up with promising changes and met many of the demands of the opposition and activists. It limits the presidency to two five-year terms—as demanded by the opposition to prevent the successor of Bouteflika, the longest ruling president of Algeria—to prevent him from establishing a dictatorship. It requires the president to consult the parliamentary majority when appointing and dismissing the prime minister, thus adhering to democratic principles that the old constitution neglected. The important problem of freedom of speech in the Middle East was addressed by the decriminalization of press activities and ensuring the independence of the judiciary. It is assumed that these changes will allow the press to work more freely, without fear of persecution.
The amendment also acknowledges the Tamazight (Berber) language of indigenous Algerians as an official language, responding to an identity concern of those people and demands from the opposition that the rights of “minorities” be ensured. The new constitution also guarantees the freedom of religion and beliefs. By setting up Youth and Women High Councils to consult with the government, it expresses in the constitution the rights of youth and women to be an integral part of the decision-making process. This was a specific demand of Algerian civil society, to enhance the inclusivity of the government’s decision making.
The newly adopted constitution also ensures the right of peaceful assembly, guarantees the freedoms of political parties (including the opposition) and their to participate actively in state affairs, to exercise oversight of the government, and to be granted financial assistance according to their parliamentary representation. It requires full disclosure of the properties and sources of income of those in power. More importantly, it clarifies the role of the army in safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.
Some of the large opposition parties and prominent figures not only boycotted the consultations but also refused to endorse any of the positive changes in the new document. Some parties rejected the new constitution entirely, claiming that the regime in power was illegitimate and that the reforms were not made sufficiently inclusive. Others thought that this was only a superficial reform, which lacked depth and sincerity and was meant only to buy time. The fact that the threats made by the opposition, including even the mass mobilization the opposition forces warned of, have not been carried out has arguably resulted in loss of credibility for the opposition—particularly because some of their own core demands had been met, which they should have claimed as a victory instead of dismissing any action by the current government.
Public opinion on the constitution remains divided. Some people support the amendments and praise the new constitution, while others think it is great on paper but doubt that it will actually be implemented. Still others suspect that the reforms will result in no improvements to their daily lives and that the move was politically motivated.
There is controversy specifically in relation to articles 51 and 73. The former stipulates that persons with dual citizenship cannot hold senior positions in the state, without further defining those posts. Observers presume that it relates to all ministerial, military, judiciary positions, and, potentially, political advisers. Article 73 requires that anyone who stands for election to the presidency must be an Algerian citizen and must have lived in Algeria for ten years. Many protested such conditions, including the ruling party (FLN) whose secretary general first complained that article 51 needed clarifications and was unconstitutional, because it might harm those members of the Algerian population who had fled the country during the years of violence.
However, the secretary general later retreated from this position after plans were announced to include clarifications addressing those concerns in a separate law. While these clarifications are not expected to contribute to real changes, the FLN can claim a victory in having convinced the cabinet to clarify the article through a separate law, thereby winning political points but not alienating those who want Article 51 to remain in place.
Some analysts have suggested that the last steps of the reform process were rushed, leaving room for (mis-)interpretation. However, the consultation lasted three years, and after the first draft was finalized, all stakeholders were allowed enough time to examine and approve it. The granting of such broad liberties came during a time of economic hardship and may have been intended to please people beginning to worry about the fate of the economy in the face of the steady depletion of foreign reserves and the slump in oil prices.
Another possibility is that the president wanted a sophisticated constitution as his legacy. It physicalizes the core of what he stood for, symbolizing that he kept his promise of profound reforms, the restoration of a civilian state, and constitutionalising the national reconciliation project. The interruption of the process during the president’s illness indeed suggests that this is a Bouteflika project.
Rumours have spread that another cabinet reshuffle will soon take place. Overall, the new constitution creates more democratic openings in Algeria and buries the era of the military regime. Only time will tell whether it will improve the daily lives of ordinary Algerians, as Shakespeare writes in Othello, “there are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered.”