By Nermin Ismail
With ousted President Bouteflika gone, Algeria’s army minister, Ahmed Gaid Salah, has become the country’s most powerful figure. Whether he can or will lead Algeria to democracy, however, remains unclear.
It has been a month since Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced out of office, but the street protests that preceded his ouster have not stopped. Thousands of people have continued to gather in demonstrations in Algiers and around the country to call for political reform. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the country’s vice minister of defense, has become protesters’ intended target, with some calling for his resignation.
It was Salah who who forced Bouteflika out at the beginning of April, following weeks of mass demonstrations. The move was received well at first, but voices from the opposition have not overlooked the fact that Salah lacks the constitutional authority to remove elected leadership, even if they are opposed by the people or in power thanks to voter manipulation. Salah is also part of the very political establishment whose corruption has brought people to protest it, although the general himself has not been seriously accused of any wrongdoing.
‘Undermining military authority’
Sensing the discontent with corruption, Salah has since ordered the arrests of many of those from Bouteflika’s inner circle, including many heads of industry, Bouteflika’s own brother, Said, and former intelligence chiefs Genreal Mohamed Mediene, known as Toufiq, and Athmane Tartag, known as Bachir. The charges: conspiring against the state and undermining military authority. There is little doubt Salah ordered these arrests, based on public comments he has made against “a group’s wretched conspiracies” and the “fraud and misconduct in their posts,” reportedly referring to Bouteflika and his inner circle.
“The whole legal proceeding is just an attempt by the system to settle scores with long-retired intelligence officers,” Ismail Meraaf, an Algiers professor aligned with the opposition, told DW. “These steps by the military are presented as being in line with the people’s demands … but Salah was himself part of this group of criminals and protected them.”
The next dictator?
Many protesters are skeptical of Salah’s moves, concerned that the military may co-opt popular unrest for its own ends. “The protesters won’t accept this,” activist and lawyer Tarek Marah, told DW. “I think there will be more protests as a result.”
Algeria’s military maintains an overall positive reputation in the country as liberators from colonialism. But concern is growing that Salah receives support from Arab Gulf states, much like Egypt’s former general and now president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, did when he toppled the elected Muslim Brotherhood government there in 2013, putting his own form of repressive rule in place.
“Salah will become Algeria’s al-Sisi,” Meraaf said. He thinks little of elections planned for July, believing whomever is elected president will be in name only. Salah, Meraaf fears, will remain the true powerbroker.
Algeria: Human Rights Watch Official Deported
New York — Algerian authorities deported a Human Rights Watch official, Ahmed Benchemsi, on August 19, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities detained him for 10 hours and seized his passports, holding them for 10 days before deporting him.
Benchemsi, the Middle East communications and advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, had been in Algeria since August 1 on the organization’s behalf. The police detained him on August 9 at about 2 p.m. while he was observing the 25th consecutive Friday pro-democracy demonstration in downtown Algiers. They held him without allowing him to contact anyone, confiscated his cellphone and laptop computer, and ordered him to provide his passwords to unlock both devices, which he refused to do.
“Ahmed Benchemsi was in Algiers simply doing his job observing human rights conditions,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “His arbitrary arrest and mistreatment send the message that authorities don’t want the world to know about the mass protests for more democracy in Algeria.”
Benchemsi entered Algeria lawfully and disclosed his professional affiliation when asked. He had visited Algeria three times previously since 2017 for Human Rights Watch, each time lawfully entering the country.
In an effort to end Benchemsi’s ordeal as quickly as possible, Human Rights Watch did not make a public announcement about his situation during the time that authorities prevented him from leaving Algeria.
After detaining Benchemsi on August 9 and releasing him around midnight, the police gave him a summons to return to the downtown police station known as “Cavaignac” on August 13. On August 13, the police did not tell Benchemsi of any charges against him or present a search warrant, but again demanded the passwords to his devices. When he refused, they gave him a summons to return the next day.
On August 14, when he reported to the police with an attorney, Salah Dabouz, the police demanded aggressively that he provide his passwords, which he again refused to do. After four hours, the police dismissed Benchemsi and summoned him to return the next morning to appear before the prosecutor.
On August 15, Benchemsi reported to the police in the company of Dabouz. The police made them wait eight hours without bringing Benchemsi before the prosecutor. At the end of the day, the police gave him a second summons to appear before the prosecutor on August 18.
On August 18, after having Benchemsi wait all morning, the police transferred him to the headquarters of the Police Brigade for Foreigners, where officials told Benchemsi that they might soon deport him.
Benchemsi remained in police custody overnight and was placed on a flight to Casablanca, Morocco on the afternoon of August 19. Algerian authorities returned his passports and electronic devices before he boarded the plane. He entered Morocco without incident.
At no time did Algerian authorities notify Benchemsi of any charges against him or the legal basis for confiscating and retaining his passports, phone, and laptop, or for demanding that he surrender the passwords to the devices. Nor did authorities provide the legal grounds for deporting him. Algerian news websites reported on August 18 that the prosecutor in Sidi Mhamed had ordered his expulsion, but Benchemsi never appeared before or spoke with a prosecutor.
The police at various times deprived Benchemsi of his ability to communicate with others, including his lawyer, and threatened him with physical violence, but did not physically mistreat him.
Since February, huge numbers of Algerians have marched every Friday in the streets of the capital and other cities, overwhelmingly peacefully, initially against the candidacy for re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and, after his resignation on April 2, for a transition toward a more democratic government.
Benchemsi is a dual Moroccan and US citizen. He had visited Algeria this August to monitor human rights developments in Algeria, especially those related to freedom of assembly and expression in the context of the pro-democracy protests. Algeria is among the more than 90 countries that Human Rights Watch monitors around the world.
“Benchemsi’s mistreatment is a sobering reminder of the risks faced every day by Algerian human rights defenders exposing and reporting on government abuses,” Roth said.
North Africa: Changing the Migration Horizon From North Africa to Europe
New leadership is coming into power at the European Union (EU). In July, newly elected and re-elected members of parliament began their work at the European Parliament. In November the top leadership will change.
The advent of the new leadership team is an opportunity to revisit and review the EU’s foreign policy. This includes the issue of irregular migration of North Africans to Europe and the bloc’s broader strategy towards the countries on the south-western rim of the Mediterranean. The strategy towards migration is one of the most complicated, sensitive and enduring issues faced by EU policymakers. The new leaders must avoid uncritically perpetuating their predecessors’ policies.
The Maghreb is going through a particularly complex and fragile period. Economic and social challenges abound, and there is an acute sense among the largely young populations that their political leadership can’t or won’t solve the problems they face.
In Morocco, 43% say their quality of life has decreased. In Tunisia, limited job opportunities and spiralling inflation have imparted the sense that ‘the noose is tightening.’ A growing number of young people have taken to the street, protesting to change ossified political leadership, abusive or unequal treatment by security forces, or just to demonstrate frustration with the status quo.
Others are taking to the boats, risking their lives to migrate irregularly to Europe. European states, along with Tunisia and Algeria, intercepted 38 968 Maghrebi irregular migrants in 2018, up from 15 961 in 2016.
The rising number of Maghrebi migrants has posed a political challenge to the EU. Anti-migrant populism remains a potent political force in a number of European countries, and as growing numbers of Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians move northwards, the ire of populist politicians has increasingly fixated on them.
Populist domestic politics have increased pressure on EU authorities to address – or at least politically mitigate – the issue. And so the bloc has dispensed aid and exerted diplomatic pressure on Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya to halt the flow of people. But neither aid nor pressure has significantly affected migrant departures from the Maghreb nor lessened the interest in emigrating. Seventy percent of young adults in Morocco want to emigrate, with levels in Algeria and Tunisia probably similar.
So the incoming EU leadership will face immediate pressure from within the bloc to better address Maghrebi irregular migration. Any discussions around changing the EU’s approach however should guard against creating yet more challenges in the Maghreb.
There are five issues EU decision makers should consider. First, structural inequality must be addressed. EU programmes aimed at migration’s root causes largely don’t address structural inequality, the reality that one’s family, region of origin, economic status and age dictate economic options, access to public services, and the types of engagements one has with security forces.
Entrenched inequality significantly limits the impact of even well-funded and well-designed programmes on the marginalised individuals and communities likely to want to migrate. A revised EU strategy must prioritise and mainstream efforts to acknowledge and address structural inequality.
Second, emigration from the Maghreb, both legal and irregular, helps to buttress stability in the region. Migration offers an economic lifeline to populations that the region’s governments either can’t or won’t help, in turn lessening social frustration and unrest. Absent significant changes in economic opportunity, social relations and inequality risk enflaming unrest and threatening stability in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. This instability could be far more damaging to the EU’s economic and security interests than irregular migration.
Third, migration is just as significant a political issue in these three countries as it is in Europe. While transit migration and the increase in migrants settling in the Maghreb raise some political tensions, it is irregular emigration by Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians that has the most political impact.
Maghrebi governments know the political benefits that irregular migration of their citizens offers. Their priorities hinge on ensuring domestic stability, and hence tacitly allowing migration, even if that results in worsened relations with the EU and member states. Unless EU programming takes into account Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian politics and political needs around migration, it will almost assuredly fail to gain significant traction in the region.
Fourth, ‘enforcement first’ programmes won’t succeed. These are premised on the idea that continued irregular migration from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia is due to security force capacity gaps. But the complicated politics around migration in the three countries means that weak enforcement is as much due to political will as to security forces’ materiel weaknesses.
Fifth, the current irregular and legal migration status quo works poorly for both Europe and North Africa. Irregular migration is seen as a problem by Europe, and an imperfect solution for North Africa. Europe profits from the legal emigration of highly skilled Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians, while that very brain drain stymies the economic development of North Africa.
To move forward, a frank debate is needed between the EU and North African states on how to build an equitable, cross-Mediterranean approach to migration. This must consider how the needs of European and North African states can be reconciled.
Migration is a complicated and politically and diplomatically sensitive issue for EU policymakers. Because it is influenced by and affects a broad set of economic, social and political issues in and outside the bloc, there are no ‘easy’ wins when it comes to migration policy.
As the new EU leadership team takes stock of the situation, they should consider the needs and concerns of Maghreb states, address structural inequality, and must not undermine stability in the region.
Dr Matthew Herbert, Senior Research Consultant, ISS
Algeria Star Bennacer Moves From Empoli to AC Milan
AC Milan on Sunday announced the signing of the Algeria midfielder Ismael Bennacer.
Bennacer, who played for France’s under-18 and under-19 teams before switching allegiance to Algeria in 2016, joins the San Siro outfit from the Serie A side Empoli on a five-year contract.
The 21-year-old has won 16 caps for Algeria, including seven at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, where he won the award for best young player at the tournament as his side swept to their first title in 29 years.
Kenya/Algeria: Harambee Stars Forward Joins Algerian Giants
Harambee Stars striker Masoud Juma has joined Algerian side Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie on a three-year deal.
Masoud, who did not kick a ball for Kenya at the Africa Cup of Nations, joins as a free agent after parting ways with Libyan club Al Nasr in May.
A post on JS Kabylie’s official Facebook page confirmed the arrival of the 23-year-old Kenyan striker.
“After Adadi, Banouh, El Orfi, Bounoua, Bencherifa, Bensayeh, Zeghdane, Zeghdane and Loucif, JS Kabylie is pleased to announce its ninth recruit of the summer. This is the Kenyan international, Massoud Juma Chokka. The latter has just signed a three-year contract after passing his medical,” read part of the post.
This will be Juma’s fourth club abroad after South Africa’s Cape Town City, United Arab Emirates’ Dibba Fujairah and Libya’s Al Nasr. He is expected to contend for a position with among others former Sofapaka striker Fiston Abdul Razak, a Burundian international.
Founded in 1946 and coached by Frenchman Hubert Velud, JS Kabylie are 14-time Algerian league champions. They finished second, just a point behind USM Alger, to narrowly miss out on the title last season.
They are based in Tizi Ouzou and host their matches at the Stade du 1er Novembre 1954 which has a capacity of 18,000.
Algeria: Where to From Here in Algeria?
It is Friday in Algeria. Once again – as they have for 23 weeks – protesters will fill the streets of cities across the country. Their ranks represent a cross-section of Algeria: young and old, men and women, office workers and labourers. All marching peacefully, many draped in Algerian flags, calling for democracy and civil rights.
The duration, momentum and peaceful nature of the protests underscore the strong support by many Algerians for an overhaul of the deeply unpopular political system. The protests have already accomplished more than many observers expected. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the long-serving president whose bid for another term prompted the rallies, is out of power.
Despite this, the political uncertainty in Algeria is far from being resolved. Government efforts to placate the public through largely symbolic actions – such as the arrest of widely disliked former regime officials or businessmen – have only fuelled demand for more comprehensive change. The protesters refuse to accept any vestiges of the old regime in positions of power. This includes both interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui.
Protesters’ rejection of these figures along with government’s preferred transition process led to the cancellation of elections planned for 4 July. On 9 July the interim government’s mandate expired, creating a constitutional vacuum even as it remains in power.
Despite the creation of a national dialogue forum, there is no clarity on what happens next. This uncertainty is exacerbated by a worsening stand-off between the protest movement and the government. Police are taking a harder line, and are arresting growing numbers of protesters and dissidents. Army chief of staff General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, believed to be the key decision maker at present, has issued strong statements condemning those advocating against the government’s transition plans.
But impediments to a negotiated solution exist on both sides. Among the protesters there is little formal leadership or encompassing ideology apart from denying Bouteflika another term. Initially, this was one of the movement’s greatest strengths. The leaderless approach prevented the government from detaining organisers, while the lack of ideology enabled a broad-based coalition of protesters to cooperate.
Now, leaderless has become a weakness. It offers no clear point for the government to negotiate with or means to distil the demands of the street into concrete policy proposals. For constructive negotiations to begin, the protester’s leadership needs to consolidate. Their focus should then be on building consensus between the different class, gender and geographic constituencies about what the protest movement stands for politically. These demands can then be negotiated with government.
Factors and factions within government also challenge the dialogue process. The military has played a decisive, though largely behind-the-scenes, role in political decision making since independence. It is deeply vested in the old system partly for institutional reasons – the defence budget increased fivefold during the Bouteflika years. Current and retired senior officers are also personally vested in the system, with many leveraging their years of service into lucrative business opportunities.
The institutional and personal interests of the military in maintaining the status quo make negotiations harder. Senior officers whose agreement is needed for concessions are those whose interests are most affected by significant change.
Further complicating negotiations is the lack of unity within the military. Unexpected and unusual removals of several senior officers from key command posts in mid- to late-2018 and again in July underscored these divisions. Discord narrows the space for concessions by Salah and other senior officers. Too many concessions, or concessions on key priorities, could lead to Salah and other senior officers being removed from their positions.
The transition process will hinge on how the protesters and the government – mainly the military – are able to overcome their internal interests and constraints, and find consensus.
The outcome will also be influenced by external factors. In particular, the trajectory of the economy and the actions of terrorist groups could have a major impact. Algeria’s economy has worsened significantly over recent years. Further deterioration, fuelled by negative popular perception, poses risks to both sides.
The risks are greatest for the government’s position in negotiations. A worsening economy will exacerbate Algerians’ grievances and redouble support for the protesters. Protesters also run a risk though, particularly if government links the faltering economy to protesters’ intransigence.
Terrorist activity could also significantly affect the transition. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb cells exist in Algeria, and though the group’s capacity has declined, it remains a dangerous threat. One or two deadly or high-profile attacks could derail the fragile transition process by swaying attitudes and decision making among protesters, the military or broader society.
While foreign states have an understandable interest in the outcome of Algeria’s transition, they should recognise that they have only a limited productive role to play in the process. There is little space for foreign mediation, with government unlikely to support such an intervention.
This doesn’t mean foreign actors have no part to play. Rather, they should focus on publicly stating their support and privately exerting diplomatic pressure for a transition process that is broad-based, peaceful and focused on building a social consensus on Algeria’s future.
The inclusive, peaceful and tenacious nature of the protests are hopeful signs for Algeria’s future. Resolving the current political uncertainty will require courage and patience by the protesters and the government. If the events of the past five months are any indication, there is a real chance of success.
Dr Matt Herbert, Senior Research Consultant, ISS