ALGIRS – In a Moorish-style palace on the lofty heights of the Algerian capital, the nation’s president proclaimed a new day for his country, saying it was now “free and democratic”. The old, corrupt system in which he had spent his entire career has disappeared, he stressed.
“We’re building a new model here,” said 75-year-old President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who smoked a pack of cigarettes in an hour-long interview surrounded by aides in his splendid office last month. “I’ve decided to go very far in creating new politics and a new economy.”
But old habits die hard in this North African country that has seen nearly 60 years of oppression, military interference, rigged elections and very little democracy. In the streets under Mr. Tebboune’s office, the old realities of Algeria are re-established.
The dissidents and seats of the state prison were put up for sale – the price was around $ 540,000, according to a parliamentary court – in the same parliament that ratified Mr Tebboune’s proposed new constitution after he took office in a controversial December election had been designed. However, the opposition is hampered by a lack of leadership and failure to formulate an alternative vision for the country.
A year after a popular uprising ousted 20-year-old autocrat Abdelaziz Bouteflika and led the army to jail a large part of his ruling oligarchy, hopes for a revision of the political system and real democracy in Algeria are fading.
“We’re moving back quickly,” said Mohcine Belabbas, an opposition politician who played an important role in the uprising.
There are two political narratives in Algeria today: that of Mr Tebboune on high and that of the streets below.
The street riot that began last year and was known here as Hirak initially seemed to signal a new beginning in a country that had been stifled for decades by its vast military. However, when the movement was unable to unite among the leaders and agree on goals, a vacuum was created. The remnants of the repressive Algerian state with its numerous security services entered.
Other proponents of change in the Arab world watched enviously as tens of thousands peacefully protested week after week against the continued reign of Mr Bouteflika, who was paralyzed after a stroke in 2013. It seemed that the abortive Arab Spring started in late 2010 and was finally realized.
Algeria, an island hub in the region, is the tenth largest producer of natural gas in the world and is believed to have the second largest military establishment in Africa. It has been a key leader of unaligned nations since it found its way into independence from France 58 years ago.
The military took precedence in politics shortly thereafter and has been on the front line or right behind it ever since. A civil war with Islamists in the 1990s that killed up to 100,000 people helped cement its influence.
Soldiers in uniform are omnipresent in Algiers. But during last year’s demonstrations, Algerian security forces did not open fire on the Hirak protesters, but stared at each other in a cautious stalemate.
Although the army eventually forced Mr Bouteflika and his ruling elite out of office, that was not enough for the demonstrators. They called for a complete overhaul of the country’s political class, elections for a new constituent assembly to replace the country’s discredited parliament and the definitive withdrawal of the army from politics.
They also believed that it was premature to put pressure on presidential elections from the army. But the all-powerful Army Chief of Staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, overruled the movement.
It is believed that Mr Tebboune, once a short-lived Prime Minister under Mr Bouteflika, has been assisted for the presidency by Mr Gaid Salah. He was elected in a poll that opponents said drew less than 10 percent of the vote; Mr Tebboune said it was over 40 percent.
He started with a few gestures of goodwill and released some detained protesters. The pandemic halted demonstrations in March and since then the government has played a cat-and-mouse game with Hirak’s remains, releasing some and arresting others. Dozens have been arrested, according to an opposition group.
The pandemic is closely tied to the national preference for island location, which gives Algeria another excuse to tighten its borders and keep foreigners out. The result is low infection and mortality rates, few mask wearers, and a near-complete absence of outsiders in the crumbling streets of central Algier.
The arrest and prosecution of one of the country’s best-known journalists, Khaled Drareni, 40, has aggravated the mood in the streets and spread fear in the Algerian news media. The editor of a popular website, the Casbah Tribune, and a local correspondent for a French television station, Mr Drareni, covered Hirak with a mixture of activism and detachment.
“The system is constantly renewing itself and refusing to change,” he wrote during the uprising last year. “We demand freedom of the press. They react with corruption and money. “
This comment made the authorities angry. On September 15, he was convicted of “endangering national unity” and sentenced to two years in prison.
The scene in front of the courthouse that day turned ugly.
“Khaled Drareni, independent journalist!” protesters shouted before police came in to disperse them. “Scram!” A muscular plainclothes officer barked at protesters. The officers roughly bundled a young woman and an elderly man into a police car.
“He didn’t even have a press card,” the president grumbled during the interview, filling Mr Drareni as an activist with dubious references. However, Mr Drareni once interviewed Mr Tebboune himself and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Mr Tebboune insisted on telling the opponent during the three and a half hour interview, saying his country was now “free and democratic”. He later made his normally reluctant cabinet members available for interviews and even demanded that the Army Chief of Staff – never exposed to the media – consent to an interview.
“The army is neutral,” growled General Saïd Chengriha, a veteran of the 1990s civil war with the Islamists. He succeeded General Gaid Salah, who died of a heart attack in December.
“How do you want us to get involved in politics? We’re not trained in that at all, ”said the 75-year-old general on the extensive military compound in the heights of Algiers.
But decades of history are not so easily reversed.
The general and the president said they met at least twice a week to discuss the country’s situation, which is becoming increasingly dangerous due to the drop in oil prices. Well over 90 percent of the largely deserted country’s exports consist of oil and gas, and Algeria needs an estimated US $ 100 per barrel of oil to balance its budget due to high social spending. The price hovered in the 40s.
Mr Tebboune is certain of one thing: the civil protest movement is over.
“Is there anything left of the hirak?” he asked dismissively during the interview.
He spoke of change and praised his new constitution, which limits a president to two terms and recognizes the rights of the opposition, at least in the eyes of its supporters. But this week the government threatened to withdraw parliamentary immunity from opposition politician Belabbas.
And for all talk of a new Algeria, the president used the old language of the autocrat when he talked about how to deal with dissent.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression – but only in an orderly manner,” he said. “It is normal for someone who insults and attacks the symbols of the state to end up in court.”
An Algerian uprising against the French 58 years ago failed because of a clear leader. This resistance to the anointing of a leader, a tactic designed to minimize oppression, has now weakened Hirak as well.
The activists, who have taken on a leadership role, have refused to contact the heirs of the deposed leader, including the new president.
Behind highly locked metal gates watched by plainclothes officers from the sun-drenched street, Mr Belabbas admitted that the protesters knew what they were against – the entire political system of Algeria – but less about what it was supposed to replace.
“We never managed to define what we were for,” said Belabbas, chairman of the party “Rally for Culture and Democracy” and MP.
Trapped in the middle are ordinary Algerians – skeptical of Mr Tebboune’s renewal claims and his new constitution, which were deflated by the death of Hirak and angry with the imprisoned Mr Drareni.
“So there is a journalist who speaks. You put him in jail. And that’s supposed to be democracy? “Asked Isa Mansour, who runs a small clothing store in the working-class district of Belouizdad, where Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus grew up 100 years ago.
“Citizens have had enough of all these promises,” he said. “You can’t expect reforms from the old guard. Algeria is still looking for democracy. “