Will Algerian military serve people or regime?
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
The chief of army in Algeria has a chance of becoming the hero of the century. Will he take this opportunity?
Algerians reject their newly appointed Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah. This caretaker leader was approved this week by the parliament. He is expected to restore stability after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in early April. Within mere 90 days Algeria is supposed to elect a new president.
However, the regime has not tuned into the message of the suffering people. The message from the street is, “Leave, all of you!” For a good reason, the protestors do not trust Bensalah to lead the transition; he is a close associate of the former president. Think of what happened a few years ago in Yemen when the vice president replaced the president in response to the uprising.
The problem is wider than Bensalah. Last month Bouteflika installed one of his cronies, Noureddine Bedoui, as prime minister. He shuffled the cabinet without bringing in reformers. His third regressive move was to appoint traditionalist Tayeb Belaiz as Chief of the Constitutional Council. In short, a reactionary cabinet, working with a feeble interim president and a weak constitutional chief, as a team, do not raise expectations for serious reform in Algeria.
The trouble with veterans of war is ego. The struggle to achieve independence from France was heroic. All Algerians ought to be proud. But the leaders of the 1950s liberation have not lived up to the ideals of freedom and justice after their independence was achieved. Regretfully, yesterday’s change agents are today’s oppressors. Algeria’s current political system evokes ideas from the narrative of Frants Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth. Fanon, an Algerian psychiatrist and a popular writer, was active in the struggle for independence. He warned freedom fighters not to copy colonialists when they reach power. Fanon coined the term “neocolonialist” to explain how “third world” leaders mimic manipulative foreign powers in oppressing their own people with old colonial tactics. Take a look at the modern history of the Arab world and you will appreciate Fanon’s foresight.
The uprising intends to continue staging rallies of discontent until the hierarchy of the regime steps down. Whether Algeria’s civic resistance will succeed or not, depends on how flexible the military establishment will be; and how united, resilient and peaceful the demonstrators will be over the next few weeks.
Media pundits wonder. Algeria defies prediction and things are changing fast. Experts offer more questions than answers. Marina Ottoway, a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center, was a panelist in “Algeria’s Protests and the Prospects for Change”- an event which took on April 4th at the Arab Center Washington DC. Ottoway highlighted the need for protestors to “organize groups to become a political a force.” This will take ample time, she added. The rebels must “avoid provocation of the army” and maximize “participation of all” pressure groups. In this panel, Hugh Porter, of Tufts University, offered an “analytical tool” to examine Algeria’s track toward democracy. Porter challenged young reformers to shape the future; the older generation seems to be fixated on the “past.” He wondered whether society will grant the “Hirak”( Arabic for social movement) the legitimacy it needs to plan for radical reform. He was not sure if the army would shift its role from being an “actor” to being an enabler. Porter’s final analytical variable was about leadership and consensus. He asserted that “consensus is in the DNA of the Algerian culture.”A revolution which seeks to please all parties will shoot itself in the foot, Porter implied. Is this another way of saying that the revolution must generate inspiring leadership?
Algerians are right to demand that their military establishment must return to the barracks and end its adventures in politics and business. The problem of the military doing business is region-wide. The armies of the Arab world care more about defending rulers than protecting their people.
General Ahmed Gaid Salah is the most important man in Algeria today. As the chief of Algerian armed forces, Salah could chose to support a regime that has expired in legitimacy, or he could decide to support an uprising which is searching for democracy.
Salah could become the bridge between the protestors and the regime. Salah has already expressed in public his loyalty to the demonstrators. He was the first to give the necessary nod for Bouteflika to resign. He has shown in other ways that he is open to some reform. But the General’s mixed political record, his patriarchal mindset, his fear of his comrades, his level of trust of the young and revolutionaries, all such factors, make this writer wonder if Salah is clear- eyed enough to read history correctly.
The challenge for the uprising’s leaders will be to stay on board with the army working jointly on a set of principles and to plan for an open political transition. The military and the protestors must find their own way to change Algeria. The Tunisia model may offer some lessons, but Algeria must discover its Algerian model of state building. The Egyptian model illustrates what not to do.
The difficulty to predict the future of the uprising lies in the fact that there is no exact science of state craft; building democracy is an art, and each state is unique in its circumstances.
Unless the military changes its focus from power to service the Arab Spring will be stuck in the mud for decades. When the military starts listening to the street we will start celebrating the Arab Spring.
Salah, your people wish to work with you.