On February 7, 2016, after lengthy political consultations, a new constitutional reform has been approved in Algeria and on March 6, 2016, it officially entered into force. The constitutional reform – already promised by the President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2011 – has passed, voted by an astonishing parliamentary majority (over 499 to 2, with only 16 abstentions) and welcomed with great enthusiasm. Even dissidents generally agree that the current revision finally allows Algerian constitution to bring together the main elements necessary to build a democracy, if not for all defects that it presents. We cannot however grasp which is the real reach of these newly adopted amendments, without first a brief focus on the country’s general remarks.
Algeria, with a population of 38 million, plays a critical role as a regional security actor and a rentier state and since its economy is heavily reliant on the hydrocarbon sector (which constitutes around 97 percent of the nation’s earnings) – was largely ignored by the international community. When the Arab Spring started, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were the focus of the media attention as they were perceived as the epicenters for the new wave of democratic transition in the Arab world. Algeria witnessed the successful attempt by the government to contain the wave of revolutions, and subsequently there has been the tendency by the world community to neglect Algeria since the Arab uprisings began.
The fact that the Algerian regime was successfully able to contain the Arab revolution from spreading within its borders provides a misleading reality to the country’s current economic and social condition, and thus the overall vulnerability of the regime to popular dissent and threat.
Algeria’s annual growth rate is hovering around a dismal 2.5 percent in recent years; therefore, the Algerian government is not as self-confident as it might initially appear. Around 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; youth unemployment stands at 21.5 percent; public sector is highly inflated; the level of corruption remains high; and collapse in global oil prices during 2014 and 2015 has worsen this economic predicament.
Despite all this, Algeria is the North African country to have witnessed the least change to its autocratic regime, headed since 1999 by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which is currently at his fourth mandate. One of the immediate reasons why demonstrations in Algeria did not pose a real threat to the regime was that, unlike some of its neighbors, Algeria’s government could easily guarantee social stability.
Firstly, the government often resorts to the 1990s long conflict rhetoric, pressing on the nationwide trauma of the Algerian society of repeating the horrors of the past civil conflict. Secondarily, the Arab Spring has reawaken concerns on security matters, involving in particular the security vacuum in Libya and the proliferation of extremist groups all over the Sahel region. The government’s aim is to prevent Algeria from the threat of the resurgence of radical Islam within its boundaries. For this, they point to a selective understanding of its own recent history by insisting that radical Islam was indeed eminent in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Algeria. Unfortunately the censorship has been extended and, as a result, both democratic activists and radical jihadists are censored at the same time (as was the case with Algeria during the 1990s) to better ward off the possibility of resurgences against the regime.
The Algerian military’s active role in radicalizing the political Islamist movement should thus be seen as a source of concern also by international observers. Finally, in terms of concessions from the government, the latter was able to introduce some immediate social reforms when the uprising began: the national budget was revised in February 2011, which increased public spending by 25 percent, covering more social housing and increasing public sector salaries, soft loan facilities for the youth, and basic commodity subsidies.
According to many critics and opponents to the regime, the implemented constitutional reform does not contribute in solving economic immobility and stagnation, while still appears as another attempt by the regime to consolidate its grip on power. In terms of political balance, the power sharing formula between the military leaders, business élites and the executive has not been addressed by such reformed constitution. The fundamental political challenge still consists of ensuring the army’s withdrawal from institutional control and the elimination of corruption that remains prevalent in all aspects of public life.
Algeria is under no obligation to adopt a specific constitutional model (western or otherwise). However, the primary purpose of a constitution is to safeguard and guarantee the rights and freedoms of the citizens while defining the origins, parameters and limitations of political power. The revised constitution is still far from achieving its primary objectives, strongly demanded by the population. Algerian history reflects such revisional inadequacies and shortfalls evident through the five constitutional reviews approved over a period of fifty years. That demand continues evidently today since controls on political parties and the media as well as the berbère (tamazight) exclusion from the society prevent any real progress toward cultural and political pluralism.
In this regard, article 4 introduced by the new constitution recognizes Tamazight as the official national language together with the Arabic. A step forward, at least on the paper, that however can hardly tackle the marginalization of indigenous cultural and ethnic values in favor of an imposed Arab-Islamic model, as professor Lahouari Addi (Institut d’Études Politiques de Lyon) points out in an interview with the author. Among other salient points of the reform, the article 88 reintroduces the limit of two terms in office – which the President removed to his advantage in 2008 – making unconstitutional any extension. A measure that, on closer inspection, seems to be quite insignificant since the military holds effective power and the regimes does tend to exclude popular participation in the governance process, converting the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) into a vehicle for regime hegemony, Addi commented.
Although other parties were legalized in 1989, the regime had both suppressed its rivals for leadership and legitimized its leadership claims by promising to restore the authentic social and political culture that had been ruptured by the 132-year-long colonial experience. Likewise, the much-discussed article 51 dealing with the prohibition of dual citizens from running for key offices can be assessed by the same perspective. The measure proves indeed the lack of commitment to liberalization of the current political élite and it seems to effectively lock out political debate in the country. In order to fulfill pragmatic objectives, every connection between the population in Algeria and its large diasporas has been now sacrificed on the altar of “political realism and Machiavellian calculations,” to quote Remi Piet, assistant professor of international relations at Qatar University. Furthermore, political parties do not act as vehicles of transmission between the population and the institutions, which act as a spring that encourages popular grievances: in the absence of a fair and reliable system of representation, rioting has become the preferred mechanism for attracting the attention of the authorities to serious domestic problems.
The package also addresses the issue of the access of young people and women to the job market, but is still difficult to assess them as firmly tackling huge structural defeats of the Algerian economy. Observers believe that Algeria is not able to combine to bring about structural economic reforms without a previous withdrawal of the military from political affairs. The military control of the state field has not only the effect of preventing the transition to democracy worthy of being called as such, but it would seem to contribute to the economic blockade that the country is experiencing. How? Firstly, such a powerful military apparatus and an equipped defense system, as well as guarding the thousands of kilometers of borders, require substantial financial resources. Then, the transition from an economy inspired to socialism to a market economy, started in the 1990s, has not deeply affected the hydrocarbons sector, whose revenues are mostly directed to the State, since their management is entrusted to public shareholders companies. The management of these resources is therefore highly exposed to the influence of those who hold decision-making power, hence in large part to the military. The race to economic liberalism was flawed because of the blocking of the domestic competition mechanisms, often hijacked for political favoritisms. The last constitutional revision does not seem to address these major issues, accountability and transparency should be institutionalized to positively impact also Algerian economic credibility.
Compared to its neighbors, Algeria remains a relatively stagnant but elastic security state. However, compounded with the fact that Algerians were fatigued by over a decade of extreme violence, the population remains ambivalent about progress and views reformers with a great deal of hesitation. In fact, the population and the state seem to have found equilibrium between governmental corruption and the threat of a return to the civil war. In this context, it is hard to envision any significant changes of direction coming from the current regime.
Current regional challenges are leading the state to enforce its police body, much better equipped than in the past, which is likely to have hazardous, unpredictable implications in the future. Yet this latest disappointment, due to the new constitutional reform ineptitude, has hindered the only possible way to avoid such gloomy outcomes and has extinguished every optimistic ambition for a profound change, at least in the near future. Per contra every political change is complex and lengthy, so that the kind of transition that would be required would probably not occur within a foreseeable timeframe, since external conditions worsen both in security and economic terms.
Bachelor’s degree in Cooperation, Development and International Studies (University of Turin)
 See declarations by Djamel Zemati: www.elwatan.com/contributions/revision-constitutionnelle-reelle-avancee-ou-grande-arnaque-07-02-2016-313765_120.php
 Foreign investors are put off by Algeria’s still high level of corruption: it is ranked 88th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index of 2015. In particular, the national oil company Sonatrach suffered from several scandals.
 Algeria has had four constitutions (1963, 1976, 1989, 1996, and 2016).
 According to the CIA World Factbook, in Algeria there is a Berber community of 13 million people (about the 35 percent of the total population).
 The National Liberation Front is a socialist political party in Algeria. It was the principal nationalist movement during the Algerian War (1954-1962).
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