Can Algeria’s army lead the quest for a modern state?

Algerians will watch with trepidation as the Night of Forgiveness, which precedes the end of Ramadan, approaches.

The arrest of two former Algerian heads of security — Mohamed Mediene, known as the “God of Algiers” because of the power he held from 1990-2015, and Athmane Tartag who succeeded him — and former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s younger brother, Said, who after his brother’s stroke in 2013 was de facto leader of Algeria, has not produced major results.

The arrests failed to impress the millions of Algerians who every Friday since last February have clamoured their peaceful desire for radical change in the way Algeria is governed. They have done so in huge marches across the country. The start of Ramadan does not appear to have weakened their resolve.

Every week, Algerian Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, whose credibility is fast eroding despite his being in de facto command of Algeria, has senior servants of the state, such as the former CEO of the oil and gas monopoly Sonatrach, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, fired if not arrested.

Mediene, Tartag and Bouteflika, arrested May 4, are big fish, indeed, but the protesters are not the only ones unimpressed by this crude display of what many see as histrionics designed to appease the crowd and thwart a transition to real democracy.

Gaid Salah’s credibility was not helped by the case of human rights activist Hadj Ghermoul, who was sentenced more than three months ago for carrying a banner protesting Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s possible fifth mandate. That was three weeks before the demonstrations started and yet this member of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights continues to languish in prison.

One of Algeria’s most respected senior statesmen, former Prime Minister Mouloud Hamrouche weighed in — for the third time in less than two months — to tell Gaid Salah that what was needed was a real dialogue between the army and the reformist movement, not shadow boxing.

Before such a dialogue could start, a consensus on the way forward had to be reached within the army because maintaining its unity was of paramount importance to stability. Neither Hamrouche nor senior officers nor indeed most Algerians are under any illusion that the country’s neighbours will try to take advantage of the state of affairs in Africa’s largest country.

Hamrouche also made the point that dismissing or arresting people is fine as far as it goes, which is not very far. Building solid institutions is the only way forward and no easy task in a country where Abdelaziz Bouteflika emptied most institutions of their raison d’etre. Hamrouche insists the interim president is fine as a means of ensuring the continuity of the state, not least in its relations with foreign powers. Building solid institutions and ensuring electoral rolls and elections are free of fraud are key tasks.

The demonstrators have avoided all provocations attempted by those who wish to preserve the way Algeria is governed but only change the facade. There has been absolutely no violence as the police play their new role of protecting the demonstrators. The protesters are not shy to express the view that the interim government is one of straw men. Their view is shared by many observers of Algeria.

It seems increasingly unlikely that the presidential election will take place, as announced, on July 4. Indeed, Hamrouche made clear that not one person, be it Gaid Salah or Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah, had the legitimacy to call a presidential poll. What is needed is a referendum to ratify an amended constitution.

The people and the army should neither turn their back on each other nor risk confrontation. Dialogue is the only way forward.

The background to the debate is probably the lack of consensus within the army. The deliberations within a body that comprises more than 500,000 men take place behind closed doors but are none the less real. Beyond the army, debates include ordinary citizens as well as experts, people from the private and public sectors.

Algeria has become a vast talking shop but what next?

Army officers can be expected to have a wide range of views that reflect that, more than any other institution, the body they belong to is the backbone of the country that enjoys the trust of most Algerians.

Recruited from every region and every social class, the army holds in its hands the future of Algeria. Some officers are concerned that too many concessions will create division and disorder. Others are more confident in the maturity of the 43 million Algerians.

All of them, however, wish to enjoy the respect of the people and concentrate on their prime duty, which is to guard the longest frontiers of any country in Africa.

They are aware of being in a turbulent continent where terrorism is very active close to Algerian borders and where foreign armies — be they French, American or Moroccan — operate across a Sahel region torn by ethnic and socio-economic crises.

The Algerian Army sees its second duty as ensuring the integrity of the state. That it can do by respecting the will of the people, playing midwife to a democratic system that will be best placed to meet the serious economic and social challenges Algeria faces, especially in domestic reforms.

If Gaid Salah, by throwing red meat to the wolves, intended to demobilise the protesters, he miscalculated.

Algerians will watch with trepidation as the Night of Forgiveness, which precedes the end of Ramadan, approaches. Maybe senior officers could choose that special date to agree to a serious plan to move forward.

Algeria acquired territorial independence in 1962. Now its people want to build a modern state. If the army supports that aim, however arduous, its place in history will be assured, alongside that of liberating Algeria from 132 years of French colonial rule. It would certainly mark it out as an army unlike any other in the Middle East and North Africa, bar, maybe, Tunisia.

Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.