Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Algeria: The Hammer and The Anvil

Algeria is approaching a crossroads but it is not clear which path it will take between evolution and violent revolution. There is a dialog commission that is trying to devise a plan for elections acceptable to the Algerian people. This commission is between the hammer of the army and the anvil of the street protest movement (the Algerians call it the hirak). On the one hand, the Army chief of staff Gaid Salah last week again warned that the military institution would accept no conditions from the new dialogue commission or from the hirak protest movement before the dialog begins. He pledged no release of arrested protesters, continued bans on carrying the Amazigh banner and continued deployment of security forces on the margins of the protest marches. Above all, Gaid Salah insisted that a presidential election be held as soon as possible under the authority of the existing government. In response to Gaid Salah’s latest speech, we saw August 9 the twenty-fifth week of large protest marches across Algeria. One sign in an Algiers protest march said “Gaid Salah is Bouteflika the Second”. Some protesters again carried the Amazigh banner. The marches from East to West again demanded a complete rupture with the existing government and rejected Gaid Salah’s elections until after the existing government is completely replaced. Many in the protest movement and some opposition parties refuse to meet with the dialog commission, fearing its purpose is to give a new life to the old regime.

It is important to note that both the army and the hirak have weaknesses. The hirak has no clear leader. The number of protesters in the streets every Friday and Tuesday has diminished. Another reason is that after six months, there is frustration that the protest movement has not achieved the fall of the regime. Notably, some of the protesters are beginning to call for civil disobedience. Adopting that strategy would intensify the confrontation between the army and the hirak. Many Algerians still remember the black decade of the 1990s, and therefore there is no agreement yet inside the hirak about civil disobedience.

The army too has its problems. Most important, it is isolated. Gaid Salah and President Abdelkader Bensalah do not always agree. For example, Bensalah last week indicated that perhaps some of the demands of the protest movement, such as releasing prisoners of opinion, could be considered in order to build confidence. The dialogue commission chairman Karim Younes welcomed Bensalah’s acknowledgement and emphasized that the dialog commission can succeed only if the government makes some concessions to the hirak. Gaid Salah, however, still rejects concessions. The only two political parties that agree with the Army commander are from the old regime, and they lack credibility and have no popular base. The dialog commission, appointed by the army’s government, said it would not meet with the two parties because they cannot help solve the political confrontation. At the same time, a court in the city of Annaba released a protester who had been arrested for carrying an Amazigh banner. Many in the judicial system criticize the government which is why Bensalah is trying to make changes in the Justice Ministry and the judges. Algerian journalist El-Qadi Ihsan wrote last week that Gaid Salah thinks he can save the current system by intimidating the population without giving any concessions. The Algerian journalist called this political suicide.

Friends of Algeria hope this country that has many different cultural histories and characters and talents can avoid political suicide. There is appreciation around the world that in the confrontation up to now both sides have exercised restraint. Can Algeria avoid the fate of countries like Libya and Syria ? Perhaps the dialog commission will be useful, but will Gaid Salah accept offering concessions to the protest movement so that the dialog commission wins some credibility with the hirak? Can Algerian politicians and thinkers devise a political plan that the population trusts? What I saw in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 in cooperation with the United Nations was that building an independent, strong and neutral election mechanism from zero needs much negotiation and time. And if the dialog commission and Algerian experts create a political plan, how can they convince the street protest movement that has no leaders and doesn’t want leaders? Will the frustrated hirak protesters continue to avoid direct confrontation that could slip into violence ? In this hot summer when I observe Algeria, I like the Arabic saying, “in haste, there is regret and in deliberateness there is safety.”