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Algeria: A presidency here and hereafter

Apr 07,2019 - Last updated at Apr 07,2019

The past three weeks in Algeria were very interesting, not least because the events that unfolded did not produce anything that was not already familiar.

It all started when the military, who control and largely constitute the government, nicknamed “generals in designer suits”, and who are the principal beneficiaries from the status quo, could not agree on a successor to the moribund president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, so they announced his candidacy for a fifth term. In the tradition of Arab democracy, all that was left was for them to decide on and announce the percentage of the votes by which he would win.

But the Algerian public had other ideas. In the absence of constitutional means to express their disapproval, they took to the streets in protest against the elite, whom they described in their slogans as decrepit, corrupt and arrogant.

The protests did not persuade Bouteflika to rescind his candidacy. That is, if he was aware of the protests or of his candidacy in the first place. But the generals who had announced the president’s candidacy now realised that it was time to fall back on plan B, so they announced his resignation, promised reforms and started to think on how to salvage the system that represents their interests. We have seen it before, most notably in Egypt in February 2011.

Equally familiar were the commentaries in the Jordanian media. Analysts were divided into two groups: The first started to sing paeans for the Arab Spring and recalled the poems of the Algerian revolution against French imperialism: “If the people choose life, destiny must bend to their will; the darkness will clear and the chains will be shattered.”

The other group wrote critically of the “so-called Arab Spring”, which, according to them, caused economic hardship everywhere by destabilising the governments.

To my knowledge, only one Jordanian columnist, Oraib Rantawi of Al Quds Centre for Political Studies, remarked that the Algerian government has based its legitimacy on the revolution against French rule for the past 60 years, and asked if the time has not come for Algeria to enter into a new phase, in which legitimacy is based on democratic elections and good governance.

Thousands of Algerians have expressed the desire for this change through their protests, and millions more have voted with their feet, by emigrating paradoxically to France, after they had fought long and hard to free themselves from its rule.

Algeria is not unique in basing the legitimacy of its regime on a glorious moment in the past. But government is an ongoing process. It needs to renew its legitimacy continuously by producing results that are tangible now, not recalled wistfully or imagined in an increasingly distant past.

Nationalist nostalgia can be inspirational, and even stimulating. But we should realise that the farther back we need to go in history to find a moment of glory, the more obvious is our admission that we have not done much since then to justify our existence.

 

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