Algerians know referendum does not address their real problems

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.A. Shaikh

Jumada' al-Akhirah 21, 1420 1999-10-01

Occupied Arab World

by M.A. Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 15, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1420)

Algerian president Abdul Aziz Bouteflika claimed a major victory in the September 16 referendum on his ‘progress towards peace’. The results, announced by the ministry of the interior the next day, showed that 98.63 percent of voters had answered ‘yes’ to the single question: “Do you agree with the President’s approach to restoring peace and civil concord?” Voter turn-out was given at 85 percent.

The figures may have been massaged ï the Algerian government is not known for its commitment to factual accuracy ï but the result was never in doubt. One French commentator suggested that the question sounded like asking a blind person whether he wanted his sight restored; an Arab commentator compared it to the question: “Do you love your mother?”

The results of the referendum, therefore, neither endorse his presidency, and nor represent even a partial solution of the political and economic ills which are at the root of the seven-year conflict that the vote is supposed to end. Not only is the question put to the voters so simple and straightforward as to have only one answer, but the amnesty at the heart of Bouteflika’s peace initiative is also very narrow; the central issue of Algerian politics ï the role of the military as final arbiters of power ï is not addressed.

The outcome was naturally applauded by the president’s supporters in Algeria and abroad. Hubert Vedrine, foreign minister of France, Algeria’s former colonial ruler, hailed it as an “expression of the immense expectations of the Algerian people”, which he said would only strengthen Bouteflika’s authority. (While Vedrine was paying lip service to the welfare of Algerians, a French court sentenced 20 innocent Muslims, most of them Algerians, to long prison terms for ‘acts of terrorism’). Abdul-Aziz Belkhadem, a former speaker of parliament and close friend of Bouteflika, claimed that ‘the referendum will give the president all the power he needs to take measures that will consolidate his approach to resolve the crisis’.

But the president’s approach rests on the flimsy basis of the so-called ‘pact’, which accords Islamic activists a limited amnesty if they surrender by next January. The pact, first offered last June to the Islamic Salvation Army, the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), provides for the release of supporters who have not accused of murder or rape, or for the reduction of their sentences if convicted. But it does not lift the ban on the political activities of FIS, the largest and most popular political group in the country which had all but won the 1992 elections when the army stepped in to prevent it from taking power.

This can only be described as a demand for surrender, and it is not surprising that FIS leaders have a different view of the importance of the referendum. Abdelkader Hachani, commenting on the results the following day, said that FIS was waiting for the reaction of the powerful Algerian army, which has imposed limits on the powers of previous presidents, before making a judgement. Going straight to the root of the matter, he asked: ‘Will the military support the option chosen by the majority so that every effort is made to end the bloodshed and heal the wounds in a nondiscriminatory and dignified manner?’

But FIS leaders and their supporters are not alone in having no illusions about the referendum. In fact, many expressed a feeling of deja vu. After all, they have voted in six different elections and referendums in the last four years, none of which have contributed anything to the solution of the country’s fundamental problems. And Bouteflika is generally seen as the army’s choice for president, mainly because he was elected last April, unopposed, in highly suspicious circumstances. The other six candidates withdrew, accusing the army of rigging the presidential poll in favour of Bouteflika, who had suddenly reappeared in Algerian public life after an absence of more than 20 years.

It is also widely known in Algeria that the president has been unable to form a government since his election six months ago because of the generals’ refusal to approve his nominations for prospective ministers. The appointment of a new Cabinet was finally postponed until after the referendum.

Another reason for Algerians’ doubting Bouteflika’s credentials for challenging the country’s dire political, economic and social problems is that he assumed high political office for the first time under a military dictator. He was foreign minister and close friend of colonel Houari Boumedienne, who deposed Algeria’s first president in a military coup on June 19, 1965, and who ruled absolutely until his sudden illness and death in December 1978. Bouteflika was also a senior official of the ruling FLN which, together with the military, was responsible for institutionalising corruption in Algeria.

It is true that Bouteflika has attacked corruption in his public speeches more than any other president before him, and that he even dismissed 22 of the country’s 47 provincial governors on grounds of corruption. He has also vowed to recover the powers invested in him as president by the constitution which he says have been hijacked by others. But he has stopped short of naming the generals as the hijackers of constitutional power, or the military as the main benefactor and protector of vested interests. Just as significantly, he has not alluded to foreign involvement ï at a high level in the case of French politicians ï in the country’s institutionalized corruption. Most observers regard this as little more than populism to improve his image.

Without substantial and meaningful action, the country’s dire problems will not be solved. The social problems accumulating as a result of decades of misrule, exacerbated by the suppression of the past decade, demand that the government take radical steps to save the country. Corruption, which is eating away at the increasing revenues flowing in as a result of the rise in oil prices. is only a part of the problem. Seventy percent of Algeria’s population is under 30, and unemployment stands at 30 percent. The shortage of housing shortage has reached critical proportions. Meanwhile, Algeria remains ruled by oligarchs whose only priority is to remain in power as all costs, while the Islamic movement that was brought to the verge of power by popular confidence in its ability to address the country’s real problems remains suppressed.

Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1999

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