Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Algeria’s constitution amended

The Algerian parliament approved a raft of constitutional amendments this week against the backdrop of concern over the failing health of the country’s president, writes Kamel Abdallah

Algeria’s constitution amended
Algeria’s constitution amended
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Algerian parliament approved a raft of constitutional amendments on Sunday. The process coincided with an extensive restructuring of the national security agencies that makes them directly answerable to the presidency.

The steps are seen as way to strengthen Algeria’a governing structure, which is on the threshold of a new era, given the poor health of the 78-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

In a joint vote in Algeria’s bicameral legislature, made up of the Council of the Nation (upper chamber) and the People’s National Assembly (lower chamber), the constitutional amendments bill presented by Bouteflika was passed with an absolute majority.

Council of the Nation Speaker Abdel-Kader Bensalah announced that 499 deputies voted in favour of the bill, while two voted against it and 16 abstained. The passage of the amendments required the approval of 454 out of the 606 lawmakers. Sunday’s session was boycotted by 89 members.

The People’s National Assembly has 462 members who are elected by direct ballot, while the Council of the Nation has 144 members, of whom 96 are elected and 48 are appointed by the president.

The new constitution limits the country’s president to two terms in office, prohibits Algerian dual nationals from holding key positions in the government, and establishes Tamazight as the country’s second official language after Arabic.

The package of constitutional amendments fulfills a pledge that Bouteflika made several years ago. Shortly after the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, he vowed to introduce constitutional changes in Algeria that would strengthen democracy in the country. It was intended to appease growing public discontent at a time when popular uprisings were underway in neighbouring Tunisia and Libya and in Egypt, Yemen and Syria.

Tensions in Algeria were high due to widespread disgruntlement over economic and standard-of-living issues. A large segment of the country’s population is also Berber, or Amazigh, in origin, and had long been pressing for the recognition of Tamazight as an official language in Algeria.

The Algerian Amazigh are primarily concentrated in the Kabylie region in central Algeria, the Taurus Mountains in the east and the Tuareg areas in the south.

The amendment prohibiting Algerian dual nationals from holding high office sets a precedent that has triggered an outcry among Algerian communities abroad, particularly among the large community of French Algerians who have sustained close ties with Algeria since the colonial era.

Commenting on the passage of the amendments, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, a close associate of Bouteflika, hailed them as “a response to the call of the maker of peace and stability and the manner of the new Algerian Republic.” The comments were made in reference to Bouteflika, who led the process to restore peace in the country in the aftermath of the “black decade” of civil conflict and violent clashes between the government and Islamists that erupted at the outset of the 1990s.

In remarks reported by the official Algerian media, Sallal said that the amendments strengthened “the democratic succession through free elections” and marked a “democratic leap that will serve as a powerful bulwark against political fluctuations and the dangers that threaten Algerian national security”.

The last time the Algerian constitution was amended was seven years ago, in 2008, when the amendments served to strengthen Bouteflika’s powers and prolong his stay in office. Article 74 of the 2008 Constitution lifted restrictions on the presidential incumbent, enabling him to run for a third and then a fourth term in office.

The extensive restructuring of the Algerian security apparatus, proceeding in tandem with parliament’s deliberation over the constitutional bill, brought certain state agencies, most notably the intelligence agency, under the supervision of the executive. Previously, the intelligence agency had been subordinate to the armed forces.

This process, seen as a means to enhance the powers of the executive, has triggered harsh criticisms among opposition circles who see it is an attempt to rig the post-Bouteflika era and ensure that the rotation of authority remains restricted to the leaders of the current security and political establishment.

Last month, it was announced that the long-established Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), or state intelligence agency, had been dissolved and replaced by three departments under the direct supervision of Bouteflika. The three departments are the General Directorate of Internal Security, General Directorate of External Security and Documentation, and General Directorate of Technical Information.

On 30 January, the director of the office of the president, Ahmed Ouyahia, said that the new structures belong to the People’s National Army but are under the direct supervision of the president. Under the Algerian Constitution, the president is also minister of defence and supreme commander of the armed forces.

Ouyahia was speaking at a press conference he had convened in his capacity as secretary-general of the National Rally for Democracy, a member of the ruling coalition. He described the change as “remarkable progress in the framework of Algeria’s drive to enter a new era with regard to the organisation of its security affairs.” He added that the restructuring was intended to serve the interests of Algerian national security.

However, most of the country’s opposition parties have opposed the constitutional amendment bill. “It is unfortunate that the constitution is being used by the regime to gain time and move forward under illegitimate institutions,” said Ali Benflis, the head of the Vanguard of Freedom Party.

“The will of the people is the sole source of power. It is unacceptable for the constitution to be amended under current circumstances ... without consulting the people in free and fair elections.”

The Rally for Culture and Democracy, which has long fought to make Tamazight an official language in Algeria and welcomed the amendment establishing it as such, said, “The new constitution will not solve the problem of institutional legitimacy, and it does not meet the demands of the opposition.”

Islamists in the Movement of Society for Peace Party described the new constitutional amendment package as “non-consensual and non-reformist”. They charged that it “perpetuates the nature of the hybrid political system that is unlike any constitutional system anywhere in the world and enables the president to rule without having to bear any responsibility”.

The amendments are likely to precipitate widespread discussion over the future of the system of government in Algeria, a country that is on the threshold of massive change in view of the extraordinary circumstances in North Africa and the Middle East and the tugs of war between various political forces.

If the pace of change is still relatively slow in the country at present, it nevertheless could speed up as a result of mounting uncertainty over the health of Bouteflika. While he has been supported by close associates thus far and aided by the coherence of the ruling coalition, there remain numerous questions that the powers that be will be pressed to answer soon.

Above all, the restructuring of the security apparatus will not pass without raising old concerns and issues on which the Algerian public will require clear answers, most notably with regard to events that took place in the 1990s and the conduct of those in charge of the country.

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