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Algeria vote test for the president

By Reuters | September 18th 2020 at 01:05:00 GMT +0300

Demonstrators hold flags and banners during peaceful anti-government protests in Algiers, Algeria, May 3, 2019. [AFP]

A vote on a new constitution in Algeria in November marks a turning point for a country that has been rocked by huge protests and political upheaval and which is now struggling to move on from the tumult.

For President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, adoption of the charter would be a welcome new beginning after his predecessor and many top officials were toppled by mass demonstrations last year.

For the “Hirak” opposition movement, the November 1 referendum will show what clout it still has, after its protests ended the 20-year rule of veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika but failed to achieve its ambitions of deeper change.

The weekly mass protests, which sought to sweep away the entire ruling elite, were put on hold when the coronavirus pandemic reached the north African country in March.

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Abdelaziz Djerad, the prime minister appointed by Tebboune in January, recently told parliament the referendum should be a “day for consensus” among all Algerians.

It fits with Tebboune’s narrative of the mass demonstrations as a moment of national renewal that ousted corrupt officials and, its ends achieved, is now over.

“Hirak demands are in the new constitution. It is important to pass it,” Abdelhamid Si Afif, a senior ruling party member, told Reuters.

However, though it is now six months since they last paraded through the boulevards of central Algiers, prominent figures in the leaderless opposition do not see it Tebboune’s way.

Pull the strings

Their goal was to force from power the entire generation of officials that has ruled since independence in 1963, along with the military and security figures in the background who, they say, pull the strings.

Influential people in the Hirak, such as Islam Benatia, see the constitution as doing little to answer their demands and the referendum as a tactic to sideline their movement.

“We are in a state of obstruction. There is a lack of consensus over the constitution that will be submitted to referendum without any real debate,” he said.

The disquiet among Hirak activists was only strengthened on Tuesday when an appeals court confirmed the jailing of journalist Khaled Drareni, only reducing his sentence from three years to two, for his role in the protests.

Several other prominent Hirak supporters have also been imprisoned. Some in the movement see it as a signal from the authorities that they will not tolerate any resumption of protests.

Internally, Hirak supporters seem unsure whether to push for more street demonstrations or seek other ways of pressing their case.

Tebboune’s proposed constitution gives parliament more rights to open inquiries into government work and limits the president to two terms in office.

It has passed a vote in parliament despite some opposition.

“We boycotted the vote... because there has been no debate. It is unacceptable to pass it without discussion,” said Lakhdar Benkhelaf, a leading member of the Front for Justice and Development, an Islamist party.

Algeria Abdelmadjid Tebboune Abdelaziz Bouteflika
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