Interview with Algerian opposition leader Soufiane Djilali

Political crisis in Algeria – is compromise in sight?

Presidential elections or constitutional assembly? Algeria's opposition continues to argue over ways to overcome the crisis. A proposal by the Jil Jadid party could finally break down the entrenched fronts. Sofian Naceur spoke to its leader, Soufiane Djilali

The Algerian regime is currently facing an opposition divided into two camps. Where is Jil Jadid in all of this?

Soufiane Djilali: Jil Jadid does not take a dogmatic stance. We're searching for a formula to resolve the crisis. The current regime, although represented by official institutions, is actually led by the military. The army wants to restore the legitimacy of the president in order to rid itself of the current government leadership, which represents a risk. It is therefore systematically calling for presidential elections to be held soon.

One section of the Algerian opposition wants to hold elections quickly and introduce reforms as soon as there is a new head of state. But this part of the opposition also distrusts the current regime and fears that it might manipulate the elections. So it is demanding negotiations and insisting on transparent elections.

The other opposition faction has adopted a more radical position and wants constitutional reform to happen first, meaning they want to change the nature of the regime even before elections are organised. We, however, believe that this could destabilise the country.

Why?

Djilali: How are representatives to be appointed for such a transition? How should they be selected? None of the parties represents a majority of the population. And the protest movement is disorganised and riddled with contradictory ideas. It is therefore not possible for the protest movement, the regime or the opposition to appoint legitimate leaders for a transition. To try to bring about institutional change before elections would only lead us into flagrant contradictions.

Friday demonstration on 2 August 2019 in the Algerian capital Algiers (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/abaca)
No to political stagnation: even after the political resignation of Algerian President Bouteflika, the demonstrators are still demanding the establishment of a democratic state and an end to the military's dominance in state and society. They want the presidential elections postponed on July 4 to be held without any participation by the military, Bensalah and General Gaid Salah

If we were to strive for immediate system change, we would have to keep the current regime until the reforms were completed. That would take years. In order to reform the constitution, very broad-based debates would first have to be held and that would instantly revive all the disparate ideologies in the country.

The secularists would want a secular constitution, the Islamists an Islamist one. Some prefer a presidential system, others a parliamentary one. To answer these questions alone is very complicated and would take a long time – without even addressing much more complex aspects such as language or identity – are we Arab, African, Berber?

Jil Jadid has submitted a compromise proposal. What does it look like?

Djilali: The demand for institutional reform is legitimate, but a return to legitimate political leadership is equally urgent. So we propose a pact. We need to start with presidential elections, but we also demand that all candidates commit to initiating a constitutional process after the election. Once a president has been elected, then parliamentary elections can be held. This would allow the state to perform its functions normally, there would be an executive power and government decisions could be taken. At the same time, a constitutional process could be initiated.

But then the elections would once again be held on the basis of the old electoral law!

Djilali: No, there needs to be an immediate amendment of the electoral law, prior to any elections. There also needs to be an independent election commission. But first and foremost, we need measures to defuse the political situation. The government must step down and all political prisoners must be released. It could take up to two years to adopt a new constitution. But that wouldn't be so bad, because the state would be functioning normally. So our idea is to combine the two proposals and link presidential elections to a constitutional process. Then everyone would win.

But that would require a discussion platform that is accepted by all those involved. Currently, we only have the Karim Younes commission, which was convened by the government. The opposition does not see it as legitimate, so all the opposition camps are conducting their own debates.

Djilali: Everyone would need to sit down at the same table. Algeria's political community – i.e., the opposition consisting of parties, trade unions and civil society – is divided. On the one hand, we have the 6 July initiative resulting from a conference in Ain Benian (a town east of Algiers), where parties and actors in civil society met to discuss possible solutions. On the other hand, there is the Democratic Alternative (DA), consisting of left-wing and liberal parties and the human rights league LADDH. The former advocates for swift elections, while the latter wants a constitutional process to take place first. If 6 July and DA would agree on a compromise, a roadmap could be negotiated with the regime – with Younes as the regime mediator and representative.

How have the different camps responded to your proposal?

Djilali: We're in touch with all of them, including Younes' commission. So far, everyone has shown interest in our idea, even if they disagree on the details. The 6 July parties support the initiative. Within the ranks of the DA, there are some who support the proposal and others who are still reluctant. We would have to offer them more guarantees. Their main fear is that a new president could draft a constitution in his own favour in order to block further reforms.

Army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah has thus far ignored your proposal. He persists in demanding presidential elections on his terms.

Djilali: We must not be naive. Gaid Salah knows full well that he is in an illegitimate situation and cannot remain there much longer. An independent election commission is currently on everyone's agenda. So if we negotiate effectively, we can initiate real change. The establishment of a transparent electoral system would be a huge achievement in and of itself. The country would change gradually and a new political class would emerge. The entire political apparatus of the regime of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is devoid of influence. Nearly 30 high-ranking representatives of the old order are in prison. The problem now is: how can we build something new without repeating the mistakes of the past?

But Gaid Salah's rhetoric has not changed in the past months. And we are seeing increased repression by the authorities. The regime still relies on the same tactics that we're familiar with from the days before the outbreak of protests.

Algeria's Chief of Staff Gaid Salah (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
For Algeria's democracy activists the personification of the "ancien regime": "Army Chief of Staff Gaid Salah is almost 80 years old; we must not forget that he was trained under the old regime," says the liberal opposition politician Soufiane Djilali

Djilali: The regime wants to control change. But change is unavoidable. We still need to remain vigilant, though. If a radical opening of the system were to take place, we could find ourselves right back where we were at the end of the 1980s. The regime's reactions are knee-jerk. Gaid Salah is almost 80 years old; we must not forget that he was trained under the old regime.

But I'd still differentiate when it comes to repression. Young people are in prison, that's true. During the protests the security apparatus tries to contain things quite strictly, but I would not call it repression – if one compares the situation, for example, to the riots that accompanied the yellow vest protests in France. In our case, there had been no direct use of force. People arrested during the day are usually released again quickly. I believe the regime is hanging on to any remaining political prisoners to use them as a bargaining chip for future negotiations. So we are already at the stage of implicit negotiations, we just do not call it that.

Meanwhile, the protest movement is regaining momentum. It must maintain its presence and continue to demand real change. Such change must, however, be balanced and not enforced with brutality, because that would risk destabilising the whole state. We can't allow the old reflexes of the system to re-surface either. What we need is a broad-based, peaceful presence of the movement on the streets and a consensus-based roadmap to resolve the crisis. What is more, we need to move slowly towards elections to regain legitimate political leadership. That would be an effective combination enabling real change.

Interview conducted by Sofian Naceur

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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