Algerian stalemate continues as army chief wants new election, protesters want more

Algerian protesters wave their national flag, during a demonstration against the ruling class in the capital Algiers. (AFP)
Updated 15 September 2019

Algerian stalemate continues as army chief wants new election, protesters want more

  • The army chief, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, is pushing to fill the political vacuum

ALGIERS: Algeria is at a harrowing political impasse. Africa’s largest country has not had an elected president for five months, and the powerful army chief wants to change that by holding an election, which he hopes will quell long-running protests he sees as a threat to his energy-rich nation’s stability. But many citizens want more.

They do not want an election forced on them by a regime they decry, and see their uprising as a chance for a wholesale democratic rebirth.

Their unprecedented nationwide demonstrations, and stern warnings from the head of the army, forced ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in April after 20 years in office. Top members of Bouteflika’s inner circle, including his younger brother, are now all jailed, along with leading industrialists in this country that is a strategic partner of the West in the fight against extremism.

The army chief, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, is pushing to fill the political vacuum — and fast. He wants the interim leader to announce a date for a presidential election by Sunday. That means, according to the constitution, voting would take place in mid-December.

“The situation can no longer tolerate delay,” he said during a recent troop inspection.

Yet there is no consensus on how to proceed, and no crystal ball to predict how protesters will react if an election is imposed, or whether the country will stumble its way into a new era. Here is a look at some of the forces at work:

History

There is no escaping the weight of 132 years of French colonial rule in Algeria, which ended in 1962 after a brutal and protracted war. The fighting force, the National Liberation Front (FLN), transformed into the FLN political party that ruled single-handedly for nearly three decades — and inspired today’s army.

Those who fought have a status as guiding lights. Significantly, several surviving veterans have appeared on streets during this year’s pro-democracy protests. Shocking for many, one is among those now jailed.

The other marker is what the nation calls the “black decade” of the 1990s when extremists sowed terror across the country and fought with heavy-handed security services, leaving an estimated 200,000 people dead. The army chief has raised the specter of that period in warnings of what is
at stake.

The army boss

SPEEDREAD

Their unprecedented nationwide demonstrations, and stern warnings from the head of the army, forced ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in April after 20 years in office.

With an interim president who has outstayed his constitutional limit and a long tradition of army rule, at least from behind the scenes, Algeria’s current authority figure is Gaid Salah. At 79, he is the leading high-profile figure of Algeria’s old guard.

Since the start of the crisis in February, Gaid Salah has used his podium in the barracks to call the shots. As protests mounted, he demanded the resignation of the then-president. And now he is suggesting an election by mid-December. Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah’s Cabinet this week approved two new electoral measures allowing voting to take place.

Gaid Salah is widely considered the force behind the anti-corruption campaign that put top figures in the Bouteflika regime in prison for treason.

The people

Tens of thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets each Friday since Feb. 22 in protests triggered by Bouteflika’s plans to prolong his 20 years in power by seeking a
fifth mandate. 

Determined but peaceful, protesters seek a new, democratic era, without a trace of the reign of Bouteflika, whose regime was mired in corruption.

“No elections with the ‘issaba’ (gang),” they cry at marches, demanding that the interim president, close to Bouteflika, leave.

Youth have been the mobilizing force at marches, and student protests are held each on Tuesday.

Many now say Gaid Salah must leave too, after his call for a quick election and a mini-crackdown on protesters which has sent some to jail.

Yet the protesters have no single vision of how best to change Algeria, reflecting the complexities, and pitfalls, of the road ahead.

Let us vote

The FLN party, an outgrowth of the independence struggle with France, hews to the army chief’s call for a presidential election by year’s end. It is joined by the National Democratic Rally, its partner in the governing coalition that backed Bouteflika.

The powerful UGTA workers union, traditionally on the side of the power structure, supports an early vote, as do some within civil society. The head of the Institute of Journalism, Mohamed Lagab, said quick elections are “not only necessary but absolutely vital” to unblock the country and restore confidence among international partners.

Let us buy time

 At the other end of the spectrum are those seeking deeper but slower change — via a political transition period with a collective leadership alongside a government of technocrats. Some half-dozen opposition parties and the League for Defense of Human Rights are grouped in this movement that is among those topping the army chief’s list of adversaries. He has denounced them as a “lost horde” and, without elaborating, accused them of having “an agenda dictated by entities hostile to Algeria.”

The group wants to level the current political system and rewrite the constitution before an election, calling December voting too soon, and “surreal.”


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 31 min 7 sec ago

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.