The Saharan town of Ain Salah has become a hotbed of opposition to government plans to drill for natural gas.
Algiers – After his loss in Algeria’s controversial presidential elections of April 2014, presidential candidate Ali Benflis promised to create a new opposition force that would challenge long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika during his fourth term. The party would aim to resolve the “crisis of the regime”, Benflis declared.
A year later, Bouteflika’s main rival and former prime minister held the first national congress of “Talaiou El Houriyet” – Arabic for “Vanguard of Freedoms” – on June 14 in Algiers.
The party brought together a range of politicians, from former leaders of the ruling National Front for Liberation (FLN), which Benflis led in the early 2000s, and reformists.
Al Jazeera spoke to Benflis about the alleged “void in power” in Algeria’s politics, as well as the country’s struggle with a democratic transition and economic difficulties following a drop in oil prices.
Al Jazeera: Speaking at the national congress of your party, you said that ‘extra-constitutional forces’ currently govern Algeria. What do you mean by this?
Ali Benflis: President Bouteflika pushed through with constitutional reforms in order to create an extreme concentration of power, curbing the prime minister’s role. Now that Bouteflika is not able to govern due to his ill health, power is beholden to extra-constitutional forces, including clients of the regime, relatives of the president, and those with dirty money.
Al Jazeera: The race for Bouteflika’s succession is open. Do you predict that he’ll pass on power to his young brother, Said, who serves as his special adviser and is the one who, allegedly, governs the country?
Benflis: Power will be transferred either by co-optation or familial inheritance if the political status quo continues. In other words, the sovereignty of the people will not be respected.
Al Jazeera: Why did you create a party instead of joining an existing one?
Benflis: I was expecting that the regime would have evolved and expedited a transition from autocracy to democracy. I was wrong. In 2014, when I declared my candidacy for president, I was aiming then to found a party.
The crisis that Algeria faces is multidimensional, though primarily political in nature. We need to provide a comprehensive response.The regime is coming to an end.
The Algerians need a democratic system that respects their full citizenship. The people should be able to choose and dismiss their leaders. In 1954, our parents and grandparents died for our freedom, citizenship, and sovereignty. But since then, we have been told that we are not mature enough to live in a democracy.
|Bouteflika supports claim victory and rally in the streets|
Al Jazeera: In the text that you published last September, ‘White Paper on Fraud’, you claimed that the re-election of President Bouteflika was the result of ‘massive fraud’. Why haven’t you lodged an appeal against his victory?
Benflis: Because the public administration, including the judiciary, is complicit in this fraud.
I decided instead to take the issue to the Algerian people, demonstrating to them that the fraud was massive and that the administration has rigged political processes in favour of the president.
Indeed, the government was turned into Bouteflika’s personal campaign committee during the elections, with the Constitutional Council approving Bouteflika’s candidacy when it should have refrained from doing so due to his frail health and falsified financial statement.
Al Jazeera: If Bouteflika’s re-election was ‘inevitable’, why didn’t you boycott or pull out of the race?
Benflis: I ran to provide irrefutable proof of the massive fraud behind the elections, as well as mobilise people against this autocratic regime.
Al Jazeera: But you have not always been a critic of the regime. You served both as general secretary of the FLN and Bouteflika’s prime minister.
Benflis: Yes, but I have never been an autocrat. I wasn’t part of the FLN during the single-party system.
I was named minister of justice on November 9, 1988, in the aftermath of the 1988 October riots.
I implemented major liberal reforms, which were all repealed following my resignation. I left in 1991 because I couldn’t tolerate a policy that didn’t reflect my ideals and values.
The army should monitor, supervise and guarantee the democratic transition, without endorsing any political force.
Back in 1999, as Bouteflika’s head of presidential staff, I drafted his reformist programme. He appointed me prime minister but didn’t let me carry out any reform of the institution and economy.
We had profound disagreements, and this is the reason why I was removed from my position. Since 2003, I have been standing for the opposition.
Al Jazeera: The deputy minister of National Defence, Ahmed Gaid Salah, approved Amar Saadani’s re-election as ruling party FLN’s general secretary via a communiqué, causing nationwide outcry. What role should the army play in political matters?
Benflis: Top military officials must stick to their constitutional prerogatives: fighting violence and protecting the Algerian people. The national army fully meets its obligations.
Besides that, I call upon the army to play a key role in the move towards greater democracy in Algeria. The army should monitor, supervise and guarantee democratic transition without endorsing any political force.
Al Jazeera: Is the recent fall in oil prices likely to jeopardise the long-lasting political status quo in Algeria?
Benflis: It might, since the current people in power are not legitimate. After a decade of spending carelessly, the administration has now adopted restrictive measures, impacting primarily unprivileged people.
Over the past 10 years, the administration has squandered nearly $600bn without managing to diversify the economy away from dependence on oil. Only a legitimate authority is able to face such crisis.
Al Jazeera: But the authorities are seeking to reduce dependence on imports amid the oil price plunge through the promotion of the national production. The creation of a label, ‘Made in Algeria’, has just been announced.
Benflis: The rising import bill is the best answer. We could have significantly reduced expenditures, especially on basic food support, if only those in power had developed the country’s agriculture and tourism industries.
Al Jazeera: In the beginning of the year, Algeria carried out shale gas drilling in Ain Salah amid a decline in its output of conventional resources. Why did you take part in the anti-fracking rally in the streets of Algiers on February 24?
Benflis: The Algerian desert has substantial groundwater reserves, containing an estimated two-thirds of the Mediterranean Sea’s water. We have not yet the guarantees that we can exploit this nonconventional resource without damaging the environment and polluting precious groundwater.
So we must postpone the exploitation of shale gas until the risks can be mitigated by better drilling practices. There is no rush.