Algeria: The army, the people, and the three Bs

The War of Independence left behind major political cleavages which are now being played out in the streets of Algeria.

Algeria gained independence from France in 1962 [Getty Images]

Last week’s announcement that presidential elections will be held on July 4 has done nothing to abate the country-wide protests in Algeria.

In February, people took to the streets to reject the decision of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a fifth mandate. Despite his resignation and increased police violence and arrests, demonstrations have continued. Algerians now demand a transparent political transition and the removal of all figures who have played a prominent role in the regime.

They have rejected both the interim presidency of Abdelkader Bensalah, a figure close to deposed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and military interference under the auspices of Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff and deputy defence minister.

The latter, like Bouteflika, was a member of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and fought against the French in the 1950s and 1960s in the War of Independence. He is seen as a top power broker in the country and a central figure in what some Algerians suspect are attempts to engineer an intra-regime handover of power.

Gaid Salah has tried to pin the protests on the well-known trope of foreign interference and manipulation (la main de l’etranger). His claim is unconvincing first because foreign partners of the regime have no interest in unsettling the Algerian status-quo, as it serves their security-based strategy in North Africa; and second because, protesters have been clear that any foreign involvement – whether French, Russian or American – is not welcome.

Yet these accusations have provoked concerns that some elements within the Algerian regime are pondering a military takeover.

For this reason, in recent weeks, Algerians have repeatedly referred to Article 7 of the Constitution which stipulates that ultimately, sovereignty belongs to the people and their will is represented by civilian institutions.

The army still retains popular legitimacy and enjoys the support of the Algerian people: after all, it is the institutional successor of FLN’s military wing which still recruits its soldiers from the general population through conscription. But ongoing protests reveal that unresolved historical tensions between military and civilian power have resurfaced. Their roots go as far back as the power struggle between different factions of the FLN during the liberation struggle.

The three Bs and the Congress of Soummam

References to the War of Independence and the struggle between FLN factions can easily be discerned in the symbolism and rhetoric of the ongoing protests.

In recent weeks, for example, protesters have called for the resignations of Interim President Ben Salah, Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, and Constitutional Council Chairman Tayeb Belaiz (who resigned on April 16), rejecting their participation in the transitional period. They have been dubbed the “three Bs” – a rather symbolic reference to another important political trio: Krim Belkacem, Abdelhafid Boussouf, and Lakhdar Bentobal.

The historical “three Bs” were key figures in the Algerian resistance who represented the dominance of FLN’s military branch over its political leadership during the war. The three are suspected of being responsible for the murder of Abane Ramdane, a fellow FLN member and a revolutionary activist, who remains widely popular until today. In fact, his portrait can often be seen carried by the crowd during demonstrations.

Ramdane early on sought to set up native political structures that were to replace the French state after its eventual defeat and withdrawal. With this idea in mind, he organised the 1956 Congress of Soummam, references to which can easily be spotted on political posters in the streets of Algiers today.

The congress established two main principles: first, that the political branch of the party should have primacy over the military; and second, that priority should be given to those who fought inside the country during the war, rather than those who were stationed abroad.

Thus Ramdane, along with fellow revolutionary Larbi Ben M’hidi (who was killed by the French 1957), sought to rein in the influence of the armed forces, as well as of fighters stationed outside the country, who were seen as being disconnected from the daily realities of the war in Algeria. It was an attempt to put an end to divisions and rivalries and solidify a mechanism of political decision-making.

Yet these principles were disregarded almost immediately and the blueprint for the future Algerian state outlined during the congress discarded. The first Algerian president, Ahmed Ben Bella, who did not attend the congress, came to power in 1963 with the support of the armed forces, sidelining other civilian leaders, like the interim president of the constituent assembly, Ferhat Abbas,who he placed under house arrest in 1964.

Ben Bella’s authoritarian ways alienated many of FLN’s top functionaries and in 1965 his defence minister, Houari Boumediene overthrew him in a coup only to consolidate further the power of the military. Algeria’s third and fourth presidents, Chadli Bendjedid and Liamine Zeroual, were also military figures.

These developments later prompted Abbas to declare the post-1962 period the “confiscated independence” in an eponymous book.

‘Algeria above all’

Despite the historical tension between the military and civilian powers, the army in Algeria continued to be seen as an extension of the people. The uprisings of October 1988, however, undermined this narrative. As young people took to the streets, frustrated with economic austerity and political corruption, the army moved in to violently suppress them, which resulted in the deaths of more than 500 civilians.

Growing public anger forced the Algerian regime to introduce a multi-party system and hold parliamentary elections in December 1991. The FLN lost the vote dramatically to the opposition Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which threatened to undo the status quo in Algeria.

The army subsequently cancelled the vote and hoping to defuse tensions, brought back from exile Mohamed Boudiaf, a popular figure and a founding member of the FLN who had opposed both Ben Bella and Boumediene. But in June 1992, Boudiaf was assassinated in mysterious circumstances, which plunged the country into a civil war, ultimately reinforcing both the factionalism that had persisted since independence as well as the supremacy of the army.

His murder inspired a host of conspiracy theories that portrayed the army as a malevolent force which allegedly controls the Algerian “deep state”. Meanwhile, Boudiaf emerged was seen as a genuine patriot who attempted to save the state at a time of crisis. Although he was responsible for a ruthless crackdown on Islamist activists, he was also perceived as someone who took on top military officers, as they sought to personalise control over the security apparatus.

He, along with Ramdane, Ben M’hidi and others, left behind a historical legacy of civilian leadership, which Algerian protesters are now eager to revive, as they struggle for a transparent transition of power that upholds the primacy of civilian institutions.

Just three days after Bouteflika’s resignation, Boudiaf’s son Nacer and Ben M’hidi’s sister Drifa joined the protests in Algiers and addressed a cheering crowd. “We are not asking that only three go, all of them must go!” said Drifa. A few days later the Boudiaf family released a statement calling for a return to the original principles of the Algerian revolution, declaring that “Algeria is a republic and not a [military] barrack” and that the interests of Algeria should come “above all”.

By reaffirming historical figures like Boudiaf, Rammdane and Ben M’hidi and referring to the principles of the Congress of Soummam, Algerian protesters have made it clear that they will not let the ruling elite “confiscate” the revolution once again.

While they have not rejected the historical legitimacy of the army as an institution, they have, nevertheless, issued a firm injunction that its leadership must serve the interests of the people.

Military involvement in politics has long been perceived as the original sin of the regime and any attempt to push for a “transition” under military control would surely be met stiff resistance.

Editor’s note: A pervious version of this article wrongly identified Tayeb Belaiz as Algeria’s interior minister. Until April 16, he was the chairman of the Constitutional Council and a former interior minister (in office until 2015). 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.