Algeria Jails Former Regime Members Ahead of Referendum

Expectations are high for the new constitution, but much remains unclear about its content.

Rabat – A court in Algeria has sentenced two former high-ranking officials on corruption charges ahead of the country’s constitutional referendum. Algeria will organize a referendum on a new constitution on November 1 after the upper house of the country’s parliament approved the constitutional draft on September 11. 

The conviction of two prominent members of the Bouteflika regime will likely be welcomed by most Algerians. Former minister Djamel Ould Abbes and former parliamentarian Bahaa Eddine Tliba will each serve eight years in prison for several charges of corruption.

President Abdelmajid Tebboune has been eager to show the government’s efforts in recovering money lost through corruption during his predecessor’s rule. The efforts are however muddled by continued repression against the press and a crackdown on critics of the government.

Algerian daily El Watan recently faced reprisals last week after it published frontpage news about ongoing investigations into the wealth accrued by the two sons of Ahmed Gaid Salah. The former powerful army chief’s sons are being investigated by Algerian security services, but El Watan still suffered government repression following its reporting on the case.

The case of imprisoned journalist Khaled Drareni and several other jailed journalists continue to raise suspicions that the new government in Algeria might not have completely shed its former repressive methods. Ahead of the upcoming referendum, the current Algerian regime is eager to pitch itself as the harbinger of  a new page in Algeria’s political history.

An uncertain rupture from the old regime

The government has announced the new constitution represents a “total break with past practices,” referring to the oppressive rule of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad called the constitution a “response to the aspirations of the people.” Djerad stated that the constitutional change would produce “a true democratic state that will protect Algeria from the authoritarian and despotic abuses it has experienced.”

According to the Algerian PM, the draft constitution intends to provide “comprehensive reform” and restore faith in the country’s institutions.  Expectations are high for the new constitution, but much remains unclear about its content. 

The draft constitution is presented by the government as a path towards a “new republic.” The draft was approved in the People’s National Assembly by 256 out of 462 parliamentarians. The government claims the constitution was made to address the demands of the 2019 Hirak (movement) protests, but did not involve civil society or representatives of the movement in its formation. 

Constitutional changes in Algeria have often favored the executive. Former president Bouteflika changed the constitution several times to centralize power in the presidency. As ghosts of the Bouteflika era continue to haunt the country, Algerians hope the new constitution will break with this tradition of imperial presidency.

Meanwhile, the Algerian government is eager to capitalize on the memorable –and emotional — components of Algerian history to ingratiate itself with the public opinion. The date set for the  constitutional referendum –November 1– coincides with the commemoration of the day Algeria started its war of independence against France in 1954.