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Take an in-depth look at Algeria’s New Republic

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In February, 22nd 2019, millions of Algerians have taken to the streets in cities nationwide as well as abroad, shattering the wall of fear of silence, demanding the departure of the-then President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who proceeded to run for a fifth presidential term despite his poor health. This announcement sparked anger among Algerian citizens, giving birth to a massive grassroots movement in several cities, the biggest outpouring of dissent seen in Algeria for decades in 1988 due to social despair, which surprised the international community and observers of Algerian politics due to its peaceful nature.

What happened as a reaction to these marches?

The former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika responded favorably to the pressure of his resignation. He stepped down on April 2nd reversing his decision to seek a fifth term in power, however, this decision has failed to appease protesters and satisfy their claims. Protesters, young and old, men and women from all walks of life, indeed, remained in the streets every Friday re-appropriating long confiscated public spaces and calling for the overhaul of the whole system and the sweeping away of the remnants of Bouteflika’s inner circle, viewed as corrupt. They have directed drawing rage at the political elite they blame driving the country to a political deadlock and economic collapse.

Politically, this departure was about to create a political vacuum, thus, the army interfered, under the leadership of the late Lieutenant-General Ahmed Gaid Salah, Deputy Minister of National Defense, Chief of the Army Staff, (in Algeria, the President of the Republic assumes the post of Minister of National Defense), who positioned himself on the side of people by bringing forward Bouteflika’s resignation.

Late Gaid Salah, in a speech, addressed to the nation, called for the application of the article 102 of the Algerian constitution, appointing the Speaker of the Council of the Nation Abdelkader Bensalah as an interim Head of State for a maximum period of 90 days until an election will be organized, in an attempt to calm down the Algerian people. Another political Rendez-Vous was set on July, 4th, however, the Algerians still boycotted it as millions of them continued to protest every week rejecting the holding of elections by the state institutions, a remnant of the previous regime.

Responding to these demands, Algeria put off the presidential election planned for July 4th, due to the lack of valid candidates, as announced by constitutional council, which added that the files submitted by the two candidates – Abdelhakim Hammadi, a doctor specializing in pharmacy, and Hamid Touahri, a retired aircraft maintenance engineer –had been rejected for not meeting the requirements.

The first postponement of the election, constitutionally mandated to replace the former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is considered, on the one hand, a win for protesters, and, on the other hand, the country will come into lull pause and enter a constitutional vacuum, as this roadmap adopted, till then, by the Constitutional Council have met several constitutional articles, such as; seven, eight, 102 and 193.

Seven and eight states that the whole power is granted to people as this latter is ‘the source of all power’ and that they have the right to exercise their sovereignty ‘through the institutions themselves’.

While the last two (102 and 193), respectively, indicate that the president of the Council must assume the office of Head of State for a three-month period, at most, till the organization of new elections.

However, this case, ie the “second postponement of July 4th election” is not mentioned in the constitution. Consequently, the Constitutional Council interfered, again to avoid the chaos likely to result from this political deadlock, issuing a ruling extending Bensaleh mandate until the next presidential elections, held in December.

What were the reforms introduced by the government? Did they satisfy the protesters?

In fact, the government found itself at a deadlock in face of huge protests, dubbed by observers as the largest and purposeful one, where people called for deep political reforms and the removal of all officials belonging to the old guard. The only solution for it to get out of the political crisis was certainly dialogue and negotiations between the regime and protesters. The Army managed to take action against corrupted officials from the previous guard,   tipping the balance of power in favor of the protesters. They launched “Clean Hands” campaign with a view to rooting out corruption linked to top tycoons and high-ranked government officials.

Several high-ranking officials, former Prime Ministers, including Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, Ex- and current Ministers, tycoons from powerful families with links to the former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and Heads of major companies and financial institutions were being questioned on corruption-related cases and then given huge sentences. Different investigations into corruption, customs-related violations, and other financial wrongdoing have been launched too, targeting the most powerful tycoons in Algeria, most of them were remanded in custody.

In addition to investigations into hampering the well- functioning of the army and State targeting members of the ruling elite, namely;  Said Bouteflika, the former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s youngest brother and two former intelligence chiefs, the Generals Bachir Athman Tartag and his predecessor, General Mohamed Madine, aka Gen. Toufik. A military court convicted the brother of ousted President Bouteflika, Said Bouteflika, who had wielded enormous influence as a gatekeeper to his ailing brother while in office. He was seen as the linchpin of an opaque clique of politicians and business leaders who influenced decision-making at the top of the gas-exporting North African country. The advisor and key aide of the former President of the Republic Bouteflika is incarcerated in Blida prison and sentenced to heaving prison term alongside the other co-defendants – two former intelligence chiefs.

Ex-Prime Ministers, namely: Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal were, also, imprisoned for multiple accusations; embezzlement of public money, abuse of office and granting of undue privileges. Other officials and Ex and current Governors are due to appear before the investigating judge at the Supreme Court. 

These actions illustrate the government, under the leadership of the late Army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah’s will to respond to the protesters’ demands and purge corrupt politicians, oligarchs, and military officials so as to restore the confidence of the people. 

 How Algeria’s Dec.12 Presidential Vote was decided?

As a response to protesters’ claims who demanded dialogue and the involvement of the all stakeholders in the political life, the Algerian Head of State Abdelkader Bensalah set up a panel to oversee a national dialogue with a view to hold a presidential election, already postponed twice, aimed at ending the political deadlock, prevailing in Algeria since February, 22nd.

This panel’s plan of action consisted of rounds of dialogue with different stakeholders to develop proposals, to be discussed at the national conference, where the date of the election was determined. Several meetings were on the agenda bringing under one roof national personalities in charge of leading the national dialogue, including civil society organizations, political parties, national figures as well as young people and activists of Al-Hirak (the popular protest) from different provinces of the country. In contrast, the state, in all its components, including the military institution, were not part of this dialogue, restricting its role in observing the strictest neutrality throughout the course of this process.

Dialogue was in full swing, allowing the participants to express their respective positions in relation to the peaceful people’s movement, but especially to make their arguments to transcend the current political stalemate. The objective was to bring together the points of view of each other in order to synthesize the proposals to reach a consensual platform, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to draw up a roadmap.

In this sense, the participants insisted on the need to set a date for the presidential election as soon as possible and take necessary measures to ensure transparent and fair election, in addition to the setting-up of national independent authority in charge of preparing, monitoring and announcing the final results of the election.

The need to avoid the constitutional vacuum in order to preserve the State’s institutions has been widely highlighted, considering that the presidential polls of Dec. 12 was crucial steps for building the rule of law, and a passage that will lead the North African country to a new bright and promising era, where the Algerian people would finally be able to achieve their legitimate aspirations for a decent life, in a country whose glory will be made by its loyal sons.

However, the national personalities debated too the conditions, the political, legal and institutional dimensions to bring credibility to the next presidential election to ensure the organization of the election under the best conditions.

Did Presidential Election holding end Algeria’s political deadlock? 

Former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune has won Algeria’s decisive presidential election without the need for a second-round runoff, replacing the long-serving president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The presidential election was, as I mentioned before, the only way out of the political deadlock the nation has been going through since Feb. 22.

Upon his inauguration as 8th president of Algeria, Mr. Tebboune extended his hand to the protesters, stressing he was ready to meet with protest leaders to listen to them (and) respond to their concerns. He said that his priority was to revise the constitution to establish a new Algeria that corresponds to the aspirations of the movement, a project that would be put to a referendum. He promised to include young men and young women in his new government.

Did the newly-elected President fulfill his commitments?

Colossal efforts are being made. The President is exerting huge efforts with a view to responding to the protesters’ claims and constructing a new Algeria in fidelity to the oath made to the Chouhada of the War of liberation and to the Declaration of the First November.
Regarding his priorities as President of the Republic, Tebboune said that, at the political level, he intends to carry out profound and extensive constitutional reforms, involving academics, intellectuals, specialists and members of the national community living abroad, and effectively, the President had started consultations with a number of national figures and political parties within the framework of a broad dialogue without exclusion on this important issue. The presidents and representatives of different political parties have expressed their “readiness” in their respective statements to the enrichment of the text which is currently submitted to a committee of experts for the preparation of the first version with a view to enriching it, considering that this approach goes in the direction of building a new Algeria, promised by President Tebboune during his electoral campaign for the presidential election of December 12, 2019.

It is, thus, expected that the committee of experts will complete its mission around March 15 and will present a first version of the Constitution which will be subject to debate and enrichment, in accordance with the agenda adopted by the President of the Republic.

Between 500 and 700 copies of this first version will be distributed to all stakeholders concerned by the revision of the country’s Basic Law, in addition to publication on a website dedicated to the constitutional revision and on social networks so as to allow all citizens to debate and enrich the text.

At the end of the month-long debates, the draft will again be submitted to the Committee of Experts, which will carry the proposed amendments and modifications before submitting the text to Parliament and then to a popular referendum.

As a reminder, the President of the Republic had emphasized compliance with the agenda adopted for the revision of the Constitution, the Committee of Experts having been set up on January 8, 2020, and divided into seven working groups, in accordance with the seven axes contained in the mission letter sent by the Head of State to the Committee.

The Head of State had outlined, in a mission letter addressed to Mr. Laraba, seven axes of proposals and recommendations around which the Committee must reflect.

These axes concern “the strengthening of citizens’ rights and freedoms”, “the moralization of public life and the fight against corruption”, “the consolidation of the separation and balance of powers”, “the strengthening of the power of control of the Parliament “,” the consolidation of the independence of the judiciary “,” the consolidation of the equality of the citizens before the law “and” the constitutional consecration of the mechanisms of organization of the elections “.

The President, through the amendment of the constitution, seeks to fulfill the demands of the people and address their grievances, including decrees that reduce the powers of the President, reduce the presidential terms to one, able to be renewed once, protect Algeria from falling into individual rule and create a balance between institutions, ensuring separation of powers, build a strong State where citizens, equal before the law, exercise their rights freely and lawfully and establish the rule of law and equal opportunities that will be the essence of the new Algeria, committing to setting radical change of the governing system, through deepening democracy and the rule of law, reinforcing social justice, and protecting human rights.

Besides, during his presidential campaign, the President promised to include young ministers, a promise that came true.

With respect to economy, Tebboune voiced his will to establish a diversified economy that generates jobs and wealth. He periodically chairs meetings with the new members of government to start developing an action plan to be presented to Parliament with a view to saving economy from collapse and reform education, universities, and the health treatment system. He appointed the technocrat Abdelaziz Djerad as Prime Minister on Sec.28, 2019 and banned the practice of addressing the President as “His Excellency”.

He promised, also, to tackle the corruption and vowed to make the judiciary independent and distanced from officials’ meddling and power. This later has released large number of the detainees who were arrested in relation to the long-running anti-regime protests since the end of 2019, like on Jan 02, 2020, 76 people, including an elderly war of independence veteran Lakhdar Bouregga whose arrest has attracted particular anger were released. President Tebboune, also, decreed a presidential pardon (February 2020) that included 3471 people incarcerated in various jails across the country. This pardon, usually, decreed on July, 5, which is the commemoration of Independence Day, coincided, this time, with the month marking the beginning of the popular movement against the old guard.

Other reforms are entrusted to a 17-member panel of experts with three-month time to draw up a list of suggested changes which will, then, be put to the parliament and a referendum.

The conclusion is that President Tebboune is working on reforms in various spheres of life; economy, education, housing, etc, apparently to appease the protesters because it is worth mentioning that the Hirak is still taking place. Regular smaller anti-regime protests continue with protesters skeptical about the extent of constitutional and other reforms formulated under this government and whether they will lead to genuine democratizing reform of the country. They seek sweeping political reforms for meaningful democratic change.

Tebboune, for his part, has dubbed this popular movement, of which the first anniversary was celebrated weeks ago by the Algerians, as a “salutary phenomenon,” warning against any attempt at internal or external infiltration. He further sealed a decree enshrining 22 February a national holiday named +the National Day of Fraternity and Cohesion between the people and their Army for democracy. On different occasions, Tebboune reaffirmed that the blessed Hirak has preserved the country from total demolition. According to him, the collapse of the national state is a synonym with the demolition of all its institutions and all the indicators pointed to such a scenario. Thanks to their maturity, the people thwarted the plot by fulfilling many of their claims.

As regards the remaining demands of the Hirak, Tebboune asserted that he is working on them because he personally committed to meeting them and changing the management method and improving the piteous image of the State, which, in fact, was very far from his concerns.

 According to the President, protesting is the right of all citizens and it is even the foundation of democracy, a fortiori when it comes to people demonstrating in an organized manner, without destruction or disturbance. He repeatedly highlighted that he has nothing to reproach because it has spared the country a disaster and without it, efforts would be, today, underway to resolve the crisis in Algeria as is the case in Libya. However, he keeps warning the protesters, who demonstrate on Fridays, dubbing them as his children, to be vigilant against the infiltration of their movement because there are signs of infiltration both from inside and outside.

 What do you suggest as economic reforms?

Well, this week, a working meeting on the assessment of the economic situation, in the aftermath of the drastic fall in oil prices impacted by the global economic slowdown caused by coronavirus outbreak and the unilateral decision by some OPEC member countries to sell their crude oil output with particularly aggressive discounts, was held under the chairmanship of the President, where this latter gave guidelines to face a situation which remains difficult but which the State possesses the national means to face.

In this regard, the President of the Republic instructed the members of the Government, present in this meeting, to take all the necessary measures to curb the effects of this unfavorable situation for the national economy, while stressing on the need to preserve the citizens’ revenue and living standards.

The minister of finance has been instructed to immediately submit a first draft of the Complementary Finance law to remove some inconsistencies in the 2020 Finance Law. The objective is to include measures capable of countering the financial effects caused by the crisis and collect the unrecovered taxes and customs revenue. He has also been entrusted with speeding up the process of creating private Islamic banks.

The President of the Republic firmly rejected the resort to foreign borrowing and unconventional financing.

Instructions have been given to the minister of commerce to undertake judicious management of imports without affecting citizens or the national economy. With sufficient resources for the years 2020 and 2021, the State is not likely to suffer shortages in industrial inputs or necessary products.

Also, the head of the State instructed the minister of agriculture to increase national production in order to at least halve the import of produces destined for human and animal consumption, especially corn and red meats.

The Industry and Mines Minister has been instructed, for his part, to immediately set up all the arrangements leading to a national production with 70% integration rate for the light industry, hitherto artificially applied by the CKD/SKD formula, and re-launch mechanical engineering with a 35% integration rate at least.

He has also been instructed to encourage, without any restriction, the creation of micro, small businesses and start-ups and to remove all forms of regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles to their expansion.

As for him, the Governor of the Central Bank was instructed to accompany these steps aiming at reviving economic activity, just as he was tasked with transferring into the legal gold reserve all customs seizures as well as the National Solidarity Fund which had been frozen for several decades.

Likewise, he has been entrusted with ensuring the repayment of loans granted by banks to private investment holders. Finally, the President of the Republic ordered members of the government to continue to closely follow, under the authority of the Prime Minister, the situation with a view to taking all the necessary measures in the event of prolonged deterioration of the economic situation so to protect citizens.”

I think this meeting covered different economic aspects. As we know, Algeria faces the herculean task of transforming its economy to meet the pressing demands of a young, growing, and increasingly restless population. Despite the country’s favorable demographics, its economy remains almost entirely dependent on oil and natural gas, which accounts for 95% of merchandise exports. Unfortunately, Algeria’s economy is in trouble. It is facing the effects of nearly decades of energy-sector dominance and, in some cases, mismanagement.
Algeria’s tighter economic circumstances have hindered the state’s ability to provide services properly. Inflation and a concomitant increase in the cost of living have made it more difficult for many to secure daily needs. 

Energy consumption is also rising at a fast pace in the country, so much that the national gas company, Sonatrach, estimates that it will exceed domestic production by 2025 if better efficiency and new fields are not found. Algeria is, therefore, in dire need of economic diversification.

Tebboune’s government is entitled to carry out the required economic reforms to end the economy’s reliance on oil through the new economic growth paradigm, empowering the private sector and reshaping the social contract. Former governments have sought to implement similar reforms, but their bids fell short of achieving the goals.

Success of the new government in overcoming the above challenges hinges on a number of factors, such as: 

Introducing a new development model based on economic diversification away from oil. However, economic diversification requires the reshaping of a growth model to include competitive economic sectors, such as; tourism, manufacturing industries, and the auto industry in particular. It also requires gradual liberalization of fiscal, monetary and trade policies to promote revitalization of the private sector. In addition to empowering this latter, as Algeria must encourage this sector to contribute in all economic activities. This is essential for easing the huge fiscal burden that the government had to bear over the past years. 

What about Algeria’s foreign policy?

In his first speech since being sworn into office, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune confirmed Algiers’ previous stances on various policies, stressing on Algeria’s fundamental principles, namely: the defense of national independence, the recovery of national identity, the denial of any form of interference, refusal of any foreign military base on its soil, rejection of alliance policy and military pacts, and active participation in the struggle against underdevelopment and poverty, principle of reciprocity, the non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and the peaceful settlement of crises.

 As all we know, Algeria is a pivotal country at the African, Mediterranean and Arab levels. It will continue to play a leading role in the settlement of different crises as it did in the past in Mali where an agreement was signed in Algeria’s capital “Algiers” bringing the warring parties together. It categorically rejects the formulation of alliances to attack sovereign countries, for instance, it refused, in the strongest terms, to join the Saudi-led Military Alliance, considering it as an act of aggression.

Regarding Western Sahara, Tebboune highlighted Algiers’ policy towards this conflict, renewing the country’s unwavering and unconditional support for the legitimate right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination through a free and fair referendum, and to stand by its side to reach a permanent solution to its just cause in accordance with international law and legitimacy, in line with the United Nations doctrine of decolonization. 

Broaching the situation in Libya, Algeria is still attached to the stability of this country, refusing to be kept out of the settlement process.

Algeria, under the leadership of President Tebboune, will continue to play a leading role in the resolution of the crisis in Libya. The main principles of the Algerian initiative are known. The solution can only be political and peaceful and can only come from the Libyans themselves with international support and notably neighboring countries.

Algeria has, as part of its efforts aimed at reaching a solution to the Libyan crisis, relaunched several mechanisms given the effects of the Libyan conflict on this country. Algiers hosted, on January 13th, the foreign minister meeting of Libya’s neighboring countries (Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Sudan, and Niger) to establish coordination and promote dialogue between these countries and the international players so that to accompany the Libyans in the revitalization of the political settlement process of the crisis through an inclusive dialogue between the different Libyan parties.

Besides, Former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra is being considered as UN envoy to Libya, after Ghassan Salame resigned from the post earlier this month. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been consulting with U.N. Security Council members about appointing former Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra as his new Libya envoy,

Lamamra served as Algeria’s foreign minister from 2013 to 2017 and as an African Union commissioner for peace and security from 2008 to 2013. He has been a mediator in several African conflicts, notably in Liberia.

With respect to Arab causes, President Tebboune remains stressing that the Palestinian issue is a constant of the foreign policy of the Algerian state. Algeria will remain a support for Palestine and its people who are fighting against a brute colonial force until the achievement of its independent state.

More recently, Algeria voiced rejection of the Middle East peace plan sponsored by US President Donald Trump, which gives Israel the right to have Jerusalem as its capital. 

Besides, Algeria still asks the League of Arab States to end the freeze on Syria’s membership and to re-represent it again in its meetings and activities, especially that this year’s Summit will be held in Algeria. Syria has been suspended from the Arab League since 2012, when a coalition of countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, voted to suspend their membership.

According to Algerian Radio, Boukadoum said: “the absence of Syria has caused great harm to the League and the Arabs.” He would add that “we must push for the return of Syria’s membership and work for Damascus to return to the League of Arab States.”

 What about Algeria’s participation in the works of the African Union (AU)?

The works of the African Union (AU) Summit held in Addis Ababa marked Algeria’s return to the African arena, with the President of the Republic Abdelmadjid Tebboune reaffirming commitment and immutable positions towards the resolution of conflicts in Africa and the world. 

President Tebboune, thus, marked his participation in this meeting of Heads of State and Government with a speech that was very well attended by his African peers, in which he stated that “the new Algeria, in the process of being built, will remain faithful to its principles and commitments, and will henceforth play fully its role at the continental level and globally.” Meanwhile, President Tebboune praised the major achievements and the efficient contribution of the African Union in building peace at the continental and regional levels, through the establishment of institutional frameworks of peace and security mechanisms.

The head of State voiced Algeria’s commitment to contribute more effectively to achieving development in the African continent, which is well illustrated as mentioned before.

Algeria believes, basing on its successful experience, especially the tragic decade lived by the Algerian people during the 1990s, that resolving the crises in our continent requires a peaceful solution, all-inclusive dialogue, and national reconciliation, far from any foreign interference.

As regards African continent, President Tebboune believes that Algeria’s successful experience confirms his conviction that resolving the crises in the African continent requires a peaceful solution, all-inclusive dialogue, and national reconciliation, far from any foreign interference. Stemming from this deep conviction, Algeria will always work tirelessly to support efforts aimed at the establishment of peace and security in Africa.”

On all these matters, Algeria has constantly contributed, in multiple manners, to the efforts aiming the establishment of durable stability in Africa, particularly in the Sahel region, whether at the bilateral level or through mechanisms such as; the Joint Operational Army Staffs Committee (CEMOC) or the Fusion and Liaison Unit (UFL) or through the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT).

Speaking about Libya during the work of this Summit, especially that Algeria shares a long border and a common destiny with that shattered country, the Algerian Head of State said that the situation in this country continues to arouse anxiety in Algeria, calling it grave.
Referring to the brotherly Libyan people’s suffering, who do not deserve the suffering they endure today, Tebboune confirmed Algeria faithfulness to its diplomatic tradition, offering to host a dialogue between the Libyan brothers, as stated in Berlin and, recently, in Brazzaville, during the summit of the AU Level High Committee on Libya, held under the patronage of the President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

The Head of State stressed that Algeria which calls for the end of all attempts of interference in Libya strongly supports the continuous efforts to end hostilities and to create the conditions for dialogue between the Libyan brothers, the sole means to finding a solution to the crisis and to prevent this African country from being the scene of rivalries of States.

Broaching the Sahel crisis, Tebboune described it as “sad and regrettable illustration”, noting that “the already fragile stability in countries, such as Mali, suddenly deteriorated in the aftermath of the crisis in Libya. Niger also did not escape to the deadly attacks on his army. “

President Tebboune also reiterated Algeria’s solidarity with different countries namely; the Lake Chad Basin which are facing the subversive acts of Boko Haram, with the help of the Multinational Joint Force, denouncing the resurgence of bloody terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso and other attempted attacks in Sahel countries, spreading instability throughout the Sahel despite the courageous efforts of these countries.

As long as Western Sahara is concerned, President Tebboune urges rapid appointment of UN Envoy to Western Sahara, emphasizing the need for a solution that guarantees the inalienable right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination, through the organization of a free and fair referendum in accordance with the AU and UN relevant resolutions.

Returning back to the Arab League Summit, what are the prospects of this political Rendez-Vous? What will be the role of Algeria?

In my opinion, Algeria eyes to play a very essential and considerable role in restoring balance to join Arab action. Tebboune has promised to exert huge efforts with a view to resolving crises, paving the way for a new era and gaining the strategic country’s pivotal role at the regional, Arab and global scales.

As we know, and for many years, and though Algeria suffered from paralysis and powerlessness, its role in finding peaceful solutions to the crises through reconciliation, convergence of views and inclusive dialogue, has been highly commended and appreciated. Now, following its recovery at all levels, it is, by its credibility and integrity, committed to a strong return to diplomacy especially at the Arab level, which the joint Arab action, has lacked for so.

In addition, we notice that the Algerian diplomacy has flourished following the exchange of visits between the Algerian President and the flow of Arab and international leaders, ministers, and high-ranking officials and delegations, the last and not the least, the visit paid by the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, to discuss means and ways to further boost and bolster bilateral relations and revive mechanisms of cooperation and coordination, in addition, to reach an agreement on the delimitation of sea boundaries between both countries.

I think that the frequent visits foreshadow an upcoming change in the Algerian diplomacy. Observers expect that this strong return will lead to positive breath thoughts in many thorny issues.

What are the approaches advocated by Algeria?

For Algeria and its people, reconciliation and dialogue are the best ways to solve crises, while asserting that the Palestinian cause remains the compass of Arab and Islamic dignity.

President Tebboune hopes that the holding of the Summit in the Algerian capital “Algiers” will shake off all the dust of neglect from this auspicious organization and pump new blood into its frozen arteries with a view to ending the sowing of seeds of disaccords and preventing military escalation in the Arab nation as Algeria is able to play its role as a mediator based on the principles of its Glorious Revolution of November 1. This is stemmed from the deep conviction of Algerians in the virtues of unity, especially when it comes to our brothers. It is extremely difficult for Algeria to see oppressed peoples suffering and not to act.

What about the postponement of the Summit?

In my opinion, the postponement of the next Summit means that it will be different, and will take place in the presence of Syria, to, as mentioned by our President, to correct a historical mistake committed in one of the most degraded stages that led to the Arab collapse.
Preparations are afoot; President of the Republic Abdelmadjid Tebboune received, in Algiers, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, with whom he tackled the arrangements for holding the thirty-first regular session of the Arab Summit, which Algeria offered to host this year, stressing that it will take place, if the global situation improves, before June 30.

Algeria aspires to shed light, during the work of this Summit, on different causes, notably, the Libyan one where chaos has endured for nine years with a plentiful supply of arms, in addition to the Syrian cause as Algeria remains faithful to its principles, rejecting, in the strongest terms, any attack on any Arab country. President Tebboune recently, and during an interview with Russia Today, mentioned that what weakened Syria at the international level is the fact that this country is among the rare Arab ones that have never considered the normalization of its ties with Israel and has always been a front-line state, a position that for many years underpinned its politics and economy.

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Middle East

Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

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When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Middle East

Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Ignoring the Middle East at one’s peril: Turkey plays games in NATO

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Image source: NATO

Amid speculation about a reduced US military commitment to security in the Middle East, Turkey has spotlighted the region’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off alarm bells this week, declaring that he was not “positive” about possible Finnish and Swedish applications for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO membership is contingent on a unanimous vote in favour by the organisation’s 30 members. Turkey has NATO’s second-largest standing army. 

The vast majority of NATO members appear to endorse Finnish and Swedish membership. NATO members hope to approve the applications at a summit next month.

A potential Turkish veto would complicate efforts to maintain trans-Atlantic unity in the face of the Russian invasion.

Mr. Erdogan’s pressure tactics mirror the maneuvers of his fellow strongman, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Mr. Orban threatens European Union unity by resisting a bloc-wide boycott of Russian energy.

Earlier, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rejected US requests to raise oil production in an effort to lower prices and help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy.

The two Gulf states appear to have since sought to quietly backtrack on their refusal.

In late April, France’s TotalEnergies chartered a tanker to load Abu Dhabi crude in early May for Europe, the first such shipment in two years.

Saudi Arabia has quietly used its regional pricing mechanisms to redirect from Asia to Europe Arab “medium,” the Saudi crude that is the closest substitute for the main Russian export blend, Urals, for which European refineries are configured.

Mr. Erdogan linked his NATO objection to alleged Finnish and Swedish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the EU.

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey in support of Kurds’ national, ethnic, and cultural rights. Kurds account for up to 20 per cent of the country’s 84 million population.

Turkey has recently pounded PKK positions in northern Iraq in a military operation named Operation Claw Lock

Turkey is at odds with the United States over American support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are aligned with the PKK.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey opposes a US decision this week to exempt from sanctions against Syria regions controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“This is a selective and discriminatory move,” Mr. Cavusoglu said, noting that the exemption did not include Kurdish areas of Syria controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies.

Referring to the NATO membership applications, Mr. Erdogan charged that “Scandinavian countries are like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations. They’re even in parliament.”

Mr. Erdogan’s objections relate primarily to Sweden, with Finland risking becoming collateral damage.

Sweden is home to a significant Kurdish community and hosts Europe’s top Kurdish soccer team that empathises with the PKK and Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In addition, six Swedish members of parliament are ethnic Kurds.

Turkey scholar Howard Eissenstat suggested that Turkey’s NATO objection may be a turning point. “Much of Turkey’s strategic flexibility has come from the fact that its priorities are seen as peripheral issues for its most important Western allies. Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO, in the current context, absolutely not peripheral,” Mr. Eissenstat tweeted.

The Turkish objection demonstrates the Middle East’s potential to derail US and European policy in other parts of the world.

Middle Eastern states walk a fine line when using their potential to disrupt to achieve political goals of their own. The cautious backtracking on Ukraine-related oil supplies demonstrates the limits and/or risks of Middle Eastern brinkmanship.

So does the fact that Ukraine has moved NATO’s center of gravity to northern Europe and away from its southern flank, which Turkey anchors.

Moreover, Turkey risks endangering significant improvements in its long-strained relations with the United States.

Turkish mediation in the Ukraine crisis and military support for Ukraine prompted US President Joe Biden to move ahead with plans to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes and discuss selling it newer, advanced  F-16 models even though Turkey has neither condemned Russia nor imposed sanctions.

Some analysts suggest Turkey may use its objection to regain access to the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. The US cancelled in 2019 a sale of the jet to Turkey after the NATO member acquired Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defence system.

Mr. Erdogan has “done this kind of tactic before. He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy.

A top aide to Mr. Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, appeared to confirm Mr. Foggo’s analysis.

“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Mr. Kalin said, referring to the Turkish leader’s NATO remarks. “Of course, we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”

Spelling out Turkish demands, Mr. Kalin went on to say that “what needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries.”

Mr. Erdogan’s brinkmanship may have its limits, but it illustrates that one ignores the Middle East at one’s peril.

However, engaging Middle Eastern autocrats does not necessarily mean ignoring their rampant violations of human rights and repression of freedoms.

For the United States and Europe, the trick will be developing a policy that balances accommodating autocrats’, at times, disruptive demands, often aimed at ensuring regime survival, with the need to remain loyal to democratic values amid a struggle over whose values will underwrite a 21st-century world order.

However, that would require a degree of creative policymaking and diplomacy that seems to be a rare commodity.

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