President since 1999, Bouteflika is one of the longest-serving leaders currently in office, something facilitated by a constitutional amendment allowing him a third term in 2009.
Now, with the president’s illness, Algerians cannot help but wonder what the future holds: will Bouteflika seek a fourth term next year, when his current term expires, and with the events of the Arab Spring still reverberating across the Middle East and North Africa?
This is to say nothing of the fact that Algeria faces new challenges in its attempts to deal with the fallout from the fighting in neighboring Mali, official corruption scandals and calls for political reform.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with one of the most strident voices in Algerian politics about the current situation in the country. Louisa Hanoune is a high-profile figure in Left-of-center politics in Algeria, as the leader of the Algerian Workers’ Party and the first Algerian woman to run for president, in 2004.
In a wide-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, she discussed her attitude to the news of Bouteflika’s illness, next year’s election, and why she believes Algeria will not be the next country to experience its own version of the Arab Spring.
The following interview has been edited for length:
Asharq Al-Awsat: In your opinion, why is there such secrecy concerning President Bouteflika’s health problems?
Louisa Hanoune: I don’t think there is any secrecy. The president’s office confirmed in its statement that the president was in Paris for treatment and that his situation now was not serious. His private doctor has also spoken about his illness in detail, in contrast to what happened in 2005 when the president was ill and was transferred to Val de Grace Hospital in Paris. This is the information that people need in order to put an end to rumors.
We are surprised at some people who are exploiting the president’s illness for political purposes. We think this is unethical. President Bouteflika is not the first or last president to be admitted to hospital. French presidents such as Nicholas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, and even François Mitterrand, have all been in hospital.
We wish him speedy recovery so he can return home and resume his responsibilities. As for political issues, we will discuss them within their proper contexts.
Q: What will the effect of the president’s illness be on Algerian politics in the near future?
I’ll never discuss hypothetical scenarios. The only scenario is his return to resume his duties, of course according to doctors’ advice. We do not have the right to medically examine his health, and will never demand one. I said that it is unethical to exploit his illness to speak of his future, because we heard people referring to the Article 88 of the constitution. This is point scoring.
As far as we are concerned, the presidential elections are scheduled to be held in 2014. Nobody knows if the president intends to run for the elections, and no one can speak on his behalf. We believe this is not an important issue to discuss now. More important issues to discuss are political developments and the struggle to defend our national sovereignty, because Algeria is targeted more than ever.
Q: Some believe that the president’s illness has been the deciding factor regarding the issue of a fourth presidential term, and that the forthcoming presidential election will be open to new candidates.
I said it was not ethical to speak about a fourth term, especially in these circumstances. Our traditions as Muslims and our political ethics prevent us from doing so. Those who refer to the Article 88 … do not represent anything inside Algeria, and have no popular base. This is foreign to our Algerian political traditions.
We are against limiting the presidential terms, because this will not help establish democracy, and will not provide the people with a guarantee that they will be able to exercise their sovereignty. We believe that the freedom to run for the office is for everybody, without restrictions. We see workers and youth protesting in the streets; they are not concerned with the issue of a fourth presidential term, they are seeking better living conditions.
Q: If President Bouteflika returns to his duties, will you support his candidacy for a fourth term?
We are an independent party which fights for everyone’s right to stand in the elections. We have never supported Bouteflika in any elections. We have suffered from the single-party system that was forced on anyone with political or even unionist ambitions. We take stances on principle, and fight for everyone’s right to stand [for election], because that is the way to guarantee the people’s sovereignty in electing whomever they want.
We have never backed President Bouteflika. On the contrary, we opposed decisions and policies during his first term, especially on the economy. However, we supported the peace and reconciliation process, which was part of our struggle. We also supported the recognition of the Berber language in the constitution as a second national language, because it was one of our proposals. We also supported the complementary financial bill of 2009/10, because it included about 100 of our proposals. Consequently, our policies are taken on principle; we support policies and decisions that we consider to be in the interest of the nation.
Q: Do you intend to run for the 2014 presidential elections?
I am the secretary-general of the Workers’ Party, not an independent politician, and have no personal ambitions. Such a decision is made by the party via its Central Committee or congresses. This has not been proposed until now.
We cannot imagine that our party takes part in the elections, while Algeria … does not have full national sovereignty. If there is a foreign intervention, then we prioritize the restoration of national sovereignty and the country’s liberation. Participation is sometimes tactical and sometimes strategic. That is why we participated in the 2004 elections, although the conditions were not suitable. We took part because we felt that there was a possibility of foreign intervention.
Q: There are people who link corruption scandals in Algeria to a campaign against President Bouteflika, which targets his ministers to prevent him from running in the presidential elections again. Some say the dismissal of his brother as a presidential adviser is evidence of this. Do you have any comment?
First, the dismissal of president’s brother has not been confirmed. I consider that it is a part of the point scoring and an attempt to undermine and destabilize Algeria by exploiting the president’s illness. I consider this to be unethical behavior.
Second, it is strange to reach such conclusions, because the president himself was the one who instigated the investigation into corruption relating to the Khalifa dossier, or “Sonatrach.” Therefore, we do not think that has anything to do with putting pressure on President Bouteflika not to run for a fourth term—that is, if he decides run.
It is true that there are corruption cases in Algeria [at the moment]. They are not the first scandals, nor will they be the last ones, and are the product of a single-party system. We should point to corruption scandals in Italy, France, Britain and even in the United States, which are much larger than the corruption scandals in Algeria. But we always find that there is a relationship between the corruption cases in both Algeria and overseas, because this is a tool of capitalism, which is based on corruption, temptation and embezzlement.
There are many issues which led to the spread of corruption, such as the single-party system and the national tragedy [terrorism]. International bodies, including the International Monetary Fund, seized the opportunity to impose a scheme of structural reform on Algeria and force the state to shirk the responsibility of running the economy, which opened the door to looting. Add to that that bodies tasked with fighting corruption did not have the necessary tools to perform their tasks.
The overlapping authorities and the parliament’s inability to fight corruption were all reasons that contributed to the spread of the phenomenon. Even the minister of justice … admitted that there were difficulties in dealing with the issue at the level of judicial councils.
Chakib Khelil, a former minister of energy, is seen as one of the president’s men. We do not agree; we see him as a man of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This is because he is an international expert and was imposed on Algeria during the president’s first term when Algeria was isolated and its situation fragile because of terrorism.
Q: Some people accuse you of defending the regime more than the regime defends itself. How can you support the president, while you criticize ministers and officials appointed by him?
People who say this are politically inept and have no ability to analyze. Anyone who knows politics knows that all countries which suffered from foreign debt and were put under structural reform programs were forced to appoint ministers accepted by the international bodies.
During the national tragedy [the violence of the 1990s], the state’s funds were empty and food was insufficient to feed Algerians for one month. For this, options which were against the national interest were imposed, and ministers like Chakib Khelil, Abdul Latif Benachenhou and Abdul Hamid Al-Tamar were forced on Algeria.
Those who confuse the regime with the state aim to justify foreign intervention in Algeria’s affairs. For us, national sovereignty is a red line. It means that we defend Bouteflika as a president of the state against the pressure exerted by Barack Obama and François Hollande. These are imperial powers that put pressure on Algeria to force it to relinquish its sovereignty.
We believe the In Amenas hostage crisis was planned to be a message from imperial powers to Algerian authorities, because Algeria opposed military intervention in Libya, Mali, and now Syria, and refuses to recognize Syrian opposition. So we defend Bouteflika and the government in matters related to sovereignty, and if some people consider this as a defense of the regime, it is up to them.
Q: Why are organizers of demonstrations accused of being foreign agents, and why does the government use this boogieman to ensure the failure of these protests, instead of finding solutions for the protesters’ demands?
Issues should not be confused. We must clarify that the youth and workers’ demands are legitimate regarding wages and social vulnerability. We must admit that the government has made some effort in this regard, but it was not enough. We must compare between Algeria and other countries, because there is no country on earth which has the same policies as Algeria on social housing. All countries no longer use these policies.
However, what should be warned against is the presence of non-governmental organizations affiliated to the CIA, such as Freedom House, CANVAS and NED, who exploit these protests and turn them from social protests into ones with political aims … and they have succeeded in some cases.
Despite our youth’s eagerness for Algerian unity, there is nothing to stop a young man who describes himself as a coordinator of unemployed people to organize a press conference on the eve of May 1 [Labor Day], and say: “We have decided to change the social nature of this movement to be political, and we call for the regime to step down.”
We have received many reports which said these organizations did not accept the idea of Algeria remaining outside the so-called Arab Spring. The objectives of these organizations concur with the US decision to send 500 marines and eight military aircraft to the base of Morón de la Frontera in Seville [in southern Spain]. This new US deployment targets North Africa and the Sahel region; and Algeria is in North Africa and the Sahel.
And in regard to other countries, the US has 1200 marines in southern Italy who can intervene in Tunisia or Libya. There is also a US military base in Niger that allows it to intervene in the region around it.
When the media spoke about this issue, the Pentagon spokesman announced that this deployment was concerned with intervention in West Africa. He thinks that we are stupid. What does he mean by West African countries: Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo? They are the countries of ECOWAS who all participated in the French military intervention in northern Mali. The US Administration will have no problems there and therefore this is a lie, an attempt to divert attention. They are trying to fool us and that is why we are on alert.
The US administration was unhappy that Algerian authorities did not allow military intervention during the In Amenas hostage crisis. This was because Algeria considered the issue to be an issue of sovereignty and Algerian army itself resolved this crisis. The US was also unhappy that Algeria did not participate in the war in northern Mali, nor fund it, which would have meant Algeria becoming another Pakistan in the region, or like Qatar, which funds dirty wars. The Americans did not like that Algeria refused to relinquish its sovereignty.
Q: Freedom House is said to be training 200 young Algerians in Tunisia on rebellion and the use of force against Algerian authorities.
The Algerian people have learned their lessons. They anticipated events in light of the Amazigh Spring in 1980 and the Democratic Spring in 1988 that left more than 200,000 people dead. Thanks to this, we are immune to the chaos experienced by countries of the Arab Spring. The situation in Algeria is different to that in both Tunisia during Zine El-Abidine ben Ali’s rule and Egypt under Hosni Mubarak’s rule. We have made achievements that we cannot go back on.
Anyone can try to convince us that what happened in both Tunisia and Egypt was popular will. It is true that the protests were motivated by popular will, but it was hijacked by the US, which forced these countries to go through a transitional period under the rule of Islamists and transformed these countries into theaters of chaos.
Algeria is passing through a decisive phase. It is targeted internally and externally. Inside Algeria, there are lackeys working for foreign interests to serve the imperial project and loot the wealth of the Arab countries. Therefore, amending the constitution is not the Algerians’ priority. Our priorities are to purify the atmosphere by taking courageous decisions relating to the social issues and then review the path of political reform through organizing fair presidential elections, to refute all justifications and pretexts of foreign intervention.