For weeks, the regime in Algeria sought to mobilize voters to participate in the referendum on the new constitutional amendment of 2020 which was scheduled on 1 November. The date of the vote was chosen for its symbolic flair as it is the day the Algerian war of independence against France erupted in 1954. Banners calling out for people to vote in the referendum conveniently put the two dates side by side with a caption that reads: “November 1954 ‘November of liberation, November 2020 ‘November of change.’“
While the amendment does offer change, the real question is whether or not it is a significant and desirable change. A quick look at some of the proposed changes can help us make sense of why the referendum went so horribly for the regime.
Inclusive constitution making?
Before delving into the details of the proposed amendment, it might be insightful to look into the process of its making. To start off, the constitutional amendment was not only instigated by the new president himself, but he also appointed all the members of the constitutional committee tasked with drafting it.
Abdelmadjid Tebboune had promised constitutional change as part of his presidential campaign and soon after he was elected president, he put together a committee of constitutional law experts and assigned it with devising a draft along seven major lines. This step was relatively controversial as it is not only the same way constitutional amendments were designed previously under the rule of Bouteflika, but the appointed president of the committee, a University of Algiers Professor by the name of Ahmed Laraba, was himself behind Bouteflika’s constitutional amendment of 2016.
The first draft produced by the committee was published in May, five months after the committee was first set up. The door was then open to different political bodies and individuals to send in proposals and contributions. Indeed, the dedicated webpage on the presidency’s website asserts that the committee received a total of 610 files containing over five thousand changes proposed by a variety of civil society agents, political parties, national figures, academics and even ordinary citizens.
However, it was abundantly evident that the proposed changes were superficial and mostly preoccupied with language and phrasing at the expense of content and merit. Those proposals that did engage with pressing issues and suggested substantial alterations did not make the final text. This goes to show that the core of the draft, as anticipated, remained that put forward by the committee under the clear and direct instructions of the president.
Realities of change
Examining the amendment gives way to a number of major changes. The constitutional text witnessed a significant expansion in volume with the proposed amendment containing 240 articles against 218 in the 2016 constitution. This can be seen as a drawback since lengthy constitutions tend to be more vulnerable to future alterations and manipulation. Moreover, the scale of the change can be misleading. Many changes are merely cosmetic and demonstrate little to no response to the aspirations of the Algerian people.
Indeed, despite the initial promise of cultivating the principle of limitation and separation of powers, the amendment kept the overwhelming favouritism of the executive branch. Algerians had protested against a tyranny of a president who stayed in power for four consecutive terms because he was able to manipulate the constitution to allow it. The amendment preserved this kind of domineering power to the president with Article 219 stipulating that the president preserves the right to initiate constitutional change. Overall, the presidency kept all the major powers it enjoyed in the old constitution and was even assigned with new ones.