The UN should push for direct democracy and restructuring in Algeria
By Zenab Ahmed
Protests have continued in Algeria, following the April resignation of longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled the country for nearly two decades. Bouteflika became president at the end of a bloody civil war that pitted the Algerian military against a collection of insurgent groups. Recently, the protests have been directed against officials linked to the Bouteflika regime, and the United Nations has acted to support the creation of a new political process. It is excellent that the UN has been behaving in this manner. However, it must go further to interact with protest camps themselves, as the basis for new kinds of political institutions. The United Nations should also supervise the restructuring of the Algerian economy and media, in order to support pluralism and democracy, and to break from the previous era.
The United Nations has supported free and fair elections in Algeria, in an orderly and transparent manner, noting that this should be done in the near future, in order to avoid the kind of authoritarian backlash that has characterised neighbouring countries like Egypt. Certainly, the UN should use its resources to push to support Algerian demands for elections, and monitor them as necessary. The UN should also be energetic in criticising problems in the democratic transition, particularly as it relates to Bouteflika’s former clique retaining important posts, and the military refusing to abide by democratic standards. Indeed, it must on principle advocate for a liberal and pluralist atmosphere in the country. This would massively improve on the violence and authoritarianism that has unfortunately plagued Algerian society for decades.
Yet beyond liberalism, and pluralism, the UN must acknowledge that a deeper societal reconciliation will require other forms of restructuring, including in its economy. Indeed, decades of rule under Bouteflika, and authoritarian officials more generally, has left the Algerian economy concentrated in few hands. This disparity in terms of wealth, property ownership, and so on, has enabled authoritarian politics in Algeria, particularly as it relates to sections of the economy effectively held by the military. While the UN should definitely advocate for alternative political institutions, it must also acknowledge that without significant restructuring of the economy, those institutions will be at best dysfunctional. Indeed, the health of any real democracy is also dependent on the health of its economy, and this extends past standard market concerns like profitability. The UN should work with local institutions to distribute business ownership more fairly, in addition to passing new labour codes, and empowering the working poor in other ways.
Specific policies aimed at restructuring the Algerian media landscape, including social media, should also be a priority of the United Nations. Media restructuring would ideally be a subsection of wider economic restructuring, but is also important enough to warrant its own program. The United Nations must grapple with the fact that media ownership is directly related to the health of a democracy. Indeed, when media ownership is concentrated in only a few hands, it is much easier for a leader like Bouteflaki to maintain power, by incorporating those powerful businesspeople. The United Nations should support the division of major media outlets into a federalised model with ownership rooted in local communities. This process can be coordinated with new political institutions, and in accordance with international standards, in order to increase press freedom and access to proper reporting that boosts democratic participation. The United Nations will also need to have discussions about how it can interact with social media platforms, in order to ensure that they don’t have a negative impact on democratic expression in the country. This is likely to be an extended conversation, that needs to be had in more countries than Algeria, and will need regional and global solutions of which the country can be a part.
Finally, the United Nations should explore new forms of grassroots democracy, and support new kinds of political institutions that can either incorporate them, or build upon them. Indeed, the protest camps that are currently in Algeria shouldn’t only be a mechanism to agitate for political change, as they have been in recent months. They should also be used to draft policies and experiment with local governance, in a direct democratic model. Of course, it would be inappropriate for the United Nations to organise them in this way, in a top-down model. Rather, the UN should open itself to the possibility of a more grassroots democratic approach, expressed through the camps, and enable its creation after being proposed by the protesters themselves. While parliamentary institutions meet international standards, the UN would be innovative in recognising that new democratic forms may better match popular democratic aspirations.
While the United Nations has been correct to pursue a number of different mechanisms for democratising Algeria, in accordance with international standards, it must be bolder to demand new approaches, as well. These include approaches that can deal with economic restructuring of the country, which is as important to the long-term health of its democracy, and in isolating elements of the former regime, as with elections and other features of liberal parliamentary democracy. The United Nations should accompany this with a specific program at creating new media institutions, as part of a regional plan that curbs the use of media in all its forms (including social media) to curb dissent and minimise democratic participation. The UN is obligated to do this as part of its wider push to encourage a new political process, in Algeria, that is more pluralistic and inclusive. Ultimately, this could mean even deepening parliamentary democracy with new frameworks of direct democracy, with the protest camps being one manifestation of them. The UN will need to continue interacting with local actors, over time, and be open to dynamic new changes as the political situation in Algiera, along with the wider region, continues to evolve.