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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Freedom and Democracy
Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The debate surrounding Algerian identity, a tug-of-war

Federica Zoja

In the torrid heat of the summer of 2016 there has been unrest in President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika’s Algeria. Three new laws, either passed or drafted, reflect the country’s identity debate amidst independence-linked demands and political rivalry. Algeria is passionately debating identity, with emphasis ranging from the affirmation of exclusive nationality, to the recognition of multilinguism, from religious issues to electoral reform.

On July 26th, the Algerian cabinet approved a law that activates article 63 of the new constitution; in practice, only those having “exclusive Algerian nationality” can be appointed to the state’s highest positions.

What is primarily being targeted is dual Algerian-French nationality; a difficult problem to solve. According to updated data provided by the Association for the Algerian Diaspora (AIDA) and the French Foreign Ministry, there are 450,000 “French-Algerian dual nationality” citizens (in a “French Algerian community” of 900,000 people. However, among the illegal immigrants, refugees or citizens with at least one Algerian parent or grandparent, this figure rises to 5 million, Editor’s note). Then there are also the Algerian communities in Belgium, Great Britain, the United States, Canada etc. and depending on the laws applied in the various countries there are thousands with “dual nationality”.

The political aspect behind recently approved provisions is the will to fully regain control over the nation, in an uncertain context that does not bode well for the future.

The text of this draft law establishes two categories; one civilian and one military. This is evidently a division that does not belong to the past but instead affects contemporary Algerian society, just as happens in Turkey. Exclusive Algerian nationality is required for the speakers of the two houses, the president of the Constitutional Council, the prime minister and cabinet members, the presidents of the Supreme Court and the State Council, the Governor of the Bank of Algeria, those responsible for the country’s security and the president of the High Commission for the Supervision of Elections. As far as military responsibilities are concerned, the draft law incorporates all main functions in the Algerian People’s National Armed Forces. As decided by the president of the republic, it is expected that this will be extended to include all those with military responsibilities, even at an intermediate level.

Controversy is destined to last for a long time, judging by debates on social networks. The Algerian community abroad has accused the government of “segregationism” and “apartheid”. Or worse, of an explicit desire to prevent a number of important Algerian entrepreneurs living abroad, hence with dual nationality (Algerians in London or Paris or even South America) from running for president as they might set-up a form of presidency protected by international rather than national interests.

A first problem to be resolved in view of this new law is the following; the country’s prime minister was born in Morocco. Should he be considered a real Algerian or not?

Then there are repercussions on the French political stage; what if the French should decide to apply the same law; how many current cabinet members would survive such a “selection”? And then, would it not be best to imitate Algeria, as Le Pen’s supporters state, in the name of security and identity protection?

In the meantime, Algerians residing outside the country’s borders will soon be allowed to open bank accounts in the currency of the country they are permanently resident in. This was announced at the end of June by the Finance Minister, busy improving matters by multiplying bank accounts from 7 to 17 million over the next two years. As known, little does it matter whether money is exclusively Algerian or not.

Then there is the issue of French being used in high schools. It seems that for many contemporary Algerian adolescents, the language of the colonisers is difficult and therefore “penalizing” – as reported by the more nationalist press – compared to standard Arabic or even English.

The commission appointed to permanently introduce French in high schools is thinking of doing so only for scientific subjects in order to support the many students who intend to study scientific subjects at French, Belgian or Canadian French-speaking universities.

Detractors of the law currently being studied – studied since the end of 2015 – believe, however, that it is an “attack on Algerian linguistic sovereignty, but scientific subjects are already mainly taught in French in Algerian high schools.

This is a debate that was fashionable during the Seventies – then resumed by Islamists in the Nineties – that has no solution for the moment and that does not address an issue that is even more urgent for young Algerians, that of creating jobs, be they in Arabic, Berber, French or English.

And what about the law that is changing electoral rules? The country’s Council has already officially approved it, acknowledging the need to oppose “political nomadism” and encourage “a strengthening of the pact of trust between voters and those elected.”

Change introduced by recent modifications applied to the constitution by a High Commission for the Supervision of Elections includes the possibility for candidates to have access to official vote counting operations and then to the drafting of the minutes.

These technical changes, however, seem to be impositions, considering that the Algerian National Assembly voted on this draft law when the opposition MPs were not present, having left the House following the Judicial Commission’s decision to reject 96 of the 98 amendments proposed (in primis, articles 73 and 94, which set a 4% minimum for parties wanting to enter parliament, Editor’s Note).

The opposition’s reaction was ferocious. At a hastily organised press conference held in the hall of the Algerian parliament on July 1st, the leader of the Social Resistance Front (FFS), Chafaa Bouaiche, said that the new laws provide an image of a “dictatorial and authoritarian” system, while Lakhdar Benkhelaf, from the el-Adala Islamist Party, described the vote as “political carnage”.

One could say that it looks like anything but the triumph of a “transparent electoral process”.

Translated by Francesca Simmons


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