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Algeria At A Crossroads: Time For Ailing, All-Powerful President To Step Aside

Algerian riots two years ago over high unemployment and food prices
Algerian riots two years ago over high unemployment and food prices
Mansouria Mokhefi

-Op-Ed-

ALGIERS - The confusing communication strategy orchestrated by supporters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika around his recent hospitalization in Paris -- and the mystery surrounding the actual state of his health -- have led the Algerian press and the opposition parties to denounce the lack of transparency and secrets that are so characteristic of Algerian politics.

Because of Bouteflika’s apparent inability to carry out his duties, many parties have called for Article 88 of the Algerian constitution to be enforced in order to hasten the transition process. Article 88 states that the president may be removed from office if he or she becomes unable to perform his duties because of a serious or long-term illness.

Right now, the Algerians do not have much empathy for their ailing leader. They mostly have the strange sensation of being kept in the dark and at a distance from an issue that is of utmost importance for the country.

By merely denying the rumors that Bouteflika is sicker than they say – perhaps in a coma or even dead – the government, which refuses to provide any evidence that the president is doing as well as official statements say he is, has revealed its inability to handle a situation that affects the future of the nation, and demonstrated its contempt for the population.

At a time when the country is without a leader, this contempt increases the climate of moral bankruptcy and severe crisis of confidence toward the government, which has been discredited.

As they are waiting for the end of a regime that has no democratic legitimacy left, and that has let corruption gangrene all the country’s institutions, Algerians are revolting against the inequalities that these elites built their power on.

Many have taken to the streets to denounce the dramatic failures of the health system, which cannot guarantee quality care to hundreds of thousands of patients or provide adequate treatment to thousands of cancer patients, as well as the outrageous privileges of the elites, who are able to benefit from the best medical treatment in France.

Growing social unrest

Former President Houari Boumediene (1932-1978), whose illness had been shrouded in secrecy and awkward communication, had chosen to get treatment in Moscow in 1978. But today it is in Paris that most of the regime cadres receive the care that the Algerian health system is still far from being able to provide, despite the recognized expertise of the medical profession.

As the end of Bouteflika's governance looms, Algeria is about to conclude a chapter of its own history. Since its independence from France in 1962, the same elites have held on to power, and so has a system of governance that has outlived its usefulness. The continuing unrest – strikes, protests, rebellion in the south – reveal the existence of a deep social malaise as well as the economic bankruptcy of one of the richest countries of the Maghreb, which is no longer safe from social instability.

The extent of poverty and unemployment is such that discontent is spreading like wildfire in a country where the wealth from oil revenues remains invisible to the eyes of the population. Anger is mounting against social inequality and high youth unemployment – especially among a whole generation of young Algerians with no prospects. There is also much disillusion toward these elites who had the means to ensure growth and development, social cohesion and security, but failed on all fronts.

For many, the end of Bouteflika’s reign marks the closing of an era. It could finally be the end of the stranglehold on Algeria’s wealth and institutions by the politicians and military strongmen who have been ruling the country since the 1960s.

This turning point could also herald the arrival in power of new generations that will take into account the cultural diversity of the country, focus on building an economy that can survive the post-oil era and build the Maghreb Union that we need so much. This could all happen in the context of a new republic.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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