Since suffering a stroke in 2013, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, has governed from his wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public. A lauded veteran of Algeria’s bloody war for independence, Bouteflika has been in power since 1999. After Bouteflika’s office announced on February 9 that he would seek re-election to a fifth term, Algerians staged peaceful protests in unprecedented numbers.
Despite an 18-year-old decree banning protests in Algiers, tens of thousands marched in the capital. Protesters waved Algerian flags and chanted slogans against “the system” and Bouteflika’s fifth term. Their signs read: “We’re Making Algeria Great Again,” and “Only Chanel can do a No. 5.” Police used tear gas at times and arrested 195 protesters, but were generally lenient. Thousands of Algerian expats also demonstrated abroad. It was youth led movement, which unified Algerians across age, gender, and religious identity.
On March 11, after three weeks of growing protests, Bouteflika announced that he would no longer seek re-election and that the planned April 18 elections would be postponed until a national constitutional conference is held. “It’s a very important moment because power in Algeria has never backed down. Two weeks ago, this was unimaginable,” historian Benjamin Stora told the New York Times.
National Conference Ruse to Prolong Bouteflika’s Term?
Protesters celebrated the news with a joy that soon turned into apprehension. “Bouteflika is not out yet,” Noufal Abboud, the director of a global peacebuilding platform, told Inside Arabia. The “young women and men in the streets know what a façade of change looks like,” Abboud continued. The message is now: “No more Bouteflika, not even for another minute.”
Many protesters saw the announcement, which offered no timeline for Bouteflika’s departure, and deferred plans for future elections until after the national conference to draft a new constitution, as a veiled attempt to maintain power. This proposed transitional process would take months, and could be used to extend Bouteflika’s current term or manipulate the constitution in his favor. Protests increased in strength after the declaration and demonstrators warned the state not to mislead the Algerian people. “No tricks, Bouteflika,” they chanted.
Mustapha Mehdid, a young audiovisual producer and protester, told Inside Arabia that the March 11 announcement was “an insult to the intelligence of the people. The government underestimates the capacity of the Algerian youth to change things.” Another one who asked to be identified as ZM added that the demonstrations will continue because people sought a “complete change in the structure of the government.”
From his hospital bed in Geneva, Bouteflika had earlier tried in vain to defuse the protests by closing universities, warning against “treacherous” infiltration by “domestic and international groups” and a repeat of the devastating Algerian civil war. His offer on March 3 to step down after a year if re-elected had also been dismissed as a subterfuge.
Bouteflika and his National Liberation Front (FLN) allies began their careers as victorious anti-colonial revolutionaries that resisted Euro-American hegemony. 57 years later, that clique has calcified into a rigid regime suspected of corruption and cronyism.
The Powers That Be
Protesting Bouteflika is not protesting one man, but the entire system that backs him. Abboud asserted that it was not the president who had decided to run again, but rather what he called the “deep state.” Algerians believe that the infirm Bouteflika is little more than a puppet for a faction of military, political, and business leaders—the “system,” or “powers-that-be” (le pouvoir). Some even insisted (incorrectly) that the president was already dead.
“No one really knows who runs the country,” ZM said. Bouteflika’s campaign manager illegally filed his candidacy paperwork on his behalf to announce his re-election bid. Algeria’s military is known to be the “primary beneficiary and defender of the existing political order,” analyst Steven Cook wrote.
Abboud said that the “system,” surprised by the movement’s size, withdrew Bouteflika’s candidacy to buy time for a replacement who can secure its interests. Also on March 11, Bouteflika had replaced the unpopular Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia with his interior minister, which proved to demonstrators that “those in power want to stay,” reported the BBC.
“We want a radical change in this mafia system, to leave them all behind and reconstruct a new Algeria,” Mehdid said. Protesters are weary of Bouteflika’s stagnant economy, chronic corruption, poor living standards, and unemployment.
A Disintegrating System
Longtime allies are now rallying against Bouteflika; members of his ruling FLN party have quit or spoken out against the president in protest. Algerian magnates have resigned from the powerful Business Leaders Forum, even though many of its members had long funded Bouteflika’s electoral campaigns in exchange for protection and contracts, explained Riccardo Fabiani in the Sada Journal.
Over 1,000 judges promised to refuse overseeing the April elections if Bouteflika remained a candidate. “I believe that this popular movement will change everything,” Ali Benflis, Bouteflika’s former prime minister and now opponent, declared, adding that no good solution can come out of the old system.
“Even the Algerian regime’s core constituencies are showing widening fissures,” Fabiani wrote. In a political structure “stubbornly divided into a series of power networks,” Bouteflika appears to now offer diminishing returns.
In the most tectonic shift yet, the Algerian army’s chief of staff, Lt. General Ahmed Gaed Salah, having previously expressed support for the protesters, demanded on March 26 that Bouteflika be removed from power. Salah urged Algeria’s Constitutional Council to invoke the constitution’s Article 102, which allows the council to declare the president unfit to rule and unseat him.
Salah’s call to invoke Article 102, which could have been used at any point in the past six weeks of protests, suggests that the powerful military finally has decided that continuing to prop up Bouteflika counters their interests. This statement, coming from one of the most powerful people in the country, could make Bouteflika’s removal imminent.
If the article is invoked, Algeria’s top parliamentarian, Abdelkader Bensalah, will take the president’s place. Although Bouteflika’s removal would be welcomed, the popular movement will no doubt be wary if Article 102 is invoked, because the military is regarded as a major player in the ruling system that protesters want to overturn.
Even if Article 102 removes Bouteflika, a transitional government is installed, or if elections are held, the nagging question is what can be expected next? Forty-four percent of Algerians are under the age of 25. “They need someone who can speak to them and represent them,” ZM said. “They demand democracy, freedom of speech, a diversified economy, better education, and no corruption.”
Mehdid believes that there are candidates fit to run, some of whom may emerge from the movement, which is grassroots and largely leaderless. Mustapha Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer and well-known protest figure, may be a viable presidential candidate, or an overseer of a transitional government, as some have suggested.
On March 25, representatives of an emerging Algerian opposition group offered a different scenario: they want Bouteflika to step down immediately and a “presidential committee” to take his place for a limited “transitional period” designed to organize and ensure fair elections.
Negotiating Algeria’s Future
Algeria needs to be able to turn current uncertainty into a constructive, inclusive process, without outside intervention. UN diplomat and former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi is set to lead talks between the government and protesters, but his friendship with Bouteflika makes his prospects slim.
“What the regime is proposing should be considered as an offer,” Abboud said. Though not necessarily acceptable, “it indicates that the regime is now ready to reconsider people’s demands.” Having upset the idea that the regime was necessary for stability, the people are in a stronger negotiating position than before.
At the same time, regional uprisings have shown that there is a “very thin line” between the false stability of autocracy and the volatility of regime change, Abboud said. ZM explained that Algeria’s pro-democracy protests in 1988 spiraled into a brutal civil war—the “Black Decade.” And that should be a lesson for the present.
The peacefulness of the current protests and the lack of government crackdown are unprecedented in the region. President Omar al-Bashir’s brutal response to current popular protests in Sudan shows a starkly different approach.
The popular movement shows no sign of abating, while the government is indicating it might listen. However, the movement needs to be careful not to recreate mistakes that led the 2012 Arab uprisings to bring about more turmoil than stability.
To be satisfied, protesters need constructive negotiations, specific timelines for elections, Bouteflika’s departure, and a guaranteed overhaul of the ruling system. Algeria’s young people are confident that now is the time for them to take the lead for a new revolution and the birth of a true democracy.