Bouteflika Resigns, but Algeria’s Protest Movement Persists

Bowing to popular protests, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has resigned, but an entrenched, unpopular ruling class remains. Algeria’s protest movement, fueled by songs of dissent, will continue marching until the system is reformed.
Bouteflika Resigns, but Algeria’s Protest Movement Persists
Image by: Youssef Qabli/Inside Arabia

Conceding to popular demands, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on April 2, ending his 20-year rule. The mass popular movement that had protested for six weeks against the ailing 82-year-old leader celebrated the news, but only as one victory in a larger battle.

In a brief announcement, Bouteflika stated that his intention behind resigning was “to contribute to calming down the souls and minds of the citizens so that they can collectively take Algeria to the better future they aspire to.” But the popular movement aspires to an Algeria without the clique of politicians, military leaders, and businessmen that kept Bouteflika in power.

Protesters widely interpreted Bouteflika’s resignation, like his previous concessions, as wily attempts by this clique to stay in power. His resignation, for example, hands the presidency to his close ally and head parliamentarian, Abdelkader Bensalah, who will head a 90-day transitional government until elections are held.

After Bouteflika’s bid to be re-elected to a fifth term had caused Algerians to rise in protest, significant and sustained popular opposition led a number of the president’s close allies to abandon him—once doing so became the best political choice. Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, leader of Algeria’s powerful military, called for Bouteflika to be removed from office.

“We decided clearly to stand with the people so all their demands are fulfilled,” Salah said. However, protesters distrust the general, whose military has long dominated national politics, and who likely has presidential aspirations himself.

Celebrating One Victory

Two days after his resignation, Bouteflika, in a letter published by state media, asked Algerians for “forgiveness,” saying he realized he had “failed in [his] duty.” Since a stroke left the president paralyzed and nearly mute in 2013, he has not given a public address.

Protesters cheered the exit of a president who had become disconnected from his people. “This looks like Algeria’s second Independence Day,” one protester told Al Jazeera.  

Many young Algerians have never known another president. Algeria’s youth, who make up 44 percent of the population, have led the popular movement. Music by young artists has given a voice to the protests, as it has often done for protests and revolutions worldwide.

“Liberté”

Three weeks into the protests, Algerian hip-hop artist Soolking released “Liberté” (“freedom”), which became a de facto anthem of the movement. It could be heard blasting from speakers or sung by the crowds in the weekly demonstrations in Algeria’s capital, Algiers. Just three weeks after being released, “Liberté” racked up over 44.5 million views on YouTube.

The song targets Bouteflika and his ruling system without explicitly mentioning them. “It seems that power can be bought,” Soolking sings, referencing the businessmen whose contributions to the president earned them immense political clout.

His lyrics speak to the movement’s confidence. “We are your big test, oh government, and these flames won’t be extinguished . . . . We are not scared,” he sings. “We are the golden generation . . . . All we want is liberty.”

The rapper alludes to Bouteflika’s attempt to defuse the protests by raising the specter of the bloody Algerian civil war, which began with popular protests and ended up decimating the country. “They thought that we were scared of our dark past,” Soolking sings.

The protests, which at times drew hundreds of thousands of people, have been unprecedentedly peaceful. Soolking may well be referring to this when he sings, “Give me back my freedom. I’m asking kindly.”

“Liberté” is a rewrite in the trap genre (“trap” is a type of rap music) of an earlier acoustic song by Ouled El Bahdja, a musical support group for an Algiers soccer team. That song, “Ultima Verba,” released five days before the protests began, is a rebuke against the powers that be.

The song shares a name with and draws inspiration from an impassioned poetic critique of tyranny by iconic French writer Victor Hugo.

“Allo le Système”

Another rapper, Raja Meziane, released a trap song that bitterly and incisively condemned the government for its poor handling of Algeria. In “Allo le Système,” she cites the country’s poverty, unemployment, and poor education system, which have driven its people to flee across the Mediterranean in makeshift boats.

“You think you’re eternal,” she says directly to Bouteflika and his backers, “but today we are not silent anymore . . . . We want a republic, a democracy, not a monarchy.”

“Libérez l’Algérie”

A collective of Algerian artists, led by DJAM and Amel Zen, put together “Libérez l’Algérie,” (“Liberate Algeria”), a swinging acoustic song that marches with a light but serious stride.

The song, sung mostly in Arabic, praises the protest movement for its unity while decrying the regime’s refusal to heed the will of the people. The refrain affirms, “today, the people liberate Algeria.”

Algeria has had its share of protest music in years past. The country’s provocative Raï music has long addressed taboos like sex and alcohol, while offering social and political critiques, including against French colonialism.

Raï singer Cheb Khaled’s song “El Harba Wayn” (“To Flee, but Where?”) was adopted as an anthem for the 1988 protests, but its lyrics still ring true. “The rich gorge themselves, the poor work themselves to death . . . . You can always cry or complain. Or escape . . . , but where?”

The Protests Will Continue

Protesters will continue to sing these songs until their demands are met. After Bouteflika’s resignation, the movement vowed to continue marching until all of Algeria’s entrenched ruling class is ousted. “No one will remain, only the people,” Soolking sings in “Liberté.”

One protester told Al Jazeera, “We will liberate our country of a mafia that has been ruling it over the past two decades like our elders stood against the French colonial system during the 1960s.”

Algerians will likely only be satisfied when free and fair elections usher in an entirely new government, without interference from Bouteflika’s circle, many of whom are veterans of the 1954-1962 war for independence.

The movement has made clear that the new transitional government, led by the unpopular Bensalah, does not represent the people. Most current politicians are seen as “children of the system,” and will likely be demanded to leave.

Finding acceptable presidential candidates may prove difficult, however, as opposition parties are fragmented and the popular movement has had no real leaders.

Deep, abiding change may take years, and the powerful military may crack down on protests if it feels threatened. Some protesters may not be hopeful, but Algeria’s popular movement is confident that, if it keeps pushing, it can usher in a fresh, new Algeria.