Three months after former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation in April precipitated by weeks of ongoing rallies, protesters still cannot celebrate a well-deserved political victory. Algeria’s triumph at the Africa Cup of Nations last Friday offered a joyful, albeit temporary, break. But the life-changing prize of a just and free society is still out of reach. Protesters have made it very clear that although the ouster of Bouteflika was in itself a “victory,” and a step in the right direction, it was not enough, and protests have continued with the same level of determination to pursue lasting democratic change.
The mainly youth-led demonstrations in Algeria were not unusual per se. The Algerian population is overwhelmingly young, with two-thirds under the age of 35. The demographic makeup of the protesters reflects that. In contrast, the Bouteflika regime is comprised of aging veterans with a firsthand recollection of living in French-occupied Algeria. This originally lent legitimacy to the ruling establishment, the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), and perhaps is one factor explaining why its authority has remained more or less unchallenged for so long.
The majority of Algeria’s present population is made up of a generation born in an independent nation with no immediate recollection of the events that unfolded during the Algerian War; it relates to them like disconnected historical events in a textbook. It views Bouteflika’s resignation as merely a change in the figurehead of an outdated and undemocratic regime rather than a sign of real change.
For a connected and politically conscious millennial population, legitimacy stems from a democratically elected party and so the resignation of the veteran leader was never the protesters’ ultimate goal. Their desire to achieve transformational, as opposed to superficial, change is shown by their negative response to the appointment of interim leader Abdelkader Bensalah, a longtime ally and supporter of Bouteflika who, like his predecessor, is a veteran and member of the FLN.
So, what now? Inevitably, when a leader steps down following demonstrations of this nature, a power vacuum is left. The so-called Arab Spring protests that swept through the Middle East and North Africa between 2010 and 2014 has shown that how this vacuum is filled has an immense impact on a country’s political stability and prospects for peace. Many of those transformations failed when the power vacuums were filled with sectarian factions, or the military, and the repercussions are still being felt years after the removal of the authoritarian leader. Although the 2019 protests in Algeria have been primarily peaceful, the country faces the same risks associated with fragmentation, political deterioration, and civil violence that follow a revolution.
It is perhaps not surprising that army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah has expressed his initial support for the popular uprising and not sought to curb such resistance too harshly. The 2013 military coup in Egypt, which resulted in the removal of the country’s first elected president, has shown that such support is not necessarily an indication that the army favors the establishment of a democratic government determined by the people.
One cannot assume that Salah’s apparent endorsement of the protests means that his ambitions are aligned with those of the protesters. It may simply be a power play to gain control in the country. Furthermore, the regime has resorted to brutality at times and will not hesitate to escalate repression if necessary.
Hence, it is unclear what is next for Algeria. What is apparent is that there is much left to do to transition to a real democracy. Can protesters allow themselves to celebrate when Bouteflika’s resignation was but one step toward securing democratic change? It may be foolish to think that Algeria’s experience will be different from the failed attempts at democratic transformation in other Arab countries. The ongoing political instability and violence that followed the Arab Springs in Egypt, Sudan, and Libya serve to foreshadow what may come if the transition of power is left to chance, is mismanaged, or if the people’s demands are not met.
The long-term goals of Algeria’s popular uprising include ending state corruption, improving living standards, curbing unemployment, and overcoming the adverse economic impact of the fall in oil prices. It would appear that Bouteflika’s resignation was the easy part. While his removal was undoubtedly one of the goals of the protesters, and therefore a success, with all that is left to do, it is not a real cause for celebration.