The president has resigned under pressure from the street and, now, the army. But Algeria’s protest movement will unlikely accept anything less than wholesale reform
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation this week marks a significant victory for the Algerian protest movement. Indeed, it has now achieved its initial goal, but the movement’s confidence and ambitions have grown over recent weeks – and for many Algerians, if not most, there is still a lot more to achieve.
Banners draw on Algeria’s revolutionary heritage, and proclaim only the sovereign people can confer legitimacy on future leaders
The statements and actions of the People’s National Army (ANP) and its chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, demonstrate that they view themselves as the guarantors of a transition process that would take place within the limits of the current constitution. After taking a hard line towards the protest movement when it first emerged in February, Gaid Salah gradually softened his tone and last week called for the activation of Article 102 of the constitution. This would have removed Bouteflika from office and set the election process in motion. An internal clash within the regime ensued between those close to the president and an increasingly uncompromising ANP. This culminated in a strongly worded statement from Gaid Salah on Tuesday demanding that the president go immediately. The resignation followed shortly thereafter.
Gaid Salah has been chief of staff since 2004, and vice-minister of defence since 2013; he had been a close ally of the president. He hoped that by resorting to Article 102, he and the ANP could position themselves as an ally of the people. He sought to justify the military’s intervention in constitutional terms and fed the rumour mill with references to “ill-intentioned people” plotting to damage the military’s reputation. Thus in the week before Bouteflika’s resignation, the military tried to paint itself as a neutral actor that could act as guarantor for a transition process within the existing constitution.
According to the current constitution, Bouteflika’s departure triggers Article 102 and a new presidential election should now take place within 90 days. Abdelkader Bensalah, the president of the Council, Algeria’s upper house and a Bouteflika-era appointee, would serve as interim president. The election would be overseen by the Constitutional Council led by Tayeb Belaiz, a Bouteflika appointment put in place on 10 February, just before the beginning of recent events. Further, on Sunday evening Bouteflika announced a new government led by former interior minister Noureddine Bedoui.
However, a large part of the protest movement will not be satisfied simply with a change of president as long as figures like Bensalah, Belaiz, Bedoui, and indeed Gaid Salah are leading the transition process. For the first time in the six successive Fridays of protest, Gaid Salah formed a target: one chant called for Bouteflika to go – and to take the chief of staff with him. By Friday 29 March the main slogans and banners visible in the protests no longer portrayed the president as their principal target, but rather the entire corrupt system of crony governance that developed under his rule, and even before. Protestors chanted for the system to “clear out” and carried banners indicating their rejection of a transition process guided by Article 102, which would see the members of the very “system” in charge. Some protestors argue that the constitution is no longer valid as it is a product of this system and has already been nullified by the fact that the president and institutions of power contravened it repeatedly. This week, smaller spontaneous protests have continued to reject the idea of anything less than systematic – and systemic – change. The major slogan and hashtag now trending is #Yetna7aw_Ga3, roughly translating from the local dialect as “Clear them all out”.
Historical references and symbols of the war of independence are omnipresent throughout the protests. Banners draw on the country’s revolutionary heritage, and proclaim that only the sovereign people can confer political and legal legitimacy on future leaders. “You are the past and we are the future”; “Together we will triumph” read two huge banners last Friday above Place Audin, the epicentre of the protests.
In response to the growing calls for systemic change, the clans making up Algeria’s power structures, commonly referred to as “Le Pouvoir”, had already begun to disavow Bouteflika in previous weeks. But they have now increasingly started to turn on their own leaders too. Last week saw the resignation of Ali Haddad, head of the influential Forum des Chefs d’Entreprises, the main business leader organisation, in the aftermath of a growing number of high-profile resignations from the organisation and calls for his departure. The heads of the two main parties of power, Mouad Bouchareb of the Front de Libération Nationale and former prime minister and head of the Rassemblement National Démocratique, Ahmed Ouyahia, are now also facing pressure to leave. The same is true for Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, the head of the largest national union, the Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens. Twelve businessmen closely linked to Bouteflika, including Haddad, are now facing corruption charges, and the judiciary has forbidden them to travel. That move will certainly be popular, but such steps are insufficient to satisfy those who want to rid the system of all who represent the status quo.
Informal gatherings are now springing up in universities, public parks, offices of civil society organisations, and indeed online. Different roadmaps charting ways forward are already emerging from political parties, from civil society, and from youth collectives. All are searching for ways to make a transition to a new system. Within the movement resistance remains to the notion of it appointing leaders, but a handful of opposition figures have emerged as unofficial spokespeople. New faces are beginning to emerge from the universities and from youth collectives. This is essential, as, unless young people select representatives, it may be difficult to ensure that the leaders of tomorrow are different from those that came before.
The protest movement’s newfound confidence – and its will to go beyond its initial demands and halt the controlled transition the army is proposing – represent a chance to force a real break with the crony governance of the past. However, the mechanism for achieving a real transition remains unclear; and channelling competing ideas into a single vision will be difficult. But it is essential to work towards this, both to counter the proposed transition with a clear alternative, but also because achieving a relatively unified front is the best way to avoid foreign powers trying to interfere.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.