Algerians have taken to the streets to voice their discontent with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plan to run for a fifth term in office. Could this be the beginning of more fundamental reform?
After ten days of silence, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appears to have finally responded to the protests spreading across his country. Last Sunday, Algeria’s state-owned television network published a letter attributed to Bouteflika in which he rejected protesters’ calls for his withdrawal from the next presidential election, scheduled for 18 April. The protests were not wholly unexpected, given that the wheelchair-bound Bouteflika has barely appeared in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. But the sheer size and scope of the demonstrations – which began shortly his announcement last month that he would run for a fifth term in office – have surprised Algerians as much as outside observers.
Nacer observes that Algeria has only ever engaged in real political, social, and economic reforms in times of crisis. Such a crisis is here for the world to see.
After initially breaking out on 22 February, the demonstrations continued two days later, building on an earlier call to protest from civil society group Mouwatana (Citizenship). Algerians also took to the streets on 1 March and 3 March – the day on which presidential candidates were required by law to submit the 60,000 supporter signatures required to formalise their bids.
Bouteflika’s documentation arrived at Algeria’s Constitutional Commission in several trucks, but the candidate himself did not return from Geneva, where he has reportedly undergone medical checks since last week. Bouteflika sent his new campaign manager – Abdelghani Zaalane, who replaced former prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal – in his stead. Both the Constitutional Commission and Algeria’s official independent election observer previously said this would be a violation of electoral law.
The president’s letter lauds the civic-mindedness of the protesters, who have largely maintained an organised, calm attitude in the face of a massive police presence, and have even cleaned up after the protests. The protesters have often shouted “silmiya, silmiya” (peaceful, peaceful) and urged one another to avoid violence, even in the face of tear gas and other forms of police pressure. This is in sharp contrast to the huge number of local protests Algeria has experienced in the past decade, which, focusing on social difficulties and governance failures, have at times verged on riots.
The letter urges continued progress towards democracy and prosperity that does not break with past achievements. Yet, acknowledging the protesters’ cri de coeur, it promises that Bouteflika will, if re-elected, carry out the following tasks:
- Hold a National Conference soon after the election, to lay out political, institutional, social, and economic reforms.
- Adopt, by popular referendum, a new constitution, which will inaugurate a “new republic” and new Algerian governance systems – although these are vaguely defined.
- Rapidly implement policies guaranteeing a fairer redistribution of resources, to address a system of economic and social marginalisation that Algerians refer to as “harga”.
- Take measures to ensure that young Algerians can benefit from “public life” and economic and social development.
- Create an independent electoral authority that will have full responsibility for organising elections.
- Organise a presidential election soon after the National Conference, which will elect Bouteflika’s successor.
Although the last promise garnered the greatest immediate attention, all of them recognise the reality of Algerian society. The letter acknowledges that: the protesters’ demands are valid; social and economic exclusion (including that related to corruption) is a major problem, particularly for young people; Algeria’s current governance system, known as le pouvoir (the power), cannot adequately respond to these challenges; and Bouteflika’s time as president will soon come to an end.
The future of the protests
At first, hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out not just in the capital, Algiers, and the major cities of Oran and Constantine, but also in cities and towns such as Batna, Blida, Skikda, Bordj Bou Arréridj, Touggourt, Ouargla, Tiaret, Adrar, Tamanrasset, and elsewhere. These protests, and those that followed, carried a clear message of opposition to a fifth presidential term for Bouteflika. Some of the most common slogans among protesters have been variations on “the people don’t want Bouteflika or Saïd [Bouteflika]”, the latter a reference to the president’s brother and chief caretaker. Others include “pouvoir dégage” and “pouvoir assassin” – references to historical government violence that have been increasingly common in the last few days – and those criticising Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.
Although the president’s poor health has been apparent since his stroke, recently published images of him have underlined his difficulties even further. The prospect of another term for Bouteflika was embarrassing for many Algerians in 2014, but they could tolerate it in an uncertain environment. Five years later, many seem unable to bear the thought of prolonging his rule again. This is particularly true for the many young Algerians who feel stifled by social constraints, a lack of economic opportunities, and a political class that is unresponsive to their needs.
Moreover, the decline in global oil prices since 2014 has undercut Algeria’s infrastructure projects and created a state of persistent financial tension in the country. This crisis has helped perpetuate the popular sentiment that the state cannot respond to Algerians’ problems effectively.
The protests have no clear organiser. They initially emerged online, demonstrating the power and reach of social media in Algeria, particularly among the young. But people from other generations have also taken an active part in the demonstrations – not least Djamila Bouhired, who is a national hero due to her actions in Algeria’s war of liberation against France. The protests have also shaken loose stalwarts of the Algerian system; members of Bouteflika’s ruling Front de Libération National have resigned, as have prominent businessmen who are part of the Forum des Chefs d’Entreprise, a business organisation presided over by a close ally of the president. Even the news anchor who read Bouteflika’s letter live on television has resigned from her post.
No repeat of 2011
Although some analysts have likened the protests to the 2011 Arab uprisings (which also saw demonstrations in Algeria), this comparison is reductive and fails to account for the specifically Algerian factors that are crucial to what is happening. Algeria’s power structure extends beyond the leadership’s inner circle, while its history of revolutionary fervour and pro-democracy activism – the latter of which led to the creation of a multiparty system in 1988 – remain important.
The protests have also showcased Algerians’ intense national pride and attachment to symbols and slogans that recall their past. The protesters may want to replace a system of governance that has operated for decades, but the state is not going anywhere. They have also shown that Algerians cannot be deterred by government calls for stability and references to Algeria’s brutal civil war in the 1990s or the conflict in Syria.
Algeria’s opposition remains badly fragmented and unable to agree on a joint candidate to run against Bouteflika. Even before the publication of the president’s letter, Abderrazek Mokri, head of the Islamist Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix, opted to stay out of the election, as did former prime minister Ali Benflis. Some within Mouwatana, an organisation coordinated by opposition politician Soufiane Djilali, have backed retired army general Ali Ghediri to run for president, but the group as a whole has not endorsed this.
As the proposal for a National Conference (an idea first introduced even before the protests began) makes clear, there is no clear successor to Bouteflika. Although Algerian analysts have spoken for some time about the possibility of promoting prominent figures within the political system, it remains to be seen when this process will occur, if at all. Following the release of Bouteflika’s letter, night-time protests in various cities sent a clear message that the demonstrators do not intend to back down. Thus, there is no indication that the demonstrations will come to an end any time soon.
In his book La Martingale Algérienne, former Algerian central banker Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer observes that Algeria has only ever engaged in real political, social, and economic reforms in times of crisis. Such a crisis is here for the world to see. The Algerian citizens who have poured onto the streets, and the political and security actors who are trying to keep up, will decide whether the crisis deepens. For now, no one knows how Algeria’s leaders will attempt to deal with the ongoing protests and whether the current proposals will be enough.
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.