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Algeria’s pre-election protests put ageing regime under pressure

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Algeria’s pre-election protests put ageing regime under pressure

International Crisis Group (ICG)

11 Mar 2019

6min min read
  • Democracy
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rotests against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika have seized the country since he announced his candidacy for a fifth term ahead of the April election. In this Q&A first published by our content partner, the International Crisis Group, analyst Michaël Ayari looks at the causes of an unprecedented uprising and examines future scenarios.

What is happening?

In a letter to the nation on 10 February, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82 years old, said he would run for a fifth term in the upcoming April election despite his declining health, which has prevented him from speaking publicly, let alone campaigning – he has suffered several strokes since 2013. Many Algerians interpreted the president’s words as granting himself another five-year term, given the country’s poor record of fair elections. This has generated protests of unprecedented magnitude across the country, but their outcome remains uncertain.

These protests, which are mainly rejecting Bouteflika’s attempt to hold onto power, have far exceeded the scale of the marches against his earlier (successful) bid in 2014 to win a fourth term. On 1 March, between 700,000 and 800,000 people assembled in Algiers, and another 2 million in the rest of the country, from Annaba in the east to Tlemcen in the west, and even in regions which until recently had seen very little mobilisation.

Despite the scale of these protests, Bouteflika’s campaign director Abdelghani Zaalane submitted the president’s candidacy to the Constitutional Council on 3 March, even as Bouteflika himself lay bedridden in a Geneva hospital (Zaalane is the son-in-law of Algeria’s army chief of staff, Gaïd Salah). That same day, a public TV announcer read out a letter from Bouteflika in which he said that if he is re-elected, he would establish an “inclusive and independent national conference” to “debate, design and adopt” constitutional, administrative, political and economic reforms; set up an “independent mechanism” to organise early presidential elections; and stage a referendum for a new constitution to mark a new republic and a new “system”, ensuring a “generational transition”.

In his letter, the president also claimed to have “heard the heartfelt cry of the protesters”. But this backfired. The Algerian street interpreted these words as yet another insult and provocation. While the statement responded partly to the demonstrators’ and political opposition’s demands (an inclusive national conference, an independent commission to organise elections, and a new constitution), many Algerians believe that the president, in power since 1999, is no longer able to lead or set the required pace for reform. The protests are continuing: a new round is expected on Friday, 8 March, coincidentally also International Women’s Day, which usually marked by rallies.

In the meantime, on 4 March, several opposition parties, including the Islamists and Talaie al-Horiat (the Vanguard of Freedoms) of Ali Benflis, a former prime minister (2000-2003) and a presidential candidate in 2004 and 2014, met in Algiers, where they called for the application of Article 102 of the constitution. This clause vacates the presidency if the head of state becomes incapacitated. They also called for postponing the elections.

What triggered the protest movement?

Bouteflika’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term prompted a sense of national humiliation. Many protesters believe that the president is squandering Algeria’s potential and that his exploitation by interest groups around him borders on the absurd, given his poor health. Some also say that Algeria has lost too much time and that, had Bouteflika stepped aside in 2014, reforms could have elevated the country to a major economic power by now.

While Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term triggered the protest movement, the public outcry also expresses something deeper: a desire to reclaim the street, as public demonstrations have been banned in the capital since 2001. Slogans recall the Tunisian uprising of December 2010-January 2011: “Game Over”, “The people want the fall of the regime”, “Thieves, you took the country”, “Algeria, free and democratic”. But unlike the Tunisian movement, the protests are driven less by the indignities of economic marginalisation.

The movement also has a sociocultural dimension. The urban middle classes as well as the working classes ask for every Algerian “to finally be able to live a normal life and to overcome the trauma of the Black Decade” (1992-2002), and for no one to have “to die at sea while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe looking for the El Dorado and the pleasures of a consumer society”. Protesters believe that the means to fulfil these aspirations already exist, but that the “Bouteflika clan” – the president and his family, campaign director, prime minister and a cluster of crony businessmen – is obstructing them because of their inability agree on a successor to the aging president.

So far, the protests have displayed some degree of national unity. No one is making demands specific to their regions, and a wide range of social groups march together peacefully against a common adversary. Most striking has been the presence of whole families – women, children and the elderly – in contrast with past protests.

Finally, the protesters are championing a break from the past while also asserting their support for the national army, which they say derives “from the people”. But their support appears to extend to other security forces. Some protest slogans say: “Brothers, brothers, the police are our brothers”.

Around the world, people see a spontaneous movement. Where do things stand on the ground?

In Algiers, few demonstrators claim that the current protest movement is spontaneous. Many say that they are well aware of the presence of behind-the-scenes actors from different sectors of Algerian society, who, while not responsible for starting the movement, are certainly keeping it fired up.

Many of these actors are indeed participating in the protests or supporting them discreetly. This is the case with army generals who were retired early in recent years; security commanders and officers frustrated by the dismantling of the Department of Intelligence and Security in 2015; and international businessmen who have been prevented from maximising their economic potential by the inner circles of power. It is true also of senior officials, workers unions, youth associations, human rights activists, students, journalists, lawyers and opposition parties that have become part of the “system”.

Most of them consider it necessary to "re-institutionalise" the country by neutralising “extra-constitutional” forces (the Bouteflika clan) that allegedly are undermining the state’s resilience in the face of social, economic and regional challenges. These challenges could become even more acute in the coming years, particularly if foreign exchange reserves fall significantly, inflation rises and security deteriorates in countries neighbouring Algeria.

Finally, these actors seem to agree on the need to reduce the informal, opaque and fragmented nature of power in order to “save the country”. Their objective, beyond showcasing a democratic discourse, is to restore the tacit regional equilibrium within the centres of power, inherited from the independence war (1954-1962), and to reduce the arbitrariness of the official decision-making process.

What could happen next?

The protest movement has emerged in a specific regional and international context. Algerians are torn between the memory of their failed 1988-1991 democratic spring, fear of a return to the violence of the Black Decade, aspirations for freedom and a conviction that the protests do not represent a break from the “system” but serve to maintain it (notably, the role of the army). They want to avoid the Egyptian scenario (polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists, followed by a return to authoritarianism) or the Syrian one (civil war), and they realise that the virtues of liberal democracy are being questioned internationally, even in neighbouring Tunisia. It is therefore difficult to say what will happen, especially because everything depends on whether the momentum for protests strengthens or weakens across different parts of society.

But given the diversity of actors who want change, it is likely that protests will only grow as long as Bouteflika maintains his candidacy. Whether they will remain peaceful or turn violent will, to a large extent, depend on the response of the security forces. If they remain as professional as during recent demonstrations and refrain from charging the crowds except when these converge on public buildings, violence is likely to remain limited.

Article 102 of the constitution could be applied. In this case, the presidency would be declared vacant due to Bouteflika’s ill health. The president of the Council of the Nation (the upper house of the Algeria Parliament) would assume the office of head of state for a period of up to 90 days, during which a presidential election would be organised.

Opposition parties, which defer to the protest movement lest they be accused of hijacking it, may struggle to make their voice heard in an open political discussion about possible solutions. If mass mobilisations intensify, new political and civil society forces will emerge and make new demands, such as the election of a National Constituent Assembly.

Meanwhile, the army may decide to pilot a possible transition process. Retired General Ali Ghediri, also a presidential candidate, could represent a consensus figure embodying both continuity and a break from the past.

Algerians have painfully learned the lessons of history. Yet they seem, once again, doomed to experiment with unprecedented forms of political liberalisation, as they did in 1988, with unknown consequences. The polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists is no longer relevant. Islamist parties that participate in the elections and are represented in the parliament and the regional and communal people’s congresses could benefit from this protest movement and negotiate better political representation, but in the current context, their role, like that of Salafi quietists, appears very marginal. The risk of violence between the pro- and anti-fifth mandate, or even between supporters of a “re-institutionalisation” and defenders of the status quo, however, is real. Any break with the past must therefore take place gradually and in compliance with the constitutional order. It will not be an easy task.

(Main image: Algerian students shout slogans as they demonstrate with national flags outside the Main Post Office in the centre of the capital Algiers on 10 March 2019 against ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term. – Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.