Algerians have taken to the street since March 1 to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year reign of the country, and through mass political action, they have secured his eventual departure from the presidential office. But many protestors are demanding more, and in a post-Bouteflika Algeria, the political battle to restructure the country has already begun.
First some background, President Bouteflika announced he would stand for a fifth term as president, and on March 1 Algerians began taking to the street en masse with estimates of over 1 million people protesting the President’s decision. Bouteflika has been ill since 2006, and he has had several long hospital visits in Paris due to poor health. After suffering a stroke in 2013, he has not spoken in public for seven years.
After ten days of protests and unrest, Bouteflika announced he would not be seeking a fifth term, and he postponed the presidential elections until April 18. A clear half-measure to appease protestors, many Algerians are still upset with the current government and argue the president is trying to extend his reign as long as possible.
While Bouteflika announced he will not seek another presidential term, protestors and oppositional forces are demanding more than simply a passing of the torch.
Algeria has a long history of political revolution and struggle, but Bouteflika survived the Arab Spring, and he has been relatively unaffected by local protest until the outbreak of the latest nationwide gatherings. The Algerian president has been able to successfully quell reform movements in the past, and many believe his postponement of the presidential election is attempted manoeuvre to keep the opposition down.
Human Rights Watch has criticized Bouteflika’s post-Arab Spring reforms as a mechanism to stifle political opposition rather than allowing citizens more access to democracy and a safer public forum.
The continuing protests in the face of Bouteflika’s concession point to the population being upset at more than the president’s long service in office. Bouteflika’s declining health likely means he is not pulling the strings, but rather political structures backing him have been able to dictate the country’s policy.
Opposition political parties have been hosting talks with key oppositional forces including human rights lawyers and former prime ministers. Some protest movements and opposition forces are seeking constitutional reform that would attempt to fix many of the loopholes the current government has used to repress popular movements.
However, Bouteflika’s political allies will not hand over control without pushback. But, the range of options declines as the government waits longer to act whilst protest numbers swell. Bouteflika-aligned parties could decide that resignation would be the best course of action, or a transition led by an independent organization seeking small constitutional reform is also an option.
The worst option for the country and the region would be for the party to reinstate Bouteflika as the presidential candidate. This would be done with the idea to justify military intervention to quell the subsequent unrest. However, there have been no signs that the government or any parties have the political power to carry out such a plan considering the impressive number of Algerians on the street.
Likely, those in power will seek a more technocratic solution to the mass protests, offering small concessions to opposition forces. Bouteflika appointed a close political ally, Noureddine Bedoui, and he has proposed a “technocratic interim government.” Bedoui has said this interim government will give a stronger voice to the large number of young people in the country, but he and the government have not yet released a new date for elections to take place.
These concessions are unlikely to convince many protestors considering they come from a friend of Bouteflika.
Regional and Global Implications
After the Arab Spring, many leaders in the region have been wary of popular uprisings boiling over into neighbouring states. The Sudanese people are currently locked in a political struggle with their repressive government, but these political movements have yet to inspire struggles elsewhere.
Largely this is due to the political situation in Algeria, and its unique position in having a weak, long-serving head of government.
The current protests have thrown various deals into question and many countries are unsure of what to expect next. Bouteflika was influential in returning Algeria to the international stage, and he focused on building strong relations with other developing countries while also playing both sides and remaining on good terms with Europe and America. Bouteflika built close relations with China and Brazil, and he opened up the country to oil and gas exportation.
Algeria’s business and foreign allies will be watching developments in the country with a close eye, and if the situation becomes too unstable it could wreak havoc on the economy. The next government will have to focus on securing the safety of political opposition, so the Algerian people can begin building a more inclusive and economically viable future. Both a leadership vacuum and ignoring the will of the people would doom Algeria to a similar fate as other unfortunate neighbours.