Protests and Political Demands Are Fueling an Algerian Spring

A nationwide wave of demonstrations has rocked Algeria since February 16, threatening the presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the regime. Massive numbers of mostly young Algerians have taken to the streets of major cities and towns in almost entirely peaceful protests against a fifth term for the ailing president and against the oligarchy controlling the country. Still, police have used tear gas and riot gear, injuring 183 people; one died of a heart attack. More protests are planned for weeks to come, and thousands of Algerian expatriates have joined solidarity protests from Marseille, Toulouse, and Paris to Manhattan and San Francisco.

Protesters are unanimous in their condemnation of the continuing tenure of a severely debilitated head of state who suffered a stroke in 2013 and has not given a public speech in six years, including during his entire 2014 reelection campaign. The regime has been unable to agree on a successor and has therefore proposed a fifth, five-year term for its figurehead, causing three weeks of public mobilization. To buy time, the regime sacked Bouteflika’s campaign manager on March 2, and the next day his new campaign manager, Abdelghani Zaalane, read a letter accompanied by a message on Ennahar TV announcing that, if reelected on April 18, Bouteflika would step down within one year after a national conference and new elections. For most Algerians, however, it is hard to justify reelecting an ailing president who will step down after only a year in office.

Protesters are unanimous in their condemnation of the continuing tenure of a severely debilitated head of state who suffered a stroke in 2013 and has not given a public speech in six years, including during his entire 2014 reelection campaign.

The Protest Wave and the Demands

By validating the crowd’s concerns about the president’s health, if not their criticisms of the regime, the announcement is likely to have a boomerang effect, encouraging more protest and accelerating the demise of the Bouteflika presidency. What is still unclear is whether the protesting crowds can bring about their second chief goal: systemic change. The Algerian regime since 1962 has proved adept at weathering political storms of every magnitude. A highly effective combination of coercion and co-optation, financed by Algeria’s hydrocarbon resources, has led to a situation in which the 82-year-old Bouteflika—who was Algeria’s youngest minister in 1962 and served as foreign minister from 1963 to 1979 and president from 1999 to the present—persists as the last man hanging on to power from the liberation generation.

The wave of protests began on February 16 in Kherrata, a city 300 kilometers east of the capital, Algiers, with special national significance because of the massacres committed there by French troops against activists and civilians during the colonial era. Protests then spread over the next two weeks to other cities around the country, signifying for many Algerians the breakdown of a proverbial “wall of fear.” The demonstrations included people from all walks of life in the country, including journalists, union members, university students, lawyers, and even veterans of the war of liberation.

The demonstrations included people from all walks of life in the country, including journalists, union members, university students, lawyers, and even veterans of the war of liberation.

One of the many remarkable features of the new protest wave is the eclectic mixture of slogans and demands that reflect popular contestation going back over 60 years. Protesters reprised the following refrains: from the liberation era, “The only hero is the people”; from the 1980s, “Algeria free and democratic”; from the 2001-3 protests, “Government, assassins!”; and from the Arab spring, “The people want the downfall of the regime” and “FLN, get lost,” referring to the long-governing Front for National Liberation. The president’s incapacitation was not spared; protesters shouted, “Leave the flag but remove the photo,” objecting to his photoshopped image in official pronouncements.

Just as in 1962 liberation protests, 1988 anti-regime protests, the 1991 general strike against election gerrymandering, 2001-3 regional protests, and the 2010-11 Arab spring protests, these crowd actions signify not only a rejection of politics as usual, but a renunciation of the political system. Protesters have become wiser with the memory of past protests and the resulting tumult, but they are not yet specific in their demands about what kind of system they would prefer.

The Regime and Its Management

In the media’s coverage of the protests, there is a widespread—and incorrect—portrayal of Algerian political lethargy. The reality of Algerian social and political life is the deployment of riot police and security services to deal with what amounts to thousands of micro-protests annually since 2010. These rallies usually focus on local demands, such as improvements in housing, better healthcare, increased employment, and good education. The response of the regime is usually to manage demands without necessarily addressing the underlying sociopolitical conditions by financing some concessions with distributive state largesse. These are often framed as grandiose gestures in line with a revolutionary vision of social welfare. Both the state and the mobilized street have long dispensed with political parties or civil society organizations to lead the way, preferring direct action and direct state response.

Young Algerian protesters, like their North African neighbors in Morocco and Tunisia, reject political parties as corrupt, co-opted, weak, and incapable of extracting concessions or bringing about systemic change.

This culture of “anti-politics” influences the desire of current protesters, like their protesting cohorts in Morocco and Tunisia, to eschew political parties and political organization, hierarchy, and fixed leadership. No one has forgotten that the only party that did threaten regime power, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was outlawed in 1992 before the country plunged into a deadly civil war that lasted until 2002. Incidentally, President Bouteflika was instrumental in initiating a conflict management process during the beginning years of his first term in office that set the country on the road to social and economic recovery. Nevertheless, young Algerian protesters, like their North African neighbors in Morocco and Tunisia, reject political parties as corrupt, co-opted, weak, and incapable of extracting concessions or bringing about systemic change. What also has been similar is the popular direct appeal to the state to address grievances instead of opting to contest state power.

Algeria is currently run by an oligarchy bent on preserving the regime while keeping control of state resources and privileges, earned by participation in the revolution or the system it produced. Behind the ailing president are a half dozen power brokers of what is collectively known in Algeria as le pouvoir, or the power in charge. This group includes two chief gatekeepers: Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother, considered by most Algerians as highly corrupt; and Mokhtar Reguieg, a former ambassador to Rome and currently the president’s director of protocol and de facto chief of staff who helps keep things orderly and opaque. Ahmed Ouyahia is the powerful prime minister, now in his fourth tour in that position since 1995; he is a somewhat hardline figure close to the military’s Islamist-eradication faction responsible for the human rights atrocities of the 1990s (and who recently announced a ban on the niqab [full-face veil] in Algerian workplaces).

Algeria is currently run by an oligarchy––le pouvoir––bent on preserving the regime while keeping control of state resources and privileges, earned by participation in the revolution or the system it produced.

On the security, side, the pouvoir’s inner circle includes Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff and vice minister of defense, close to Said Bouteflika and responsible for part of the purge of long-standing intelligence chief Mohamed Mediène in 2015, thus consolidating the Bouteflika brothers’ power. In a not-so-subtle threat to protesters, Salah minced no words when he said that he will not let the country descend into civil war again. Athmane Tartag is the president’s chief security and intelligence advisor and also hails from the same eradicator wing of the Algerian army and intelligence services. Presidential ally and business tycoon Ali Haddad, one of the richest men in Algeria, serves as head of its Business Leaders Forum and a core advisor on economic issues. Haddad was featured on a leaked recording of a conversation with the recently sacked Bouteflika campaign manager Abdelmalek Sellal, who threatened to shoot protesters. None of the members of the inner circle have any credibility with protesting crowds, and none have succeeded in proposing a successor to Bouteflika whom the others accept. Meanwhile, dozens of military and security officers have been forced into early retirement, which one ex-minister glibly characterized to this author in March 2016 as “forcing out the 50- and 60-year-olds so that the 70- and 80-year-olds can hang on to power.” Because of these purges and the inverted shape of Algeria’s governmental demographic following the mass exodus of its intelligentsia mostly to Europe in the 1990s, the country’s ability to act as regional policeman and stabilizer is waning, along with its ability to address domestic issues effectively.

While fluctuations in the oil price and its effect on the distributive state cause much consternation among Algeria watchers, the current crisis has little to do with the ability or inability of the state to buy off the micro-protests. Algeria still has sufficient sovereign wealth for that. The current protests have everything to do with the embarrassment most Algerians feel about their current political predicament. Unlike the 1988 and 2010-11 protests, there are almost no economic demands among the protesters. Nor are Algerians interested in destabilizing the country and by extension the region, with one of the most common slogans being “Silmiyya, silmiyya” or “Peaceful, peaceful.” Indeed, Algerians want a peaceful transition of power, as quickly as possible. However, protesters are leaving the nature and details of that change to whoever grabs and holds the reins of power.

None of the alternative presidential candidates has much of a national following. The best-known presidential candidates—former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, Workers’ Party leader Louisa Hanoune, Islamist leader Abderrazak Makri, and maverick businessman Rachid Nekkaz—have all dropped out or been forced out of the presidential polls. The most hopeful sign, however, is the “Arab spring ethos” of the crowds, who are calling for peaceful change without delay. One of the most ubiquitous slogans of the crowds is “The people and the police are brothers.” Therein lies one key to these protests: whether the people are able to maintain a peaceful mobilization to exact meaningful change, and what the security forces do when confronted with such a still-amicable opposition. Replacing Bouteflika is a sine qua non and remains the chief concern of the regime. The large Algerian crowds are reclaiming their dignity and forcing a resolution to the succession crisis. There is little consensus, however, on what system should replace the current one, which is considered hopelessly corrupt, and on how anti-politics protesters can bring about systemic change.

William Lawrence is a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and a guest author at Arab Center Washington DC.