The mass protest movement that has sprung up in the streets of Algeria over the past month has given voice to widespread public anger towards an all-powerful regime. After weeks of leaderless demonstrations, the key test for the movement will be finding representatives who can formulate their demands amid calls for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation.
It started on 22 February when Algerian cities began witnessing the biggest flow of dissent in the country in decades, much to the surprise of the government and the international community. On 1 March, between 700,000 and 800,000 people assembled in Algiers, with another two million gathering in other cities and towns across the country. This came after Bouteflika’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term in elections planned for April, which is seen as absurd by protesters given his poor health and the fact that he has not spoken in public since 2013 when a stroke left him paralyzed.
Bouteflika eventually announced that he would not re-run, but that the elections would be postponed and he would stay in office until a new constitution is adopted, de facto prolonging his current term. Widely perceived as a ploy to buy time and prepare the succession the rulers want, the compromise was quickly rebuffed by the protesters.
“The Algerian people will not accept any approach that will tend to extend the current system, whether from the ‘brother’ entourage or the ‘friend’,” the protesters said in media reports making references to Bouteflika’s powerful younger brother Said and veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi.
Algeria was largely untouched when the 2011 Arab spring uprisings hit the Arab region. Public demonstrations had been banned in the capital since 2001. Now, a new generation of Algerians has risen up against the old, autocratic leadership, thus breaking a wall of silence and fear that had kept the population docile during Bouteflika’s 20-year rule.
Students have led the protest movement in a country where about half of the population is under the age of 30 and youth unemployment has spurred anger against the government. The slogans heard during the demonstrations included “Game Over”, “Algeria, free and democratic”, “Get out, the people decide” and “It’s enough”. The youth-led initiative very soon became a wide-encompassing movement, cutting across the different segments of society with university teachers, students, doctors, lawyers, judges and journalists also demonstrating throughout the country.
It proved that for many Algerians, Bouteflika’s 2014 election for a fourth presidential term was truly embarrassing. The prospect of a further term prompted a sense of national humiliation that could no longer be restrained.
“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.”, wrote Andrew Lebovich, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), in a recent commentary.
The protests have also gathered people of different political leanings. While most were of moderate political persuasions, some were known to be pro-regime and more wary of joining. The large-scale participation can be attributed to two fundamental factors, according to Riccardo Fabiani, a geopolitical analyst focusing on the political economy of North Africa: “The peaceful nature together with the specific character of the demand were key to mobilizing the wider population, and not just the young crowds. This was not the usual anti-regime protest staged by a minority.”
Groups traditionally supporting Bouteflika, like the influential National Organization of Mujahedeen veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France and elements within the National Liberation Front (FLN), Algeria’s ruling party, backed the protests. A growing list of parties, officials, trade unions including the powerful Algerian labor union UGTA and other groups loyal to the ruling elite also opposed the re-election plan.
Nonetheless, as noted by Fabiani, the Algerians who have steered clear of the protests are not few in number. Many civil servants, tycoons, rural influential people, Sufi confraternities, members of unions, and the pro-Bouteflika constituencies have remained in favor of the status quo. These categories typically fear instability and any threat to the privileged positions they hold within the society.
Many of Bouteflika’s supporters also remember that the long-time president helped to defeat a bloody civil war against Islamist insurgents in the 1990s. However, a new generation emerged with no connection with or trauma from the Algerian civil war – that lasted the entire decade of the 1990s. Today’s young Algerians are not afraid of questioning the ruling power and the failure to make the transition to a generation of new leaders to replace a ruling elite dominated by the military, businessmen and independence-era war veterans.
Key allies in the political elite, military, and the business community have been increasingly shifting towards the demonstrators’ positions. Despite the huge street opposition, the Algerian President is adamant that he will remain in power until a successor is elected, though no date set for the polls, and a new constitution is approved.
Fabiani articulated that the regime’s strategy is clear. Promising institutional reforms, mainly focused on the constitution, while extending Bouteflika’s term in the hope that the moderate pro-regime forces gradually distance themselves from the dissidents, and the protest movement loses support over time until it becomes smaller and radical. Then, at that point, the ruling party could single out such minority as “group of extremists” and further divide demonstrators.
In attempt to defuse public anger, Algeria’s newly-appointed Prime Minister, Noureddine Bedoui, vowed to form a transitional government, expected to include technocrats with no political affiliation and young people. Fears that the new cabinet would retain individuals belonging to the regime proved right last Sunday, when President Bouteflika decided that Ahmed Gaid Salah would remain deputy Defense minister. The street did not take long to react. Hundreds staged a protest in Algiers just hours after the new cabinet was presented
The difference the protest movement can make in sparking a real transition is to strive for a broad process with all types of groups participating, as opposed to including only the political parties and organizations that have long dominated Algerian politics.
Until now, the popular protests have been spontaneous and without leadership. The National Coordination for Change has now emerged out of the mass movement with some members of the opposition of different ideologies. However, so far, protesters have said that such opposition parties do not represent them. The big challenge in this crucial phase will be forming a structured range of organized groups that has the ability to formulate the demonstrators’ demands. The emerging national coordination should be sufficiently credible and effective in voicing these demands. In addition, pressure from the streets would have to continue and not allow for division or co-optation within the popular movement.
“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”, wrote the International Crisis Group’s Tunisia Senior Analyst Michaël Ayari in a Q&A.
Protesters insist on a clean break from the past. Time will tell whether they will manage to increase the momentum and put forth clear proposals that can be agreed upon by all the different actors in the Algerian society. That will ultimately determine their success in electing a new, politically capable leadership.