But who will replace Bouteflika?
In a massive concession after weeks of protests, Algeria’s ailing, long-time authoritarian leader — who has rarely been seen in public for years — won’t run for a fifth term as president.
On Monday, the 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has led Algeria since 1999 despite having a stroke in 2013 that left him paralyzed and basically mute, put out a statement to quell the concerns of thousands of demonstrators.
“There will be no fifth term,” Bouteflika said. “There was never any question of it for me. Given my state of health and age, my last duty towards the Algerian people was always contributing to the foundation of a new Republic.”
It’s quite the reversal, as just last week Algeria’s leadership officially announced that Bouteflika would compete in April’s elections. Now those elections are postponed until officials can organize a new vote.
But Bouteflika’s decision makes some sense. His health is so precarious and mysterious that a top official recently had to announce that the president is, in fact, alive, and he hasn’t made a public speech in seven years. On top of that, more than 1,000 judges said on Monday they wouldn’t help oversee the election if he were a candidate.
Still, this is a big defeat for the elites in Bouteflika’s regime, known as “the pouvoir” (the power). Made up of military and civilian leaders, they wanted Bouteflika nominally in charge so they could maintain their privileged positions, experts say.
That’s what greatly angered tens of thousands of Algerians, especially young people, who since February 22 have taken to the streets in various cities — including the capital, Algiers, where protests are legally forbidden — to demonstrate. Chanting slogans like “Bouteflika: get out!” the protesters shocked the country’s elites.
“The youth today don’t want a fifth term,” Omar Belhouchet, the editor of Algeria’s independent El Watan newspaper, told the New York Times in a telephone interview from Algiers. Now they won’t get one.
The remaining question is whom the regime will name to replace Bouteflika. That’s unclear, and there could potentially be a power struggle to succeed him.
If that’s the case, violence could once again erupt in Africa’s largest nation — the same one that had a bloody civil war only three decades ago.
Why Algeria’s elites still want Bouteflika in charge
Algeria’s horrific civil war, fought in the 1990s between the government and Islamist insurgents over a disputed election, was marked by torture, terrorist attacks, and other atrocities, and led to more than 200,000 deaths. And it still weighs heavily on the minds of many Algerians, leading many to prefer stability over anything that could potentially reignite violence, experts say.
That, in part, has helped Bouteflika remain in power. He’s widely credited for helping his country curb the violence and bounce back economically after he took charge in 1999, lending him extra leeway from the populace.
But his rule hasn’t exactly been completely beneficent. His government continues to deny citizens many basic freedoms, including freedom of speech. According to Human Rights Watch, Algerians can still be imprisoned for “offending the president,” “insulting state officials,” or “denigrating Islam.”
Bouteflika’s coterie, though, has gained tremendous power and wealth during the authoritarian’s rule. After his 2013 stroke, elites in the political, military, and business communities helped run the country in Bouteflika’s name — not only to maintain their authority but also because there is no consensus successor, experts say.
That explains why, even in the face of protests, the elites last week said Bouteflika would run for a fifth term. But they offered an olive branch: Should he win, as he was widely expected to given the elections weren’t considered free or fair, Bouteflika would call early elections and not participate in them. The problem is that the regime didn’t offer a specific date for that possible vote, and it was unclear if the elites would follow through on their promise.
That move didn’t address the concerns of the thousands calling for change. “We don’t want him to stay even an extra second,” Abderahman, a 21-year-old student, told France24 on Tuesday. “He should leave now.”
Why Algerians wanted Bouteflika out
Public demonstrations against the government are extremely rare in Algeria, partly because of the regime’s brutal rule. But there are two main reasons why that has dramatically changed all of a sudden, experts say.
ALGERIA: Students protest in Algiers over ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s candidacy.
Bouteflika, who was incapacitated by a stroke in 2013, is running for a fifth term in April pic.twitter.com/z7T1f82UkD
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) March 5, 2019
First, the economy is in trouble. Algeria has relied greatly on high oil prices to fill the country’s coffers. But now that prices are sinking, the nation is potentially on course for an economic disaster. Some 70 percent of Algeria’s population is 30 years old or younger — which means their job prospects literally rise and fall with the price of oil.
Second, and more important, the population is angered that elites want an incapacitated Bouteflika to lead them again. “Putting Bouteflika in charge is insulting to everyday Algerians,” George Joffe, an Algeria expert who retired from the University of Cambridge, told me last week. Protesters feel “simple disgust with the way in which the political system has been manipulated.”
Protesters are also tired of having unknown and unseen forces run the country behind the scenes while using Bouteflika as a puppet. “I can’t really know who’s ruling our country, and that’s the problem,” one told the BBC World Service last Thursday.
That means something had to change for the situation to improve. Experts said the regime’s best chance to survive was to announce that someone else would run in Bouteflika’s place. They’ve now partially taken that step — but without announcing who will replace him. Which means that the tense situation in Algeria isn’t over quite yet.