In any other country, the news that peaceful demonstrations had forced the incumbent president to drop his unpopular re-election bid would have been a startling announcement. But given Algeria’s political system, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s move to withdraw his candidacy for a fifth presidential term and postpone April’s elections, made public on Monday, was welcomed by protesters as only a good start.
Amid a growing protest movement, Algerians are being cautious about Bouteflika’s announcement because of what they call le pouvoir—the shadowy “power” that rules Algeria, made up of an assortment of aging army generals, secret service operatives and party apparatchiks. For decades, they have wielded control from behind the scenes, choosing presidential candidates, rigging elections, dividing opposition movements and using repression when needed. Every important decision is taken behind closed doors. In a way, no one really knows who rules Algeria.
When it became independent in 1962 after its violent war of liberation from France, Algeria erupted onto the world stage as a symbol of post-colonial independence. Its guerrilla war against the larger French army was a case study in armed resistance. If Algeria was able to fight off its formidable adversary and win its independence, then anything seemed possible. For other liberation movements, a visit to Algiers to win the support of Algeria’s leadership almost became a rite of passage.
Yet the liberators of Algeria replaced colonialism with authoritarianism. Under the legitimacy of the National Liberation Front, or FLN, which had led the fight against the French, Algeria became a one-party state. Through coups and counter-coups, the elimination of internal opposition, a brutal civil war in the 1990s and the regular simulation of tightly controlled elections, an opaque system of rule has survived for almost 60 years. The fact that the regime has dropped Bouteflika’s candidacy is not a sign of reform, but an attempt at survival.
The widespread public opposition to a fifth presidential term by the 82-year-old Bouteflika, whose health has clearly been deteriorating for several years, triggered a flurry of reactions from members of the ruling regime and its supporters. Some were close to cartoonish. Speaking on a television program last week, Algeria’s ambassador to France, Abdelkader Mesdoua, dismissed questions about the president’s health by noting that he was, in fact, alive. “I say it all in certitude: Abdelaziz Bouteflika is alive.” Other reactions were stark reminders of the generals’ ability to unleash havoc. In early March, as the protests gained momentum on the streets of Algiers, the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gaed Salah, said that the military would keep order, warning that “there are some parties who want Algeria to return to the era of extreme pain.”
This pain, which Algeria’s generals have recalled every time their rule has been questioned in the past few decades, also came after a time of crisis. When Algerians rioted against high prices and unemployment in October 1988, the brutal response by security forces killed some 500 people. Following that tragedy, the regime was forced to hold contested elections. But once it became clear that an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, was about to win, the generals canceled the elections and took over in January 1992. The ensuing backlash sparked a civil war that lasted throughout the 1990s, killing perhaps as many as 200,000 Algerians and ripping the country apart. Ever since, Algeria’s rulers have used the legacy of this “dark decade” to scare potential demonstrators from the streets.
Algerians seem to have finally had enough. During the last presidential elections, held in 2014, state television showed Bouteflika slowly being pushed in his wheelchair close to the ballot box to cast his vote, presumably for himself. It was a perfect image of Algeria’s state of affairs: an archaic regime that had become too frail to adequately manage the theater of another mock election.
And yet, by attempting to push an obviously ailing Bouteflika through for a fifth presidential term, even after popular discontent against it had become clear, Algeria’s leaders have revealed two important things about their murky regime. The first is that the various factions that wield power were unable to map a path forward by choosing a successor to Bouteflika. The second, already evident to most Algerians, is that the country’s septuagenarian and octogenarian rulers have no understanding of the people they supposedly rule.
Algerians are unlikely to accept a transition to democracy handled by the same people that have for so long usurped it.
The miscalculation has forced the regime to offer concessions. But those are unlikely to quell discontent. On Monday evening, after Bouteflika withdrew his candidacy, Algerians were back on the streets. They were partly celebrating, and partly demanding that their president step down immediately.
The regime has a lot of experience with shutting down dissent. It has done so by repressing protesters and using riot police to close off public spaces. More recently, during the 2011 uprisings that brought down dictators in neighboring Tunisia and Libya, and beyond that in Egypt, Algeria was able to navigate its own wave of unrest. It raised public wages and eased access to cheap loans. But lower revenues from its oil and gas exports and a resistance to foreign borrowing have pushed Algeria to live off its financial cushion. Foreign exchange reserves, at $177 billion in 2014, are expected to reach $67 billion by the end of 2019, according to figures from Bloomberg. This is still a comfortable level of reserves, but the reduction has been stark. The regime has much less room to maneuver. So far, the authorities have refrained from violent repression. But what will the army do if protests continue?
One man who knows all about the regime’s way of dealing with dissent is Salah-Eddine Sidhoum, an orthopedic surgeon and opposition leader. In 1995, after denouncing human rights abuses and summary executions by the state, he became the target of a government death squad. He escaped and lived for years in hiding. In 2003, he was detained for several weeks at the notorious Serkadji Prison in Algiers, but domestic and international pressure forced the government to release him.
In an interview over the phone from Algiers, Sidhoum was adamant that the current demonstrations were never about Bouteflika, but about bringing down the dictatorship as a whole. “The regime is weak,” he told me. “What we need is to establish a transition period, with a technocratic government, and elect a constituent assembly.” Seeing the Algerian people filling the streets with flags, he said, reminded him of the celebrations that followed independence from France. He was 13 at the time.
In the statement attributed to him in which he stepped aside, Bouteflika mentioned that an independent commission would make constitutional changes and submit a new constitution to a national referendum. New presidential elections are also supposed to be scheduled, though no date has been set.
Algerians have heard all of this before. They are unlikely to accept a transition to democracy that is handled by the same people that have for so long usurped it. By co-opting opposition parties, the regime established a veneer of parliamentary politics to rubber stamp decisions taken elsewhere, keeping a firm hand on the country’s fate. It is this system that Algerians are trying to take down. To them, keeping Bouteflika from a fifth presidential term was just the beginning.
It is unlikely that the army and the ruling oligarchy will volunteer to step aside. For decades, they have controlled Algeria’s rich oil and gas revenues without any oversight or accountability. But as popular discontent grows, le pouvoir has few palatable options.