Thousands of Algerians flooded the streets across the country again this Friday in a “Million Man” march. Demonstrations first erupted last weekend, though state media only acknowledged the events on Tuesday.
Citizens have mobilized in response to the news that ruling president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is running for yet another term in April’s elections. The mostly young and male protesters have been yelling pro-democracy chants and slogans such as “Leave Means Leave,” “No Fifth Term” and “No Bouteflika, No Said” in reference to the president’s brother. Some have even called for the downfall of the regime. Students, lawyers, and journalists have also joined in.
Riot police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets to discourage demonstrators from reaching central areas in the capital of Algiers. The government even shut down wireless data networks to prevent mobilization through social media. Journalists have also been detained and demonstrators arrested for vandalism and disturbance of public order.
In a meeting of parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia blamed outside “manipulation” for instigating demonstrations, warning further unrest may turn Algeria into another Syria. More protests are scheduled for Sunday.
A president hidden from the public eye
On Feb. 10, Bouteflika announced via the state news agency that he would seek a fifth presidential term. In the letter, he justified his candidacy by claiming voices across society “once again appeal that I continue with my mission in the service of the country.”
The announcement did not come as a surprise, though for months there has been speculation. Having joined the revolutionary movement against France in the 1950s, Bouteflika has maintained a consistent presence in Algerian politics. He currently leads the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which has ruled Algeria since independence in 1962. President since 1999, Bouteflika amended the constitution to keep his position for multiple terms. However, since a 2013 stroke, the almost 82 years-old president has been confined to a wheelchair and rarely makes public appearances.
There is little doubt that Bouteflika will win again if he does end up running, as he faces no viable competition. Opposition parties have been unable to unite behind a single candidate. Despite a facade of political pluralism, with almost 70 parties competing in the most recent parliamentary elections, the FLN and its alliance have continued to dominate both polls and policymaking.
A former prime minister of Bouteflika and his most prominent opponent, Ali Benflis, has declared support for the protesters and announced his intention to challenge Bouteflika a third time, following unsuccessful attempts in 2004 and 2014. Benflis may allege electoral fraud once again. It is unlikely, however, to make a dent in the status quo distribution of power, which many believe is necessary for maintaining stability and security in Algeria.
Déjà vu of 2014, or a new era?
Given Bouteflika’s ailing health, who runs Algeria? Le pouvoir, an exclusive club of influential generals, politicians and business executives, make all important decisions, including who gets to occupy the presidency. Because these players of the game cannot agree on a successor, they prefer to let an elderly man in frail health continue as head of state.
Protesters previously mobilized across the country in 2014, when Bouteflika was running for his fourth term. Though his health was already too fragile to campaign for himself, Bouteflika achieved more than 80 percent of votes.
Unlike his counterparts in Tunisia and Libya, Bouteflika also survived the Arab uprisings that swept through the region in 2011. This is in large part because memories of the decade-long civil war remain vivid for Algerians. The conflict that took 200,000 lives was triggered by the first competitive multiparty election held in Algeria in 1991. In the contest, the oppositional Islamist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) was anticipated to achieve power. But the ensuing strife ended ultimately in a return to fully consolidated authoritarianism.
The war was also extremely costly for Algeria’s military, and presumably the generals want to avoid another catastrophe. In addition, even if the protests continue, the army will have no justification to step in as they did before, since the Islamists have mostly been co-opted by the regime.
The possibility of change
Half of the Algerian population today is under age 28. Though they have only known one president, these youth also have relatively few memories of the bloody civil war that traumatized older generations. Consequently, they may be more insistent on sustaining their demands for democratic change.
In his letter, Bouteflika declared his support of a national consensus aimed at improving “people power.” He could help achieve this by stepping down peacefully before he is removed by either elite or popular mobilization.
There are a few potential replacements for Bouteflika aligned with the ruling elite. It has long been suspected that Said, Bouteflika’s brother, has been running the country in place of the ailing president. Ali Haddad, one of Algeria’s most prominent business executives, is also rumored to have political ambitions. Another possible contender is Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.
Whether they choose one of the aforementioned three or a less prominent figure, the ruling coalition may come to resolve their disagreements and decide to support a new leader. In this case, the regime would demonstrate a degree of responsiveness to the people. A new leader may introduce the reforms necessary to resolve Algeria’s economic malaise. This arrangement would also preserve le pouvoir.
The Algerian army may choose to return to the barracks in the face of further popular unrest rather than help to repress protests. In addition, if oil prices fall again, the petrostate will lack resources to address the economic challenges driving much of the unrest.
Continued demonstrations could contribute to greater mobilization throughout the region. While the downfall of the regime has not been prominent among protesters’ demands, Algerians have made clear that they do not want another regime puppet in place of Bouteflika.
Caroline Abadeer is a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University. Yuree Noh is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.