Algeria erupted in celebration when Abdelaziz Bouteflika changed course and announced that he would not run for President. He has led Algeria for 20 years but the announcement that he would run for a fifth term sparked mass protests across the country that forced him to drop his candidacy. Judges refused to oversee the elections if Bouteflika was a candidate deciding not to act “against the will of the people”. Other powerful groups in the country such as the military and powerful clerics coming out against the regime and indicating that they supported the protestors was important in demonstrating that his time was up. However, there is a cause for caution. The decision not to run was announced alongside a decision to postpone the elections. So now although Bouteflika is “history now” according to a senior party official, he remains in power with no date set for when he might be replaced. This has led to a new protestor’s slogan:“We wanted elections without Bouteflika, we were given Bouteflika without elections.”It is unclear where Algeria goes next.
Image Courtesy of عصام بختي via flickr © 2019, some rights reserved
The Algerian regime led by Bouteflika survived the Arab Spring in 2011 but the regime was far from strong or stable then as much as it is not now. Interestingly, Algeria was actually thought of as being more unstable compared to Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt in the years leading up to the revolutions. Those three countries would all see regime change and upheaval as a result of the protests in 2011. The Algerian government was quick to provide economic incentives and tentative political reforms to placate the protestors and make sure there was no powerful calls for a regime change. Not enough has changed since then, the economy remains stagnate while a perception of a corrupt elite is pervasive amongst the people. The reforms that were so successful in 2011 were just a short-term fix. The regime and Bouteflika in particular is now paying for its failure to provide significant transformative reform.
The president’s expected departure is a welcome sign of future progress for Algeria. Yet, there are fears that Bouteflika is merely the tip of a murky corrupt iceberg made up of politicians from the National Liberation Front (FLN), businessmen that control key industries as well as figures from the military. It is unlikely that these groups would give up their influence without a fight. There have been recent attempts to go after corruption in Algeria before but these have been unsuccessful while the status quo has prevailed. This is exemplified by Ahmed Ouyahia, the Prime Minister and staunch supporter of Bouteflika, who was forced to resign in the past week. Ouyahia has held the position of Prime Minister on four separate occasions since 1995 and so his departure from government is considered as a well-known sight. His latest return was in 2017 after his predecessor Abdelmadjid Tebboune made too many enemies going after the corrupt oligarchs that characterise Bouteflika’s regime. This is just one example of how the system can self-correct. Bouteflika’s departure gives hope that the regime is running out of avenues, but it remains to be seen whether these oligarchs can be defeated or if they will continue to wield undue influence over Algerian politics, just with a new figurehead.
One of the biggest issues facing Algeria is the lack of an obvious successor. This has played a big factor in Bouteflika being able to stay in power for so long, despite his ill-health. The opposition are divided, and they lack a viable candidate to rally around and offer up as an alternative. Nevertheless, the current system is also not conducive to the establishment of alternatives. When Tebboune took his stance against corruption and against the oligarchs, it was thought that “he threatened to become very popular – too popular for the regime.” It is difficult to see how reform can come about when the system is so adept at survival.
It has a nice symmetry that since Bouteflika failed to register his candidacy in person that the statement announcing that “there will be no fifth term” was read out by someone else in his name. To what extent Bouteflika has been running the country, considering his physical condition, regular trips abroad for medical attention, and public silence since 2014 is not clear. To ensure that Bouteflika’s departure leads to real change, the lens must now be placed on his power base as a whole. Regime changes are not always the cure-all solution as many hope them to be. Especially if the regime merely returns in a new guise. Ones do not have to look very far beyond Algeria’s borders to see the uncertainty and chaos that come with a leader’s departure. It remains to be seen how different an Algeria without Bouteflika might look, if at all. The only thing guaranteed at this point is uncertainty. Bouteflika’s departure is a significant and positive development but this is merely the first step down a long road towards a democratic and prosperous Algeria.
Algeria protests: Judges refuse to oversee poll, BBC, 11/03/19, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-47528292
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika drops bid for fifth term, BBC, 11/03/19 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-47531917
Algeria’s President Bouteflika is going – but that’s not enough for protesters, BBC, 18/03/2019 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-47585732
How does reclusive President Bouteflika run Algeria, by Rana Jawad, BBC, 06/03/19, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-47456114
Return of ‘My Dirty Work’ spurs questions in Algeria, by Djamila Ould Khettab, Al Jazeera, 12/09/17, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/09/return-dirty-work-spurs-questions-algeria-170910072159915.html
Banner photo: Image Courtesy of thierry hermann via flickr © 2011, some rights reserved