Analysis

Algeria’s President for 20 Years Is Going, but Not the System That Enabled His Rule

It may seem that an era is ending with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, but the protesters have to oust the military leaders, too

A crowd celebrating in Algiers after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned after 20 years in power,  April 2, 2019.
Toufik Doudou / AP

“The game is over,” announced a red sign carried by protesters alongside the honking cars near Algiers' main post office. On Tuesday, after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his resignation from the office he has held for 20 years, it really seemed as if an era in the country’s history had ended – or at least that’s how the Algerian and Western media portrayed it.

Bouteflika, sitting hunched over in his wheelchair and wearing a traditional robe, gave his farewell speech the next day; he asked for forgiveness for any injustice he may have caused and expressed a hope that a new government would lead the country toward “horizons of progress and prosperity.”

This isn’t how he had planned to end his long tenure. Only two weeks ago he still intended to run for a fifth term, but the mass demonstrations that broke out in mid-February made clear that his political journey was nearing its end.

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At first, he didn’t announce his candidacy for another term, but he refused to resign and proposed that the April 18 election be postponed until a new council could be established to lead a national dialogue on a new constitution. And he didn’t set a date for either his resignation or an election.

As the protest movement swelled, Bouteflika announced he would resign by the end of his term, April 28. But this declaration didn’t satisfy the protesters, who demanded not only his immediate resignation but the ouster of the entire regime.

At this stage, the army chief and deputy defense minister, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah – a close confidant appointed by Bouteflika – intervened and demanded that the Council of the Nation (the upper house of parliament) immediately apply Article 102 of the constitution. This section states that if the president cannot carry out his duties, the head of the Council of the Nation will stand in for the president and hold an election within 90 days of the day the president leaves office.

Thus the upper house quickly declared Bouteflika unable to carry out his duties and the head of the upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, became the interim president. Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui will run the country on a day-to-day basis, under Bensalah’s supervision, until the election is held.

But it’s better to wait before praising the people’s victory that brought down Bouteflika, the fifth president to fall since the Arab Spring began in 2011. The way Bouteflika was ousted makes very clear that the Algerian “system” and the country’s traditional power centers are alive and well.

According to Algerian media reports, army chief Salah rushed to remove the president after Bouteflika announced his intention to make a number of important decisions before he resigned.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, presents his resignation on television, April 2, 2019.
ENTV via AP

Salah assumed that Boutefllika planned to carry out another purge of the army and intelligence service, which would include him this time. Salah also knew that the former head of the Algerian intelligence service, Gen. Mohamed Mediene, who is better known as General Toufik, had offered former President Liamine Zeroual the job of heading the transitional government that will prepare the country for the election.

It was clear to Salah that the 80-year-old Toufik, who was retired by Bouteflika after heading Algeria's infamous intelligence service for 25 years, sought to exploit the opportunity to return to the country’s strongest power center – with Zeroual’s help. Zeroual and Toufik were close confidants from the 1991-2002 civil war against Islamic groups in which over 200,000 people were killed.

Salah, 79, is the last of the top military commanders who took part in the War of Independence against the French from 1954 to 1962, and he couldn’t let Toufik's scheme come to fruition; it would threaten Salah’s ability to continue running the country. The “system” must go on, even if it has to suffer a few tweaks to satisfy the public.

In this system, Salah doesn’t intend to be the president or prime minister. In fact, his power puts him above them, à la Turkey’s military before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan removed the military from politics during his first decade in office.

Bouteflika’s rise

But the army isn’t the only senior partner in running the country. The heads of the intelligence service, the leaders of the ruling party, the wealthy elites and senior government officials set both domestic and foreign policy. The protesters want to overthrow all the above.

But throughout his presidency, Bouteflika made sure to trample all his political rivals. He began as minister of tourism and sports at age 25 and was later foreign minister. He hoped to succeed Houari Boumedienne as president but was blocked in the ‘70s by the army and couldn’t advance to the top leadership.

His years of exile in Switzerland and Abu Dhabi, where he spent six years after being accused of corruption, didn’t blunt his desire for revenge against those who blocked him from the presidency. When he was elected president in 1999, he began a series of purges that reached their peak with the ousting of Toufik.

Bouteflika’s reign is known as “supervised democracy,” during which the media suffered strict censorship, and elections were rigged. Meanwhile, political rivals were imprisoned, independent unions were thwarted and the chances of an alternative leadership emerging were nonexistent under the iron fist of the military, intelligence service and other elites.

Bouteflika also knew how to use the great wealth the state accumulated in the early 2000s when oil prices climbed and boosted the country’s foreign reserves into the hundreds of billions of dollars. When the Arab Spring revolutions broke out in 2011, he lowered prices, raised wages and wasted tens of billions of dollars on development plans and subsidies, a step that emptied the government’s coffers – during the years when oil prices were plummeting. Even then he bought quiet with cash, and the corrupt and brutal regime easily avoided the threat of a civil uprising.

Protesters carrying national flags in an anti-government demonstration, Algiers, April 5, 2019.
Ryad Kramdi / AFP

As a result, the country has no alternative leader or party that can sweep the people along. The protest movements, meanwhile, haven’t been able to build a leadership that could offer a different system and win the public’s trust.

This is where the advantages of the older political parties lie, such as Bouteflika’s ruling National Liberation Front and its partner, the National Rally for Democracy. These parties enjoy the support of the army and the economic elites, who will fight to preserve the political “system” that has made them so much money.

This is exactly what the protesters fear – and they haven’t halted their protests even after Bouteflika announced his resignation. They plan to turn out for mass demonstrations next week, too.

They don’t believe the speaker of the upper house, who is now the interim president, and not Salah either, who has promised he supports the protesters’ demands and considers them representatives of the public. They’ve heard similar declarations before, but they’ve seen that the changes at the top haven’t changed anything important. And when the system doesn’t change, the repression of civil rights continues, freedom of expression remains limited and the economy, which once flourished, remains in a recession.

Shades of Sissi

The protesters are demanding the ouster of Salah and other senior military leaders, new elections with foreign observers, and an amended constitution. Without these changes, after the election Algeria is likely to return to the same old system à la the Egypt of Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, where a democracy seems to exist, though actually the president stays in power using the military and security services.

These are far-reaching demands given Algeria’s political reality, but the protesters aren’t willing to give in. The question is how long can the street protests continue, and for how long can their leaders recruit more supporters and force the army to accept their demands. The problem is that the Algerian protests have arisen after the international community has learned the lessons of the Arab Spring, which produced chaos in countries such as Libya, Yemen and Syria. It uprooted the foundations of Western influence in those countries.

This lesson has caused European countries, especially France, to show restraint toward the Algerian regime and not broadly support the protest movement. “We are confident in the ability of all Algerians to pursue this democratic transition in the same spirit of calm and responsibility,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said nonchalantly on Tuesday after the announcement of Bouteflika’s resignation.

Calm isn’t what characterizes the protests at the moment, but France is wary about expressing an opinion publicly out of fear that any statement will be interpreted in Algeria as intervention for one side or another – and from here the road to protesting against France, Algeria’s former colonial master, is short.

France and the other EU countries, responsible for over half of Algeria’s exports – mostly oil, natural gas and phosphates – have a reason to worry. About 14 percent of all France’s immigrants are of Algerian origin, and France is worried that if the protests deteriorate into a kind of civil war, it could unleash an immigration wave and lead to violent protests in France, too.

The French’s fears, along with the coolness of the British and Germans, have made clear to the protesters not to expect much support from European countries. Europe and the United States won’t ostracize the leaders of the old political system, who have served their interests.

The main question is whether the protest movement can agree on a leader before the upcoming election, one not dependent on the old parties. Otherwise, the protest movement will meet the same fate as the one in Egypt, where it was swallowed up without being able to effect change.