Analysis

Algerians Won the Battle Against Bouteflika. But They May Yet Lose the War

Whether the end of President Bouteflika's reign will also mean an end to his method of governing and the power of the elites remains to be seen

Students protest against Algerian President Bouteflika's decision to delay elections, Algiers, March 12, 2019.
Toufik Doudou,AP

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika had two major news announcements for his country’s citizens on Monday: He will not run for president in the next election, scheduled for April – but, at least for now, no election will be held either. It would seem as though the huge protests that started last month, in which thousands demanded that Bouteflika not run again, were a success.

Some have already crowned the president’s announcement another successful round of the Arab Spring, eight years after it broke out in Tunisia. But the move leaves a few unanswered questions that are likely to keep fueling the protests.

The celebratory honking, flag-waving and singing in the streets could all be soon replaced by a new wave of protests and demonstrations in which the public will demand to know when the next election will be held and whether Bouteflika plans on taking advantage of the entire period before the vote to remain president.

Bouteflika promised to hold a national dialogue on changing the constitution and carrying out economic reforms to provide more jobs and reduce inequality. But there is fear that the postponement of the election will drive Algeria into a period of economic stagnation and strengthen the elites. These elites have already begun to close their ranks to guarantee that the next president – whoever he may be – will protect the privileges they have enjoyed for the 20 years Bouteflika has been in office.

As long as Bouteflika remains president, these political elites – who are concentrated in the ruling National Liberation Front party, along with the financial elite close to the president – can still determine the character of the reforms they will be willing to accept, and shape the constitutional changes.

That is why the main question is whether the end of Bouteflika’s reign will also mean an end to his method of governing and to the power of the elites? Or will the same system continue, with only a change of personnel?

Part of the answer lies with the military, which has traditionally decided who runs the government in Algeria and how. Over the years, relations between Bouteflika and the commanders of the military were characterized by cooperation, but also by suspicion and threats.

Bouteflika kept files of potentially damaging information on the heads of the military and intelligence services – many of whom took part in the brutal war of independence against France. Revealing these secrets could very well lead to a public outcry and demands to put some of these commanders on trial for war crimes. Others could be tried for illegal acts carried out during the civil war that broke out after the 1991 election was canceled by the government. But the military and financial elites also have enough material on Boutflika, who fled the country after he was suspected of a huge fraud and returned only after 16 years in Switzerland.

With the civil uprising, the military understood that the excessive use of force could lead the country into chaos. It’s clear that there is a fragile balance of power between the army and political and economic elites on one side, and the people behind the civil uprising on the other. Maintaining that balance will require both sides to reach understandings that will allow each to declare victory.

Algeria’s advantage over Egypt, Tunisia and certainly Libya and Yemen is that there are established opposition parties with local leadership rather than just an ad hoc protest movement led by unknown young people as in other Arab countries. This structure can provide organized political action. Provided the regime sets a date for the next election quickly, these movements can begin preparations to run. The longer the election is delayed, the more likely it is that radical groups, especially Islamic ones, will join the protest movements, and dictate the ideological agenda as well as the operational strategy.

Such developments could also determine the army’s position toward the protests. While the security forces have acted with relative restraint until now – even declaring that the military and public see eye to eye on the future of the country – that could change. If the demonstrations turn into an ideological protest, the military might adopt a much harsher approach that could spark violent confrontations.

The scenarios now depend on the actions of Bouteflika, who is old and unwell, and his closest advisers. One could expect that, at 82, he would be pondering his legacy and the nature of the country whose freedom he fought for. Bouteflika was not a great example of a democratic leader; he relied on unelected officials and the military, and blocked the development of any outstanding leaders within his party.

At the same time, he was a leader who was able to end the civil war, in which some 200,000 people were killed, and spawn a national reconciliation.

We can attribute his decision to withdraw from the presidential race and postpone the election to his clear-headed perspective, which enabled him to realize that the public was unwilling to accept a fifth term under his rule – and not only because of his medical state.