Algeria’s Protests after Bouteflika

Algeria’s military chief of staff’s recent call to remove ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika through constitutional means leaves the president’s clan exposed. The move comes after five weeks of mass protests by Algerians calling for the end of the country’s shadowy system of government. It signals the military’s willingness to sacrifice Bouteflika for the sake of preserving the power structure and system, which has ruled Algeria for decades. The move is dramatic, but for the protestors on the streets, it is not enough. Instead, the dramatic events of the last few weeks clearly prove that the protests are not about Bouteflika’s rule. The protests are about Algeria’s entire power structure.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Incapacitated by a stroke since 2013, President Bouteflika was expected to die in office. A state funeral and national mourning period would have highlighted his legacy: peace, security, and prosperity for Algeria after a decade of horrific violence in the 1990s. Then came the protests. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds on the street protested the president’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term despite his infirmity. It was too much for people, who had swallowed their pride and dignity after years of national trauma.

The regime blinked first, announcing that the president would not run for another term, but that he would remain in office to oversee a national conference that would rewrite the constitution and set a date for new elections. Instead of subsiding, the crowds grew larger. Students, teachers, professors, journalists, lawyers, judges, people of all ages marched peacefully despite a ban on public demonstrations in the capital. The slogan of “no fifth term” quickly turned to “bring down the system.”

By openly breaking with Bouteflika, the military has proved what most have assumed for decades: it remains the most powerful political force in the country. Its power had been obscured by its opaque coalition with the Bouteflika clan, the business elite, the security establishment, and senior political figures. The group of powerbrokers made policy decisions through consensus in order to maintain stability and prevent conflict. The military’s defection has burst apart that coalition, but this move is only the beginning.

The regime now faces two critical dilemmas. The first is how to make concessions without appearing like it is doing so out of weakness. A sense that the regime has lost its nerve would trigger more widespread protests, public sector strikes, disruption of services, and unrest. A minimally credible transition process will require talks with opposition figures, student leaders, and association representatives, and their participation in a dialogue with the regime that leads to new elections. The regime will try to steer this process in a way that produces another president who is committed to consensus policymaking. It is easier said than done. So far, no clear leadership has emerged among the protestors. Political parties are largely discredited, and anyone with ideological affiliations is seen as largely illegitimate by the crowds.

The second dilemma is for the regime to negotiate the extent of structural change internally, if any, that the key power groups are willing to accept. Algeria’s power brokers became comfortable with the boundaries that they had negotiated among themselves, and they had a sense of the privileges and resources they were able to distribute. The previous understandings have been shattered, calling into question both the balance between elite and non-elite power as well as the balance going forward within the elite. If the regime is sincere in recognizing that some structural change is necessary, it will have to find ways to address issues related to separation of powers, transparency, censorship, corruption, judicial independence, and the distribution of resources. Doing so could further disrupt the ruling coalition and risk intra-elite conflict.

Algeria’s organized opposition—political parties including socialists, Islamists, and other associations and unions that have opposed the ruling coalition—find themselves facing a different dilemma. Having operated on the margins for decades, they realize that protestors have shown no ideological preference and no faith in any organization or personality that tries to speak in the name of the people. Somehow, they must harness the energy of the protests so as to gain a seat at the table with the regime without undermining their credibility.

For the people, compromising with an unpopular system risks taking on the stain of regime illegitimacy that drew people into the streets in the first place. The people are taking center stage, but the next step is far from obvious. The masses in the streets must move beyond merely stating what they are against and start making clear what they are for.

Throwing out the old system is a great slogan, but it is inadequate to the challenge the country faces. It is unrealistic to expect the regime to dismantle itself. Each side has played its opening moves, but there will be more maneuvering. The immediate challenge for all sides in this phase is finding some overlap between the protestors’ minimum expectations and demands and the maximum decisionmakers are willing to concede. That space will shift with dynamics on the ground.

So far, Algeria’s people have demonstrated to themselves and the regime that they are no longer afraid to express their will. The fight over Bouteflika’s presidency is over. The next phase will be about trying to reshape the contours of Algeria’s power structure. Rebuilding it, or adapting it will take years, and Algeria is only at the beginning.

Haim Malka is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Haim Malka