Time's up, Bouteflika!
"I am all of Algeria. I am the incarnation of the Algerian people." It is the summer of 1999, and the newly-elected Abdelaziz Bouteflika is talking to French journalists, a complacent smile on his face. Such a statement should have sounded alarm bells with the Algerians, but after the long civil war with around 200 thousand dead, the populace was too traumatised and exhausted to put the megalomaniacal President in his place.
The generals' state propaganda presents him as a Messiah bringing peace, a solution with no viable alternatives. As a result he is hailed as a saviour, with thousands thronging to cheer him on at every public appearance.
Almost 20 years and four presidential terms later, millions of Algerians are taking to the streets weekend upon weekend. Even in the smaller villages, people are gathering in huge numbers to chant slogans such as: "Bouteflika, sod off!", "You'll not stay in office for one minute more, oh Bouteflika", and a phrase heard during the Arab Spring "The people want the fall of the regime". The demonstrators, most of whom are young people who have never known any other head of state, have finally had enough of the erstwhile redeemer. The contrast could not be greater!
Even during his first term in office, the voices that warned against Bouteflika as a scheming and vengeful impostor grew ever louder. More people became aware of his bad reputation from the first half of his life: after the death of President Houari Boumedienne, whom he served for many years as foreign minister, and facing trial for embezzling 60 million Swiss francs from Algeria's foreign embassy budget, Bouteflika fled to Switzerland in 1981.
President Bouteflika had nothing to fear. By the time these revelations came to light, he was already firmly ensconced in power. Protests within the general population, such as the "Black Spring" in the Kabylie region (more than 100 dead and 5,000 injured), were brutally crushed on his orders. Within the regime itself, he played the various clans off against each other, thereby consolidating his own kleptocratic power base.
High oil and gas revenues bought him support everywhere: within the army, the intelligence service, with other parties and in the media. Transparency International listed Algeria as one of the world's most corrupt nations. Although it was one of the world's richest countries, it was failing to fulfil its potential across the board. The populace groaned under the weight of the ailing health system, poor education and high unemployment rates.
Hardly surprising then, that when Bouteflika altered the constitution in 2008 to allow himself to remain in power for more than two terms, there was little resistance. When he had himself re-elected with more than 90 % of the vote the following year, it became apparent that he was striving for a life-long presidency that would only end with a state funeral.
Many hoped that day wouldn't be long in coming. Then in 2005, rumours began circulating that the President was suffering from colon cancer. But Bouteflika appeared to be astonishingly resilient.
On 8 May 2012, Bouteflika addressed his compatriots for the last time. Using flowery language, he said that the time had come for his generation to cede power and that the youth should steer the course of the country. Hopes for a peaceful power handover arose and were bitterly dashed yet again.
Although confined to a wheelchair and more or less unable to speak or move since suffering a stroke in 2013, Bouteflika had himself confirmed in office a year later. The state apparatus conducted the election campaign on his behalf. From this moment on, his own presence was restricted to a large portrait showing the old man in better times and representing him at official events – a major humiliation for the 40 million Algerians.
To appease the first signs of any discontent within the populace, the regime pledged a new constitution, one that could hold its own with the world's most democratic constitutions. Far-reaching political, economic and social reforms were to be hammered out by a national conference. But Bouteflika remained true to form and broke his promise yet again.
Although Bouteflika was evidently weakened, his clan – a band of politicians and businessmen most of whom hail from the Algerian-Moroccan border region – succeeded in gaining the upper hand in a power struggle that had been smouldering for years. Counting on the support of the Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, appointed to his role by Bouteflika himself, they dismissed the notoriously omnipotent intelligence service chief Mohamed Mediene in 2014 and sidelined his allies within the state apparatus and commerce.
Unexpected glimmer of hope
The constitution was indeed amended in 2016. But instead of the promised democratisation, the powers of the President were extended. Frustration began to set in among his opponents.
Bouteflika's clan felt so secure that it forced his candidacy for a fifth term. Critics were detained; there were attempts to keep the populace in check through references to the civil wars in Syria and Libya and the nation's own civil war in the 1990s. But it is on this decisive point that the rulers misjudged the people.
Since 22 February 2019 – even in the capital Algiers where public assembly is prohibited – hundreds of thousands of people have joined protests nationwide, demanding the withdrawal of Bouteflika's candidacy. When the regime dug in its heels and threatened civil war, some 20 million people demonstrated against the decision and called for the dismissal of the entire regime on the two days following.
The demonstrations are very well-organised and pass off peacefully. The atmosphere is like that of a carnival. All population groups march side by side, holding placards aloft with slogans associated with movements to which the government otherwise ascribes irreconcilable hostility.
In view of this harmony and the unprecedented masses involved, the regime has attempted to manoeuvre and play for time. Beginning with the withdrawal of Bouteflika's candidacy, via the promise to hold a vote on a new constitution, right through to the announcement that the possibility of Bouteflika's constitutional removal would be looked into, all of the regime's manoeuvres have been met with collective rejection.
The protest movement even refuses to name leaders to negotiate with the regime, because they do not view it as a viable partner.
Algeria is surprising the world with a very switched-on and self-assured civil society that has learnt from its own experiences and those of other Arab nations. And these experiences show that the old-established regimes cannot be trusted. Only once the current system has been disempowered, are Algerians planning to appoint a number of figures known for their integrity to lead the transitional phase, during which a second republic will be founded, one that will at last be democratic. Thus far, this strategy would appear to be paying off astonishingly well.
© Qantara.de 2013
Translated from the German by Nina Coon