Mass anti-president protests in Algeria

No more Bouteflika!

Demonstrations against the controversial presidential candidacy of ailing Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika are snowballing into a mass nationwide protest movement. The end of his clan's regency is only a matter of time. Sofian Philip Naceur reports from Algeria

The spell is broken; Algeria's 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is teetering on the brink. Since mid-February, the country's predominantly youthful population has been demonstrating almost incessantly against the highly controversial candidacy of a man who has been head-of-state since 1999. The rallies have in the meantime set in motion an impetus that now appears unstoppable.

Even in the capital Algiers, where demonstrations have been effectively banned since 2001, protesters have been marching through the city centre on an almost daily basis with few measures being deployed to stop them.

On 15 February, several hundred people gathered in a number of locations, including the Berber province of Kabylei to the east of Algiers and several cities in eastern Algeria, to demonstrate against Bouteflika's fifth mandate. Around a week later several hundred thousand people followed the largely anonymous protest calls on social media and took to the streets across the nation to express their opposition to "Le Pouvoir" – "the Power", as the regime is also known here.

Since then, student organisations, lawyers, journalists and independent trade unions, but also the party political opposition and civil society groups such as the highly active youth association Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse (RAJ) are mobilising against the existing order and calling for a political fresh start.

Bouteflika's clan within the power apparatus has in the meantime responded to the wave of demonstrations, but continues to cling doggedly to what is formally the most powerful state office and has thus far consistently refused to listen to the key demands of the protest movement.

On 3 March 2019 Bouteflika, who has been in a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013, addressed the populace in a letter, in which he claimed he had "heard" the demonstrators. The letter also offered assurances that should he be re-elected on 18 April, he would call early elections within a year and not stand again.

Just a few hours later, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Skikda, Setif, Guelma, Constantine, Oran, Batna, Algiers and many other places across the country, chanting slogans late into the night against Bouteflika and his regime, seen as highly corrupt.

Just as in preceding weeks, Sunday's spontaneous protest marches remained markedly peaceful. Algeria's youth is currently showing, in impressive fashion, how an authoritarian system can be effectively put under pressure with defensive and non-violent tactics. And for days now it's been clear: in the face of these strategies, Bouteflika's resignation is just a question of time.

Algerian demonstrators march close to the Grande Poste in downtown Algiers (photo: Sofian Philip Naceur)
Modern authoritarianism: "Algeria lives, so to speak, under modern authoritarianism, which blends authoritarian and some democratic elements. I wouldn't say there is a dictatorship in Algeria – those days are over. The country lives under a rigid bureaucracy that is mentally still stuck in the 1970s," said political scientist Rachid Ouaissa of the University of Marburg in an interview with Deutsche Welle

In the large-scale demonstrations in Algiers on 1 March, one of the biggest protest gatherings marched from the Grande Poste in the heart of the capital up the Rue Didouche Mourad boulevard.

When riot police on the Place Audin blocked the protesters' route and fired tear gas into the crowd, demonstrators chanted the word "slimiya, slimiya" – "peaceful, peaceful" – and simply took a different route.

Demonstrators repeatedly gave flowers to members of the security forces – a disarming gesture that provided for a consistently relaxed atmosphere. Women and men, the young and the retired and even families with children marched up and down through the city centre for hours.

"We want to be able to finally breathe again," 49-year-old Nesrine tells Qantara.de as she walks along Rue Didouche Mourad. "I have two children aged 14 and 17. They've only ever known Bouteflika as president. It's time for that to change," says the woman from Bab El Oued, who works as a cleaner in an office building. She isn't afraid of what might happen in the wake of the protests. "People learn from history. The problems of the 1990s (when Algeria slid into a bloody civil war between radical Islamist groups and the army following the mass protests of 1988) won't return. There's no way we'll see a repeat of that," she says with conviction.

Opposition boycotts elections

There is no certainty over how things will pan out politically right now. In recent days, an increasing number of opposition parties have announced plans to boycott the presidential poll.

President Bouteflika votes in the 2017 parliamentary elections (photo: Reuters/Z. Bensemra)
Confined to a wheelchair since a stroke six years ago, Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been in office for almost 20 years. He has largely disappeared from the public eye. Recently Bouteflika had a letter read out on state television in which he announced that he was no longer aiming for a full term in office. If he is confirmed in office during the election, a "national conference" should set a date for an early election at which he will no longer stand. The president did not mention a timeframe. New elections would be scheduled within a year, the television station Ennahar quoted Bouteflika's campaign manager as saying

While the two Kabylei-based left-liberal parties – the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie (RCD) and the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) – made it clear weeks ago that they have no intention of taking part in an electoral farce of this kind, the Trotskyist Parti des Travailleurs (PT) led by Louisa Hanoune also announced its plans to boycott the poll at the weekend.

Several potential presidential candidates such as Bouteflika's former prime minister Ali Benflis, head of the conservative and moderate Islamist Mouvement de la Societe pour la Paix (MSP), Abderrazak Makri, as well as Abdelaziz Belaid have already withdrawn their candidacies.

This makes it seem all the more likely that the election will be postponed. No decision has been taken as yet. But in the face of the continuing mass mobilisation on the streets of the country, the presidential election can hardly be viewed as a practicable political solution. Even the ruling elites must be gradually coming to this realisation, even if Bouteflika's clan continues to cling to the forthcoming vote.

For Meriem Saidani, a senior member of the liberal opposition party Jil Jadid (New Generation), in all of this one thing is clear: "there can be no fifth mandate." In the meantime, at a debate organised by the youth association RAJ in downtown Algiers on 2 March, the head of Jil Jadid, Soufiane Djilali said the street must maintain its presence; the pressure must be kept up and hold its own against upcoming developments.

"When Algerians tore down a portrait of Bouteflika from a building in the heart of Algiers on 22 February, it symbolised the end of the regime," he tells Qantara.de. According to Djilali, the regime is already beating a retreat. However it's unclear whether this will happen quickly, or whether it will last several weeks. Now it's down to the opposition to set up "incontestable democratic mechanisms", he adds.

Sofian Philip Naceur

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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