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.

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