Will Protests Lead to an Algerian “Spring”?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

April 9, 2019

Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria for the last twenty years, has resigned in the face of largely peaceful protests around the country. Mr. Bouteflika has been in the public eye since the war of liberation against France, more than sixty years ago. But with more than 50% of the population under the age of 30, and with rising concerns over unemployment and corruption, past glory was not enough to prop up the rarely seen, infirm 82-year-old. Many fear, however, that despite Mr. Bouteflika’s departure, the political system that backed him will remain intact with the support of the Algerian army.


That sentiment is expressed by Daily Sabah’s Yusuf Selman Inanç, who, in a recent op-ed, pointed out that “The Algerian people are worried whether the resignation is an illusion as they were demanding more than just a simple resignation. Protesters on social media said they wanted the ruling elite to leave, not only the president…. While the army does not seem to be against the people’s demands, the question remains whether it will lead to the changes that the people demand. Several reports in the Algerian media claim that the army is largely made up of the old ruling elite. Therefore, any change of power between Bouteflika and another figure supported by the army will not please the people.”

A Khaleej Times editorial reflects on a similar theme, calling for a wholesale “dismantling” of the Algerian political system, lest the current victory become a temporary interlude: “The former president’s acolytes still control the establishment. Caretaker President Abdelkader Bensalah is a Bouteflika loyalist, so is Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui. Bensalah has 90 days to call fresh elections and he could well jump into the race. The system of governance bears the ousted president’s stamp and if this structure holds, protests could continue and celebrations be short-lived… An immediate purge of the ‘old guard’ is therefore remote since the rich and powerful have much to lose.”

The events in Algeria are, for some, eerily similar to the 2011 resignations of the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. As Asharq Alwasat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed notes, Algeria’s Bouteflika, much like his counterparts in Tunis and Cairo, backed down in the face of protests and promised not to run for another term: “I would not dismiss the possibility that both presidents were sincerely considering leaving office before the last hour. The problem, however, is no one knows the meaning of the ‘right time’ for leaving. In the Arab world, it is much harder to exit such an arena than enter it…. It is no use crying over spilled milk. All that Algerians can do now is look forward to a better future since the change has — at least — occurred without bloodshed, chaos or bitter conflicts. It is hoped that the rest of the transition phase will also run smoothly, in an atmosphere of unanimity, so the country will enter a new era.”

In his analysis of the popular demonstrations in Algeria, Jordan Times’s Ali Kassay turns to the future, cautioning future Algerian governments against building their legitimacy on past achievements, however historic they may have been, but by responding to today’s needs of the country: “Algeria is not unique in basing the legitimacy of its regime on a glorious moment in the past. But government is an ongoing process. It needs to renew its legitimacy continuously by producing results that are tangible now, not recalled wistfully or imagined in an increasingly distant past. Nationalist nostalgia can be inspirational, and even stimulating. But we should realize that the farther back we need to go in history to find a moment of glory, the more obvious is our admission that we have not done much since then to justify our existence.”

The Saudi Gazette editorial touches on a similar theme, calling on the Algerian political elites to look forward, rather than backward, by addressing the concerns and ideas of its youthful population: “[I]t seems that Algeria has reached a crossroads. The mass movement against a fifth term for the ailing Algerian president appears to signal the end of an important cycle in the political history of Algeria. Those young men and women born in the last four decades have neither sentimental attachment to the national struggle of their fathers and forefathers nor do they connect with the political legacy of either the president or the National Liberation Front. Their ambitions and aspirations lie somewhere else. They want to have a say in determining the future of their country and their own personal future. Algeria is in search of a new identity that will reflect the ambitions of its youth.”

The desire to see these changes take place, and the fear that their hard-earned gains may disappear, explains why many protesters have refused to disperse. Gulf News Deputy Middle East Editor Omar Shariff notes: “Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria for 20 years, and part of the political scene for almost six decades, is no longer in power. But the thousands of protesters who brought about his downfall are not going home yet. They are seeking sweeping change to the country’s political system and demanding an end to the rule of ‘le pouvoir’ – the powers that be…. An Algeria without Bouteflika is a novelty to most Algerians but discontent, particularly among the young, turned to anger after he announced in February he would seek a fifth term.”

But, Malia Bouattia, an Algerian activist, remains hopeful. In a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, Bouattia strikes a positive note about the recent protests, which, according to her, have “been inspiring. While there has been much discussion about whether the ongoing mass demonstrations and strikes constitute a revolution, an uprising, or a social movement, the facts remain the same – for the first time in decades the Algerian people are taking their collective future back into their own hands…. Both the history of Algeria and that of the region point to two realities that will be very present in the minds of all those taking part in this process: nothing is more powerful than a people in revolt and nothing scares the regime more than that power.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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