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After two decades, Algerians consider a future without Bouteflika

Ryad Kramdi, AFP | Students waving Algerian flags demonstrate outside the main post office in the capital Algiers on March 10.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Monday backed down on his bid to seek a fifth term in April 18 elections after tens of thousands of Algerians from a cross-section of society took to the streets in protest.

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The weeks of demonstrations had posed the most serious threat yet to his 20-year reign.

Bouteflika, first elected in 1999, has made only rare public appearances in a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013. His last public address was in 2014.

But his announcement in mid-February that he would seek a fifth term despite his fragile health angered many across Algerian society. A third round of weekend protests and a general strike greeted his return from a medical visit to Switzerland on Sunday, with shops in the capital Algiers remaining closed while public transport was suspended.

“Today we came to fight for our rights," one demonstrator told FRANCE 24. "Our right to education, our right to a better future. We don’t want to be left behind.”

The Algerian diaspora also rallied in France and other European cities to demand that Bouteflika stand down.

Many of the protests were aimed not just at Bouteflika but at Algeria’s stagnant political system, which has long been dominated by veterans of Algeria’s war of independence against France (1954-1962). Economic concerns also fuelled much of the fury. Bouteflika introduced largescale infrastructure programmes during the rise in oil prices between 2004 and 2014 but the oil- and gas-dependent economy took a hit from a subsequent decline in crude prices.   

The unemployment rate now stands at approximately 12 percent and more than a quarter of Algerians under the age of 30 are jobless. Sharp rises in the price of basic items such as sugar, oil and flour have also hit Algerians hard, with increases of between 20 and 30 percent seen in the first few months of 2019 alone.

Army stance in flux

Amplifying the pressure on Bouteflika was an apparent about-face on Sunday by a member of Bouteflika’s inner circle, Army Chief of Staff Gaid Salah. Speaking to a group of Algerian military schools, Salah did not mention the unrest specifically but said the army shares “the same values and principles” as the Algerian people and are "partners in one destiny".

Salah had previously expressed disdain for the protests, dismissing them as “dubious” calls “allegedly for democracy” but aimed at "pushing Algerians towards the unknown".

His reversal was a significant sign that Bouteflika might not survive the current protests the way he has weathered those in the past.

Francis Ghilès, an associate senior researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs and an expert on North Africa, noted that the demonstrations now rocking Algeria are the biggest since those proclaiming Algeria’s independence in July 1962, calling them an “earthquake”.

Asked whether Bouteflika’s government is now “panicking”, Ghilès told FRANCE 24: “I think they are panicking … when you look at who is demonstrating, when you see the former veterans’ association leaving Bouteflika, you really get the impression of rats leaving the ship.”

Ghilès noted that, so far, the protests have been mostly peaceful and have avoided undue “provocations” – and the police have been measured in their response. Whether that is because officers have received orders to this effect or because they themselves are also fed up remains to be seen, he said.

Ghilès said there is likely to be burgeoning unrest within the ranks of the army itself.

The army chief of staff, General Salah, and many others at the highest ranks are “immensely corrupt”, he said. But the Algerian military is a professional army with thousands of educated officers who are “professional, solid, honest”, he said.

This dichotomy must be causing “many tensions” within the military sector.

“The people around Bouteflika, it’s a Mafia," said Ghilès. "That’s the only word one can use.”

“They will try to protect their ill-begotten gains.”

But even some members of the president’s FLN party joined the protests calling for him to step down. Ghilès noted that the Algerian unrest may have already passed the point of no return.

“When you get crowds of this size in the street, I’m not sure you can actually turn the page back. I don’t think you can go back to the statu quo ante,” he said.

“We are certainly at an extraordinarily important moment.”

>> Video: Algeria braced for nationwide strikes, interview with Francis Ghilès

Vote postponed

Bouteflika earned widespread respect from many Algerians for his role in ending the country’s decade-long civil war, which erupted in 1992 when a host of Islamist rebel groups took up arms against the government.

The conflict, which killed an estimated 150,000-200,000 people, still weighs on the Algerian mindset, with many prioritising political stability over civil rights concerns.

Rights groups have long accused Bouteflika of being authoritarian in his efforts to undermine workers’ ability to form unions, crackdowns on peaceful protests, and measures in the penal code that restrict free expression, including prison terms for disseminating information that might harm the “national interest” or that is deemed insulting to the president, army or other state institutions.

And yet he remained in power even as the 2011 “Arab Spring” unseated longtime leaders across the region.

In a series of announcements late on Monday, the presidency said Bouteflika had decided not to stand in the election, which had also been postponed. 

Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi will chair a conference on Algeria's future in the hopes of finding a way out of the political crisis. A former foreign affairs minister who was the UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria until May 2014, Brahimi became well known on the international stage when he served as the UN special representative to Afghanistan both during and after Taliban rule. He was also the UN special envoy to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"The voice of the people has been heard," Brahimi said on state TV after meeting with Bouteflika on Monday. "The young people who took to the streets acted responsibly and presented a positive image of the country. We must now turn this crisis into a constructive process."

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