The movement began with chants of “No fifth mandate!” Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria since 1999 and just shy of his 82nd birthday, was preparing to run for a fifth term in office, and Algerians decided that they had had enough.
In mid-February, demonstrations against Bouteflika began in two provincial towns in eastern Algeria, Bordj Bou Arréridj and Kherrata. On Friday, February 22, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the capital, Algiers, and other cities. Public TV and radio stations tried to ignore the news, but senior journalists resigned and staged their own protest the following week. Over the next five Fridays, demonstrations swelled, with first hundreds of thousands and then millions of people turning out to protest the regime in every town and city across the country. During the week, army veterans, firefighters, judges, journalists, lawyers, students, and teachers marched. The popular movement (or hirak), demonstrators insisted, was peaceful (silmia) and civic-minded (madania). It was sudden, spontaneous, and overwhelming. It caught a complacent and sclerotic regime completely off-guard.
Algeria’s décideurs, the backstage “decision-makers” in the military and security services and their political and business associates, had failed to decide. Having run the country for 30 years, they were unable to conceive of an alternative to the aging president.
THE AGING PRESIDENT
A coterie of generals brought Bouteflika to power in 1999 in order to turn the page on a decade of bloody conflict. That “dark decade,” as it is known in Algeria, began in January 1992, when the army, which had been the real center of power since independence in 1962, canceled the country’s first multiparty legislative elections to prevent an Islamist victory. The coup sparked a violent Islamist insurgency, which in turn spiraled into a brutal civil war. Bouteflika came with a platform of “national reconciliation” and although his 1999 election was recognized as a sham, he initially achieved some real popularity. He had been a charismatic foreign minister in the 1970s, and many Algerians still identified him with that happier
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