Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
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.
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 era of state building and national pride. In his first two terms (1999–2009), Bouteflika not only tamped down on violence but put the country back on the map.
Nor was Bouteflika just the public face of the army. He removed the generals behind the 1992 coup and created his own center of power. After the end of his second term in 2009, his supporters amended the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. He and his younger brother Said built a network of business and political affiliates, a “Bouteflika clan,” around the presidency. Crony capitalism flourished in an economy flush with oil and gas revenues, a booming consumer goods market, and lucrative import deals.
But Bouteflika was aging, and in 2013 he had a serious stroke. He was obviously ill during the 2014 presidential election, but there was no credible alternative. Algerians—especially the 54 percent of them under 30 years old who have little or no memory of the 1990s—began to bridle. Although a multiparty system, the regime tightly controlled—and periodically, through elections, redistributed—access, privileges, and resources. Ordinary Algerians felt that their country had been stolen by the political and business elites of what they called “the system,” just as, after independence from France in 1962, it had been stolen by the “barons” of the National Liberation Front’s one-party state.
Algerians were not afraid to dissent. Bouteflika’s presidency faced constant, low-level, local protests almost from the outset and one major regional protest movement in the Berber-speaking, mountainous Kabylia region in 2001. What these protests had in common was an underlying demand for more accountable, responsible government. In 2011, such protests were endemic and persistent, but unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, in Algeria they did not coalesce into a national movement. They were a means for a disenfranchised population to engage constructively with a state that had the money to address immediate, sectional demands. What the state lacked was a farsighted plan for addressing the deeper problem, let alone for managing the inevitable transition from Bouteflika to a successor. The announcement in February that the president, who was receiving medical treatment in Geneva, would run again served to bring all of Algeria’s local dissatisfactions together around a single point: “No fifth mandate!” But this was only the immediate demand: underlying it was already a maximal one, getting to the heart of the matter: “Time’s up for them all!” and “System get out!”
This year’s demonstrations, abundantly photographed and streamed on mobile phones via social media, have been a carnival of popular songs, football chants, and inventive, witty placards. Pithy slogans in Arabic, Berber, French, and English have festooned the signs of marchers and the banners draped from balconies, along with the ubiquitous national flag. Whole families have taken part: the crowds of demonstrators include not only young people but their parents and grandparents. The hirak, for these millions of Algerians, has been a conscious, deliberate reappropriation of public space and national symbols. Portraits of the martyrs of the revolutionary war of independence, fought against French colonial rule from 1954 to 1962, have been prominent in demonstrations. The physical occupation of the street—and the organized act of cleaning it up, in groups, after demonstrations are over—has enacted one of the movement’s central demands: for the Algerian people to take their country back.
Among the most insistent slogans, chants and hashtags, two in particular stand out: Ytnahaw ga! (Get rid of them all!) and Klitou el-bled ya sarraqin, (You thieves have eaten the country). Finally on April 2, the army’s chief of staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, repeated his demand, first made the previous week, for Bouteflika to be removed from office on the grounds of medical incapacity. This time, he said it should be applied “immediately.” Bouteflika, whose inner circle had repeatedly stalled since February 22, resigned that evening. A week earlier, Gaid Salah had still been identified as a principal ally of the president and a major figure in his circle. Now he was cutting Bouteflika’s “clan” adrift. Prominent, wealthy business figures affiliated with the president were arrested. A few days later, the chief of internal security and intelligence, who had reported directly to the president, was sacked and his office reabsorbed into the army. By abandoning the president and overthrowing his clique, the army chiefs—who have been the ultimate décideurs ever since independence—no doubt hope to save the system.
Whether they can do so remains to be seen. Gaid Salah is 79 years old. Like Bouteflika, he is one of the last remaining veterans of the revolutionary generation, which has ruled the country for a half century but proven itself incapable of organizing its own succession. Another popular slogan has become “1962, country liberated; 2019, people liberated!” On April 5, just a few days after Bouteflika stepped down, Algerians were back on the streets in greater numbers than ever. They don’t want just to see the back of an ailing president—they want their country back.
CORRECTION (April 10, 2019): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that "70 percent" of Algerians are under the age of 30. The correct percentage is 54. We regret the error.