There has been relatively little public opposition to Bouteflika’s continued reign over the past 20 years. But after the country’s state-run news agency announced in February that Bouteflika would stand for re-election, on April 18, protests erupted.
Bouteflika, who has been in poor health since a 2013 stroke, is widely seen as an ineffective head of state in a country suffering from a deep economic crisis. Public appearances by the president are now extremely rare. In December, Bouteflika cancelled a meeting with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, supposedly because he had the flu. Tellingly, Bouteflika is currently reported to be in Switzerland for “medical checks,” despite the political crisis.
Taking to the streets
Popular resistance to his re-election bid has only grown over the past weeks. From Algiers to Oran, people young and old have taken to the streets and campuses across the North African country to peacefully protest the continuing hold of Bouteflika and his inner circle on power.
Economic crisis has worsened in Algeria as oil revenues plunged with falling oil prices. The unemployment rate is near 12%, with the youth rate at 29%. With half of the population younger than 25, Bouteflika’s government is facing a structural and social crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Several candidates have registered to run against Bouteflika, but protesters say elections in Algeria are not free or fair. Some opposition parties plan to boycott the presidential vote if Bouteflika stays in the race.
In March 3 written statement, Boutelika said that he will run for re-election but step down soon after if elected. No timetable was given, and the offer has not brought calm.
Large-scale public protests are unusual in Algeria, where the National Liberation Front – a political regime in power since independence from France in 1962 – regime has violently crushed all signs of dissent. In 1988, more than 500 were killed during Algeria’s “black October” demonstrations, which were followed by a military coup in 1992 and subsequent civil war.
Security forces also met 2001 protests by Algeria’s Kabyle people with violence; 160 were reportedly killed. Other opposition movements, such as protests in 2011 and an anti-shale gas movement in 2015, flared but weakened quickly.
Algeria largely stood out the Arab Spring – a series of protests in 2010 and 2011 that brought down authoritarian governments in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere – in part because of memories of the country’s brutal civil war of the 1990s.
Today, however, protesters of all ages and walks of life are out in strength – students, working men and women, and journalists resisting state censorship. All are calling for a return to the rule of law and demanding that Bouteflika renounce running for a fifth term.
The atmosphere of Algeria’s protests is generally festive. As they march down city streets, protesters often sing popular football anthems with a political twist to express their demands. Songs ring out from Algeria’s 1962 independence movement and the social movements of the 1980s. From balconies overhead, women sing out their support.
While there has also been anger and indignation, fiery speeches, violence and clashes with police have been relatively limited. A “million-man march” on March 1 was reported to be mostly peaceful, with the state news agency claiming that 183 people were injured.
The street as public forum
The moving crowds, rallies and meetings have turned Algeria’s streets into something of a public forum. In a country where the government does not allow a real political dialogue, this is how the Algerian people practice their politics.
Protesters demand an end to the rule of Bouteflika and his clan. This includes the president’s brother Saïd and other family members who have a controlling hand in state affairs and the economy.
The Algerian resistance has also taken to social media to share messages of hope, filling the web with broad smiles and forceful slogans about political change in their country. Twitter posts show that citizens are remaining positive about their chances of democracy.
In an effort to keep control, prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia has warned demonstrators that a ”Syrian scenario“ – civil war – may result if Bouteflika isn’t returned to office on April 18.
Unlike in the past, the protests have even received some domestic media coverage – particularly after journalists protested Bouteflika’s rule – both in mainstream papers as well as private broadcasts. Ongoing coverage shows streets and squares occupied by protestors, with police officers surrounded by demonstrators.
Is the regime losing its grip?
Across the nation, the feeling that the 57-year-old regime’s grip on power may finally be slipping.
So far, the protesters’ strategy has been resolutely nonviolent. They have even made peaceful gestures toward the police and expressed their civic responsibility in unexpected ways, including cleaning the streets after demonstrations.
By resisting political pressure and fatalism through nonviolence, everyday citizens are seeking to change how power may be exercised in Algeria, peacefully yet insistently calling on the government to allow dissent and listen to what its people have to say. Real dialogue, they say, is the only way to restore the legitimacy of Algeria’s government in the eyes of its people.
Will peaceful protest be enough to shift the balance of power in Algeria? The future of the movement is uncertain, yet a fifth term for Bouteflika is clearly unthinkable for many citizens.
Translated from the original French by Clea Chakraverty and Leighton Kille.