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Thousands of Algerians are protesting to force their ailing dictator to step aside

Algeria’s president hasn’t really been seen publicly in years. He’s running for a fifth term anyway.

Several thousand students are returning to Algiers in Algeria on March 05, 2019 and in several cities in Algeria against the fifth candidacy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Young people in Algiers protesting on Tuesday the fifth candidacy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Billal Bensalem/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Algeria’s ailing, long-time authoritarian leader — who has rarely been seen in public for years — is running for a fifth term as president. And Algerians are not having it.

Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent days to protest his candidacy and call for him to step aside.

The 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has led Algeria since 1999, had a stroke in 2013 that left him paralyzed and basically mute. The state of his health is so precarious and mysterious that a top official recently had to announce that Bouteflika is, in fact, alive, even though he hasn’t made a public speech in seven years. Oh, and it seems he’s not even in the country right now, but rather is at a hospital in Switzerland, according to Swiss media.

Yet he’s still running for a fifth term.

The elites in Bouteflika’s regime, known as “the pouvoir” (the power) and made up of military and civilian leaders, want him nominally in charge so they can maintain their privileged positions, experts say. On Sunday, the country’s ruling coalition officially announced Bouteflika would be its candidate in the next vote — one he’s likely to win since elections in Algeria are neither free nor fair.

That has greatly angered tens of thousands of Algerians, especially young people, who since February 22 have taken to the streets in various cities — including the capital, Algiers, where protests are legally forbidden — to demonstrate. Chanting slogans like “Bouteflika: get out!” the protesters have shocked the country’s elites and threatened the regime’s future.

“The youth today don’t want a fifth term,” Omar Belhouchet, the editor of Algeria’s independent El Watan newspaper, told the New York Times in a telephone interview from Algiers.

While most protests have remained peaceful, a few clashes between Algerian authorities and demonstrators has increased tensions. Police have shot tear gas into crowds, for example, while protestors have set fire to government buildings. It’s unclear how many people have been arrested, injured, or even killed.

The question now is how the regime will respond, but experts say it’s devoid of any good ideas. “They have no plan to deal with the protestors and there’s no ‘plan B’ for moving on from Bouteflika,” George Joffe, an Algeria expert who retired from the University of Cambridge, told me. “They didn’t anticipate this, and now they don’t know what to do.”

Which means the elites must scramble to find some viable alternative before the crisis gets any worse.

If the current situation isn’t properly navigated, especially by the dictator’s regime, violence could once again erupt in Africa’s largest nation — the same one that had a bloody civil war only three decades ago.

Why Algeria’s elites still want Bouteflika in charge

Algeria’s horrific civil war, fought in the 1990s between the then-government and Islamist insurgents over a disputed election, was marked by torture, terrorist attacks, and other atrocities, and led to more than 200,000 deaths. And it still weighs heavily on the minds of many Algerians, leading many to prefer stability over anything that could potentially reignite violence, experts say.

That, in part, has helped Bouteflika remain in power. He’s widely credited for helping his country curb the violence and bounce back economically after he took charge in 1999, lending him extra leeway from the populace.

Algerian soldiers parade on the Champs-Elysees during the annual Bastille Day military parade on July 14, 2014, in Paris, France.
Algerian soldiers parade on the Champs-Elysees during the annual Bastille Day military parade on July 14, 2014, in Paris, France.
Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images

But his rule hasn’t exactly been completely beneficent. His government continues to deny citizens many basic freedoms, including freedom of speech. According to Human Rights Watch, Algerians can still be imprisoned for “offending the president,” “insulting state officials,” or “denigrating Islam.”

Bouteflika’s coterie, though, has gained tremendous power and wealth during the authoritarian’s rule. After his 2013 stroke, elites in the political, military, and business communities helped run the country in Bouteflika’s name — not only to maintain their authority, but also because there is no consensus successor, experts say.

That explains why, even in the face of protests, the elites on Sunday said Bouteflika would run for a fifth term. But they offered an olive branch: Should he win, which he’s widely expected to, Bouteflika would call early elections and not participate in them. The problem is that the regime didn’t offer a specific date for that possible vote, and it’s unclear if the elites would follow through on their promise.

That move didn’t address the concerns of the thousands calling for change. “We don’t want him to stay even an extra second,” Abderahman, a 21-year-old student, told France24 on Tuesday. “He should leave now.”

Why Algerians want Bouteflika out

Protests erupted in Algeria and even in France — which once ruled Algeria and is now home to many Algerian ex-patriots — shortly after it became clear in late February that Bouteflika would run for another term.

Though they started in just a few Algerian cities, demonstrations have since spread throughout the country and even into the capital, which saw roughly 800,000 people protest last Friday.

Public demonstrations against the government are extremely rare in Algeria, partly because of the regime’s brutal rule. But there are two main reasons why that has dramatically changed all of a sudden, experts say.

First, the economy is in trouble. Algeria has relied greatly on high oil prices to fill the country’s coffers. But now that prices are sinking, the nation is potentially on course for an economic disaster. Some 70 percent of Algeria’s population is 30 years old or younger — which means their job prospects literally rise and fall with the price of oil.

Second, and more importantly, the population is angered that elites want an incapacitated Bouteflika to lead them again. “Putting Bouteflika in charge is insulting to everyday Algerians,” Joffe told me. Protestors feel “simple disgust with the way in which the political system has been manipulated.”

Protesters are also tired of having unknown and unseen forces run the country behind the scenes while using Bouteflika as a puppet. “I can’t really know who’s ruling our country, and that’s the problem,” one protestor told the BBC World Service last Thursday.

That means something has to change for the situation to improve. Experts say the regime could give in to demands and announce that someone else will run in Bouteflika’s place. The protestors, of course, could also leave the streets and accept that their ailing, reclusive dictator — and the elites propping him up — will lead them for the foreseeable future.

But none of that is likely to happen, which means the potential for the situation to worsen — even leading to widespread violence — is real, experts say. In the coming days and weeks, the government’s forces could crack down even harder on demonstrators. Opposition figures in Algeria could also choose to formally back the protests, prompting what would be one of the biggest legitimacy crises the Bouteflika regime has ever faced.

The head of Algeria’s army and a top Bouteflika supporter, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, invoked the specter of the civil war on Tuesday when addressing the protests for the first time. “There are parties who wish to bring Algeria back to the years of violence,” he told a group of students at a military school. “A people that defeated terrorism knows how to preserve the stability and security of its nation.”

That may signal that the regime plans to dig in its heels in the face of the growing protests — which may only invite darker days ahead. “The longer the regime doesn’t address the situation, the more extreme the end result may become,” Joffe said.

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