The news that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s ailing, octogenarian president will no longer be standing for a fifth termALgeria in elections next month should be hailed by Algerians a victory brought by the people.
Hundreds of thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets in recent weeks against the 82-year-old’s fifth-term presidential bid, with overseas observers repeatedly attempting to understand and define the protest movement through the prism of the Arab Spring.
Algerians, on the other hand, have made a conscious effort to distance themselves from this paradigm since protests begun, chosing instead to organise themselves in ways that differ from the regional events of 2011.
When protests in neighbouring Tunisia ignited a wave of protests across the MENA region, Algerians took to the streets demanding the same staple requests — work, freedom and bread.
But this ended relatively quickly, after Bouteflika promised a programme of political and constitutional reforms, including to the electoral law.
The 19-year post-civil-war state of emergency was lifted, and an economic package with increased public sector salaries and state subsidies was enough to deter Algerians from further unrest; the citizenry returning to their homes with the hope that conditions might improve.
The state violence and lawless counter-revolution that followed in many of the Arab Spring countries perhaps served as the main deterrent for Algerians, whose memories of the brutal Black Decade of Algeria’s 1990s civil war remained fresh in their minds.
The government, however, has freely manipulated the national memory of civil war to deter people from using the medium of protests to express their demands, and to maintain “trust” in the ruling establishment, where security and stability are guaranteed.
But not anymore.
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia’s provocative comments last week — that Syria’s uprising had also begun with protesters handing roses to police — were viewed as a threat of inevitable state violence should the peaceful protests continue.
Similar were the addresses made by the Chief of Staff of the army, Ahmed Gaid Saleh, and Bouteflika himself, warning of “internal and foreign elements aiming to destabilise Algeria” by infiltrating the demonstrations.
Algerians on the streets, many of whom were born after the civil war and therefore with no recollection of the 10-year conflict, have however, continued to protest in their hundreds of thousands, demanding a leader they can see — and not have to resort to saluting a painted portrait.
Today, it appears that their peaceful calls have been heard.
Bouteflika’s U-turn is evidence that Algerians have achieved something exclusive to them; defined by them, through an organised, peaceful display of national frustration.
Online groups and activists have maintained their calls for Algerians to avoid behaviour that could provoke violence and repression. The response has been remarkable, and large numbers of Algerians — young and old, across the country — have taken pride in holding protests with few confrontations or injuries, and that clean up after themselves.
The overt display of affection towards security forces and slogans of “the police, army and people are brothers” are an indication that Algerians have no intention of replicating the Arab Spring, which they view as synonymous with chaos and violent expressions of resistance.
Bouteflika — who has been hospitalised in Switzerland since last month — stated last week that he would run for elections in April, and if elected hold an “inclusive national conference” followed by early elections in which he would not run. The statement caused Algerians to take to the streets in their thousands until the early hours of the morning.
Fearing demonstrations might be violently repressed, groups on social media implored Algerians to return to their homes, suggesting “now is not the time for protest”.
But as has been the case since 22 February, no indications of violence were recorded that morning, much to the relief of many Algerians.
Bouteflika’s ailing health meant he was unable to present his candidacy or address his people in person, and the president and the ruling National Liberation Front’s actions were in clear defiance of the people’s opposition to a fifth term.
“I listened and heard the cry of the hearts of the demonstrators, and in particular the thousands of young people who questioned me about the future of our country,” Bouteflika had written in a letter to the people that was read out on state TV last week.
But given his track record of contradictions, these reassurances did little to contain the people’s frustrations, with little over a month to go before the polls were scheduled for April 18. Predictions of what might happen in the long term are futile, given the complex nature of Algeria’s ruling system, where power is not concentrated to one individual or family, like in Syria, or defined by a social makeup dominated by a fragile balance of ethnic and tribal margins.
Comparisons with the Black October riots in 1988 — which were provoked by divisions between the regime’s rival camps leading to mass protests and a tumultuous democratisation process — may have gone some way in 2011 to explaining why Algerians did not embrace the Arab Spring.
But today’s movement should be observed as an organic one, defined by Algerians who are rallying in a popular people’s struggle, removed from any political, ethnic or partisan lines.
The government now faces a very different socio-political climate to that of the presidential election of 2014, when national pride following Algeria’s World Cup qualification buoyed the country, and a spike in oil prices enabled greater public spending, while their neighbours battled social upheaval.
Algeria’s national budget and currency reserves have almost halved since 2014, meaning the state can no longer buy a fragile social peace using its billion-dollar revenues from oil and gas exports, following the fall in crude oil and natural gas prices.
High unemployment, rising inflation and the devaluation of the Algerian Dinar have hurt large sections of the population, 70 percent of whom are under the age of 30.
Algerians will not stand for another humiliating year with an octogenarian who cannot speak as their head of state.
Their silence can no longer be bought with the same half-hearted promises of economic and political reform that were heard in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
The Constitution stipulates, that if “a serious and lasting illness” prevents the president from fulfilling his or her duties he must be replaced — and Algerians today can celebrate that Bouteflika will live out the rest of his days in retirement.
Bouteflika’s acknowledgment of protests and his earlier proposal to step down only after re-election next month had been largely viewed as an attempt to buy time for The Pouvoir, while they reach a consensus on a suitable successor — despite the deep fracture within the ruling elite.
But given the opaque nature of the ruling apparatus in Algeria, predictions of what to expect tomorrow, let alone within the year, are futile.
Reducing the past few weeks to the blueprint of the Arab Spring is overly simplistic, and fails to credit the movement with an exclusively Algerian lens, one defined by its complex socio-political dynamics, history of self-determination and fiercely independent nature.
What can be ascertained however, is that the Algerian people — who have mobilised themselves in such a way that unionists, opposition parties and Bouteflika himself have had no choice but to take heed — will continue to express their demands with a touch of special Algerian humour.
The rest of us must listen, and watch.