Human Rights

Algeria’s Protests: A Turning Point?

North Africa

Algerians are set to take to the streets again on Friday 22nd March 2019 to protest against current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, with signs of the demonstrations showing little sign of abating.

Since 22nd February, Algeria has been gripped with loud, intense but ultimately peaceful protests. Triggered primarily by the announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has ruled the country since 1999, would be running for a fifth term in the upcoming elections, many of the protesters have since expressed anger about the stagnating economic conditions and voiced their discontent with the country’s opaque political system. For many observers it would seem that Algeria is finally experiencing the impacts of the Arab Spring eight years after the initial protests in neighbouring Tunisia.

That, however, is an oversimplification. The fact is Algeria also experienced protests back in 2011. Back then Bouteflika was able to placate them by extending food subsidies and ending the state of emergency that had been running for 19 years. For Algerian protesters at the time, it was a small but meaningful victory, a sign that unlike Libya and Syria, their government listened to them.

Old habits, however, die hard. In the subsequent eight years, Algiers failed to translate the initial good will into meaningful and sustainable reforms. In effect, Bouteflika’s initial measures only delegated the problem to the future while the country continued with an increasingly unsustainable economic model. Now, Algiers has even fewer options on the table.

To make things more complicated, Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013, leaving him generally out of public view. For many Algerians, the debilitated state of their President has not only been a source of concern for the future, but also laid bare his status as a figurehead backed by powerful officials.

To the credit of security forces and the army, the peaceful nature of the protests was reciprocated with a non-violent response. Furthermore, Bouteflika’s representative announced on the 11th March that he would not run for a fifth term and delayed the elections, although he still remains in power.

His removal will not necessarily end the system of corruption and patronage. Some Algerians are concerned that the delay of the elections will merely lead to an unending fourth term. Protests and demonstrations have since morphed to prevent that. The case of Tunisia, whose own peaceful transition was hampered by the old guard, will prove instructive.

Beyond that, the haunting spectre of extremist violence is not far from the minds of Algerians who still remember the civil war between 1991 and 2002. Algerian politicians, at times, have warned that the protests could lead to a repetition of the “Black Decade”, but they were roundly condemned for the crass comparison. Although Algerian jihadists have lost significant power over the years, they remain capable of attacks, as the 2013 attack near Tigantourine shows. Many of these groups are now linked to Daesh or al-Qaeda, increasing their transnational presence and influence.

Algeria is facing a period of political uncertainty, but the signs that the country is going the way of Tunisia rather than Libya is a promising sign for the people and their future.

Image: Farouk Batiche/DPA/PA Images