Thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the fact that the country’s longstanding and ailing leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is running for a fifth consecutive term. And Algerian journalist Hafsa Kara-Mustapha says young Algerians have a right to be angry.
Algeria’s presidential elections, planned for April 2019, were always going to be a tense affair as it was speculated that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, would run for a fifth term in office.
But when it was confirmed the ailing head of state, incapacitated by a debilitating stroke in 2013, would run yet again, Algerians took to the streets in protest at what was viewed as an affront to the 70% of those who are under the age of 30 and feel largely unrepresented by an 82 year old leader.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power in 1999 as the country was battling a vicious and bloody insurgency at the start of the decade. He called for a general amnesty for all fighters through a referendum and gradually returned the country to peace.
Overall, Algerians viewed his first two terms in office as positive. Backed by ever rising oil prices, his presidency saw the start of mass infrastructure projects that provided employment and housing to millions.
A return to peace, and a visible presence on the international stage, gave Algeria the prestige it so craved and had lost during those fateful 90s that saw as many as 200,000 die as a result of the bloody war between the army and supporters of the Islamists from FIS (Front Islamic du Salut).
As his second term was nearing its end, calls for him to run for a third term were getting louder. Though he remained sufficiently popular to gain a comfortable third time at the helm, the constitution limited the president to two consecutive terms.
It is then that the once dynamic and popular president’s image started to tarnish. Resorting to what was seen as old-style autocratic tactics, the constitution was amended allowing Bouteflika to run for a third, and in the view of many, illegal term.
By now his popularity was seriously impacted and news of high level corruption backed by generous oil and gas revenue were surfacing in the national and international media.
In 2013, Bouteflika was taken ill and disappeared from public view for several weeks indicating his condition was very serious. He had suffered a stroke and was flown abroad for treatment, re-emerging very clearly impacted.
At this point a fourth term appeared to be unthinkable in particular as his last speech was one in which he vowed to step down and allow a new generation to take over. He’d even joked to one of his supporters who was nudging him to run again that “his garden had already bloomed,” ie: his time was now almost over.
So it came as a shock when his premier announced on the eve of 2014 that Bouteflika would court a fourth term in office, despite not having been heard or seen in public for months. The ensuing presidential campaign was borderline comical as it was run by his staff while he was completely absent.
With the effects of the “Arab Spring” still raging in Syria and Libya, few if any were willing then to rock the boat and organise mass opposition to what was already felt like an insult to the people.
But in 2019, for those under 30s who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, that argument no longer holds. Having known only Bouteflika at the helm and not lived through the scarring “black decade” of the 90s, an upcoming fifth term was too much.
When Bouteflika’s team confirmed he would run again, Algerians organised on social media, and called for mass peaceful protests to tell the president that his time was up.
The calls have so far produced peaceful and often joyous protests. Algerians from across the board took to the streets after Friday prayers and marched peacefully across the capital as well as many cities across the country. Though one protester died, it was from a heart attack and unrelated to any police brutality of any kind.
These protests have jolted the Algerian government, given the sheer numbers who marched, and which appear to be by all accounts the largest in Algeria’s relatively short history.
In response Bouteflika issued a bizarre statement promising he would run for another term for just one more year and then step down. He would then organise a referendum introducing a new form of governance before finally retiring.
As soon as the announcement was made however, protests once again erupted across the country and many marched throughout the night to express their rejection of the president’s latest offer.
A major protest is planned for Friday March 8 which coincides with International Women’s Day. There are calls for protesters to carry red roses and remain calm.
Endless questions remain unanswered as to how the entire power structure of the country failed to predict just how opposed to a fifth term Algerians would be. It has to be said that in recent months, Bouteflika’s public outings have made for painful viewing. His frail figure on a wheelchair have forced many to question whether he still has the mental capacity to carry out the heavy burden of governance.
He has become a figure of ridicule and is often mocked in the media and in cartoons.
Algeria has a population of over 40m from which there is a large pool of competence which could take over, so why who and how has judged it necessary to keep an 82 year old and seriously diminished political figure in place is a mystery both inside and outside of Algeria.
Bouteflika was of course for many viewed as an almost father figure and many still see in his leadership a soothing image of a patriarch. That image, however, doesn’t sit well with young tech savvy Algerians growing up in the internet age where image is paramount.
For now, protests are planned and will continue until election day in April. However, a tense stand-off has started since Bouteflika’s statement issued on Sunday March 1.
Will he keep going and challenge the Algerian street? Or will the street give him his one extra year and allow him to step down as his has requested? The next few weeks will be telling.