Algerians are protesting in large numbers over moves to maintain ailing longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika in power. The ruling elite faces a test of legitimacy that could spark unrest in a region weary of upheaval.
by Steven A. Cook
Demonstrations are nothing new in Algeria, but the current rallies in several cities and towns are the biggest and most widespread since 2011. Is this a rekindling of the Arab Spring that could end President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s long tenure?
Unlike the protests around the Arab world in 2010 and 2011, which pushed four long-serving leaders from power, Algerian demands for the end of the regime are not widespread. At least not yet. The focus of the demonstrations has instead been on Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office.
Background: Fighting le Pouvoir
The eighty-one-year-old Bouteflika, who has been in office since April 1999, has been incapacitated for most of his fourth term. The president is so enfeebled that he was unable to announce his own candidacy. Algerians are angry that they had no voice in Bouteflika’s decision to stand for office again. (The absence of free and fair elections make it almost certain he will win another term in April.) Instead, it was Algeria’s military and civilian elites—known as le pouvoir—who, unable to agree on a successor, determined that Bouteflika must run again to ensure the regime’s continuity. The demonstrations are happening against the backdrop of difficult economic conditions for the country of forty-one million, but thus far the protesters have focused their concerns on Bouteflika’s candidacy and the process through which he was tapped to run again.
The Algerian government’s response has been right out of the playbook some Arab leaders used unsuccessfully to beat back protests eight years ago. The government shut down the country’s 3G and 4G networks so that social media could not be used to encourage ever larger numbers of demonstrators, and the prime minister praised the protesters for comporting themselves peacefully, blaming outside forces for instigating the demonstrations.
Why It Matters
Algeria is a crucial energy source for Europe, supplying one-third of its natural gas (and half of Spain’s). Its stability also matters to the United States. In recent years the Algerian government has become an important U.S. partner in the fight against terrorism in Africa. With prolonged factional fighting in neighboring Libya, civil unrest in Algeria would leave a broad swath of North Africa unstable, with potential
population flight posing challenges to its relatively stable neighbors Tunisia and Morocco, as well as to southern Europe. An uprising resulting in a more just and open society would, of course, be good for Algeria, but as the regional record indicates, successful transitions to democracy are rare.
What to Watch
Friday. Throughout the Middle East, Friday prayers can be a mechanism of mobilization, boosting the size of demonstrations at the beginning of the weekend. For instance, Egypt’s Day of Rage on Friday, January 29, 2011, portended the end of Hosni Mubarak’s nearly thirty-year rule two weeks later. Although only a rough measure, the number of people who turn out on Friday will provide observers a better idea of the gravity and extent of discontent among Algerians.
The government’s response. Anything the government now does will contain significant risk. If it cracks down, the demonstrations could grow. If le pouvoir replaces Bouteflika, demonstrators could be encouraged to increase their demands. Finally, the government will have difficulty attempting to relieve pressure by making some political reforms and offering economic goodies amid the economic downturn.