The third week of protests in Algeria kicked off on Monday with the beginning of a general strike in major sectors of the country’s economy, including within its largest sector – energy production. The protests have been ongoing since a rally on February 22nd, 2019, opposed current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s declaring his candidacy for a fifth term as president. The protest organizers have been adamant about their non-violent nature and they have grown continuously in the past few weeks, swelling to the largest political protests the country has seen in the past 30 years.
President Bouteflika has led the country since 1999, coming into power in the aftermath of a bloody civil war that cost as many as 150,000 lives. However, concerns over the length of Bouteflika’s rule and the strength of Algerian democracy have come to a head, particularly given the president’s age and medical history. He is 82 years old and suffered a stroke in 2013, and his public appearances have been limited in the years following.
Protests are expected to continue into the next week, with national universities closing for vacation earlier than scheduled and major Algerian corporations declaring their support for a general strike. Hashem Ahelbarra, a reporter for Al-Jazeera covering Algeria, described the nationwide protests as a potential turning point for the country’s political system. “Many people believe that if this momentum continues for the next two weeks, it could be a game-changer,” he said and continued by referencing the shifting public perception and internal dynamic of the Algerian political elite as a factor in the possible impact of the protests. The notoriously untransparent Algerian ruling class has been perceived as beginning to crack, and the Guardian reports an anonymous diplomat claiming that the “old guard” of the political elite has been divided over how to move forward, and has “no succession plan and no mechanism to arrange something that will have any kind of popular support” in the event of Bouteflika’s rule finally ending. Still, the protests have been largely hopeful and entirely peaceful, as participants declare their patriotism and desire for an effective democratic system. Saïd Djaffar, a journalist for the Huffington Post Maghreb, reports that “the demonstrations are joyful, mixed, colourful, full of the vitality of the young people of a country which was stifled under a republic rapidly becoming a sort of monarchy.”
The non-violence and advocacy for a healthy democracy shown in these protests are laudable, but the president’s response to the major social mobilization is inadequate. President Bouteflika has warned protestors that the unrest resulting from their actions is dangerous to the country, and has made other vaguely hostile statements about the potential for the protests to be infiltrated by “internal and external” parties intent on spreading chaos. Any response from President Bouteflika short of stepping down and commencing the process of transitioning power to a democratically elected successor is unacceptable, and the larger issue of a lack of transparency within the Algerian government must also be addressed. The decision for President Bouteflika to seek a fifth term is believed to have been made by the small political elite effectively ruling the country, and this mass challenge to President Bouteflika’s candidacy is also a sharp rebuke of the continual reduction of democratic rights and freedoms in Algeria, and the consolidation of power in the hands of the few.
The protests are likely to continue, and a key moment will come on March 13th, 2019 when a national commission will decide the fitness to stand for election of the various presidential candidates, including President Bouteflika (an evaluation which includes medical considerations.) The protestors, a disproportionate number of whom are under 30 years old, have demonstrated their support for a representative democratic system and their commitment to nonviolent means of realizing the future of political freedom that they deserve. President Bouteflika and the Algerian elite must recognize the necessity, as the protestors do, of the election of a new leader and the enhancement of political transparency in the country.