Algeria’s President Steps Down After 20 Year Reign

In Northern Africa, birthplace of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, mass demonstrations have again broken out. For weeks, millions of Algerians have taken to the streets, calling for the end of their president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year rule. The protestors have characterized the past two decades of Bouteflika’s rule as marked by cronyism and corruption. Further these protests charge the president as being unable to fulfill the duties of his position, a view supported by his advanced age and ailing physical health. The final push for Bouteflika to resign came from army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was seemingly persuaded by protesters’ calls for reform. Remarkably, all of this occurred without the loss of a single life, or the firing of a single shot by Bouteflika’s security services. Despite the seeming total victory for the protesters, Algeria now stands on the precipice of great uncertainty. The former president’s hand will still likely be felt, at least in the short term, as he named the interim government that will rule for 90 days until elections are held.

Reacting to this interim government, which is largely comprised of Bouteflika loyalists, some 20 Algerian civil society groups expressed displeasure. “Bouteflika’s resignation … is a first victory … but it is not enough,” they said in a joint statement, emphasizing that they would not accept any transition that did not fundamentally alter political structures. Ali Benflis, former head of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), echoed this sentiment, calling for the resignation of other leading figures in the interim government and constitutional council. However, Benflis remained optimistic: “the Algerian people have just closed one of the darkest chapters in the history of our country.” International response has largely been optimistic as well. Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, expressed praise for “the mature and calm nature in which the Algerian people have been expressing their desire for change.”

Optimism on behalf of both internal and external actors is not unwarranted, though it is best paired with a degree of caution moving forwards. The current interim government is composed of deeply entrenched members of the past regime. Interim leader Abdelkader Bensalah, for example, has held senior political positions for the past 25 years and led Algeria’s upper house for much of Bouteflika’s rule. Perhaps the most significant unresolved question moving forwards, however, is how the military will act. As the New York Times reports “the army has been the ultimate arbiter of political life since independence 57 years ago.” It is telling that it was the involvement of Ahmed Gaid Salah that tipped the political scales in favour of the protesters. Should the army choose to withdraw its support, there will likely be a great degree of uncertainty on the behalf of reformers about how to proceed with a significant lack of political clout. What seems more likely than a withdrawal of support is that the military will continue to work behind the scenes manipulating reform opportunities to suit its own vision. Still, progress is being made in Algeria, and an undemocratic leader has been ousted without the loss of a single life.

Bouteflika began his reign in 1999, following a vote marked by fraud concerns in which he won 74% of the electorate. His ascension came at a time of great unrest in Algeria, as the nation waged a bloody civil war to combat the incursion of Islamist guerillas. Bouteflika also presided over what many have described as Algeria’ s return to the international scene, opening the nation after almost a decade of internal isolation. He continued to win landslide electoral victories in 2004, 2009 and 2014, his margin of victory never falling below 70 percent. Not only was fraud a pervasive element of each of Bouteflika’s elections, but his allies pushed through amendments altering Algeria’s constitution to allow for four terms rather than two. In fact, it was Bouteflika’s announcement in February of this year the he would seek a fifth term which initiated the recent demonstrations.

Although currently at a moment of great uncertainty, Algeria has taken steps towards significant reform. As proved by the failure of mass demonstrations in nations across the Middle East in 2011, ousting an entrenched leader is supremely difficult. Consolidation of all elements of society, including political, military, and civic sectors, is necessary to achieve such a goal. Likewise, a successful transition to democracy will require the participation of all of these groups sincerely working towards a commonly shared interest.