Mass protests occurred this past Friday in Algeria and continued over the weekend, with tens of thousands coming out to show their displeasure with the President. This was the third consecutive week of protests, and it doesn’t look like they are slowing down. The protesters are specifically opposed to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth consecutive term. They are calling for him to step down, thereby ending his 20-year long era of power which began when he assumed office in April 1999. Protesters are discouraged by the lack of economic opportunity within the nation as well as a perceived corruption of the governing elite according to BBC News. In Algeria, over 30% of citizens under the age of 30 are unemployed.
The number of protesters on Friday may have been bolstered by its coinciding with International Women’s Day, as the crowd that gathered in the capital of Algiers was even larger than previous weeks. Teachers and students from several universities also joined the protests after going on strike at their respective institutions. The crowd on Friday was believed to be the biggest group of protesters in Algiers in 28 years.
Bouteflika returned to Algeria on Sunday after spending two weeks in a Swiss hospital due to his failing health. The President’s office insisted the time in the hospital was for routine check-ups, but others are speculating that the President’s health is in serious condition. The President has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. This is another point of contention for the protesters, as they question how can a leader that is essentially invisible successfully run a nation. President Bouteflika neglected to show up in person last week to register his candidacy for his upcoming fifth term. The last time he had a public address was in 2014. There is clearly a problem with such a form of leadership. Many protesters fear instability that could come from Bouteflika dying in office without a suitable replacement.
Though the protests were mostly peaceful, police fired tear gas into the crowds to deter protesters from reaching a road that directly led to the presidential palace. According to BBC News, 195 of the protesters were detained by security forces. Regarding the protests, President Bouteflika warned against infiltration by “internal and external elements” who sought to “stir sedition and spread chaos,” according to Al Jazeera. The president also attempted to make concessions in hopes to please his people. He offered to organize a national dialogue conference which would be responsible for amending the constitution and holding another vote within a year that he would not participate in, should he be re-elected. Protesters were unfazed by these offers and are still seeking for the President to step down immediately.
Bouteflika’s time in office has been plagued with controversies and corruption. The elections that kept him in power have been found to be fraudulent and not conducted in a proper manner. He also managed to push forward changes in Algeria’s constitution that allowed him to run for a fourth consecutive term, which was not allowed under previous election rules. Bouteflika also incited much anger when he appointed himself editor-in-chief of Algeria’s state television station in 2010. Many journalists at the time protested and demanded press freedom.
When questioning why citizens are only now coming out in massive protest, it’s important to remember that the Civil War that occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s left a remarkable impact on the nation. Paranoia and distrust became normal enough that attempts at reform didn’t end up seeing the light of day for a long period of time. In addition, the presence of high oil prices also managed to keep efforts of reform down and the nation remained in a certain amount of stability. Recently however, oil prices have dipped and the Algerian economy and employment rates have taken big hits. Due to this, citizens are finally coming to the realization that change needs to take place. Algeria needs to find a new leader and reform the constitution to keep further abuses of power from happening in the future. Bouteflika should step down and efforts must be made to ensure the next election is conducted free and fairly without any form of manipulation or fraud. Algerians are currently making it clear that this is what they desire, so the hope is that change will occur.