After weeks of street protests and setbacks, the news finally arrived on the evening of Tuesday, 2 April: Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria since 1999, resigned. Before that decision, there had been several attempts to carry out a transition that could safeguard the regime, but something had definitely changed already last week. Indeed, on 26 April the head of the Algerian armed forces, Gaid Salah, in a public intervention had called for the application of Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution, which provides that the president may be removed from his role if he is deemed unable to perform his duties. We were in fact already faced with a change, according to some even a "soft" coup d'état.
In fact, for years Bouteflika has not been fully functioning, being seriously ill and forced into a wheelchair. He returned to Algeria only on 11 March from Switzerland, where he had been hospitalised, in an attempt to give a reassuring signal to the nation. However, the protests continued and the opposition to a fifth mandate of the president became opposition to the "mandate 4.5". In recent days, while protests continued, different scenarios have been outlined. The central issue is still the apparent inability of the ruling class to find a successor that could give both the impression of a break with the past but also continuity in the maintenance of the interests of major stakeholders, from the military to the economic elites linked to the national extractive industry (what the Algerians call Le Pouvoir, “the Power”). What’s next now that Bouteflika is no more the president but the former president?
At the moment, it is difficult to outline scenarios. There are too many variables at stake and the situation on the ground is very fluid and could take unexpected turns. Over the last few weeks the Bouteflika front had gradually broken down. More than 50 members of the Rassemblement National Démocratique (RND), the party of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, resigned. Bouteflika's communications director, Farida Bessa, left her post on 21 March, giving yet another sign of instability within the ruling class. Bouteflika's own party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), through its secretary Mouad Bouchareb, had declared that it was on the side of the protesters.
All this suggested how much the power circle was trying to get off a cart judged too old, to remain in play through the possible period of transition. These defections had also affected two strategic sectors: the workers' union of the Hassi Messaoud region - the largest oil production area in the country - issued a statement in which it sympathised with the demonstrators, while the professional bar association of Algiers, the most important in the country and another piece of the national power system, declared Bouteflika unable to play his role. The "Bouteflika clan" had tried to play the very last card, proposing a transitional phase led by the former Algerian foreign minister and former Secretary General of the United Nations, Lakhdar Brahimi, but even this option soon vanished, not having been welcomed by protesters, seeing in this move only the regime’s attempt to take time.
This is the framework in which the military decided not to remain impartial, nor to indefinitely support the possibility of Bouteflika’s non-resignation, forcing his hand with Salah's announcement. Salah's pressure is certainly one of the factors that led to the president's decision to resign. The constitution gives the authorities 90 days to call new presidential elections, while current affairs are carried out by a new transitional government, headed by Noureddine Bedoui (former Minister of Agriculture) and the presidency is covered by the President of the Council of the Nation (the upper house of the Algerian Parliament), Abdelkarem Bensalah, as provided for in the constitution. But what can happen now?
Actually, the army seems to have a very clear goal: to calm the demonstrators and become the referee of the transition, ensuring its own survival within the new Algerian leadership framework, while looking for an alternative to Bouteflika that can be "sold" to the demonstrators. The scenario is similar to what happened in Egypt in February 2011. On that occasion, with Tahrir Square constantly occupied by demonstrators and Hosni Mubarak reluctant to resign, the army eventually forced the former Egyptian president to step down, presenting itself as the guarantor of the interests of the people on the one hand and, on the other, avoiding a civil war scenario. The rest is history: with that move, the army guaranteed the trust of part of the Egyptians, directly managing the transitional phase until the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, except to again exploit Tahrir Square at a later time to oust the Brotherhood itself and come back as the undisputed master of Egyptian politics - even more than it was during the years of Mubarak.
In Algeria, it is difficult to foresee the rise of a party of Islamic extraction - despite those who stir the bogeyman of the "Islamic drift" whenever the possibility of a regime change on the southern shore of the Mediterranean is feared - because after the "black decade" in the 1990s the Islamic parties have never had significant weight in the national social and political landscape. However, there are still hundreds of people who every Friday continue to take to the streets demanding change.
Here lie the unknowns linked to the near future of the country. The military has three months to get ready for the transition, with all the uncertainties that this scenario will bring with it. In fact, most of the opposition and the demonstrators consider what is happening to be an attempt at a coup d'état. The President of the Council of the Nation himself, Abdelkarem Bensalah, is considered to be a representative of the old system that many would like to change. Against this background, it is highly probable that the Algerians will come back to the streets, loudly demanding a transparent, rather than cosmetic, transition. A new conflict between the army and the demonstrators would be opened. This would be an unequal dispute, the outcome of which would favour the army. The second alternative would be that of an army that really stands aside and agrees to manage in a completely neutral way a real political and democratic transition. And this would open a new chapter in the history of the Arab countries, whose importance would be inversely proportional to the probability that this could happen.