Africa’s largest country is at a crossroads: with the end of the Bouteflika era, a new chapter begins. Will it be accompanied by real change?
On 10 February 2019, after 20 years in power, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced through his cronies that he would run for a fifth term in office. The government announced his candidacy despite his very poor health and his rare appearances—his last public speech was on 8 May 2012. The announcement triggered a protest movement (known as Hirak) on 22 February 2019 and has continued uninterrupted for 43 weeks (as of this writing). Millions of people marched in most of the country’s big and smaller cities.
Algeria, the biggest country in Africa and the Middle East, most of whose population is quite young—70 % are below 35 years of age—seems to be at the crossroads as this is one of the worst crises it has ever witnessed since its independence in 1962. While the political system trembled during the October 1988 riots and during the civil strife in the 1990s, the situation that has prevailed since February 2019 is different because it could result in the dismantling of the political system in place since 1962. Few anticipated such developments owing to the regime’s seemingly relative stability.
To understand the demands of Hirak, one needs to examine not only the last 20 years of Bouteflika’s authoritarian, neopatrimonial rule, but also the nature of the political system. Algeria’s political system rests on two pillars: historical legitimacy, which successive regimes usurped (‘inheritance capture’) and the revenues from hydrocarbons. The successive regimes maintained their rule through the claim that they make up the ‘revolutionary family’ (with its privileges), based on clientelism and their access to the revenues, some of which they redistributed to the population at large in order to keep social peace. These two factors allowed Algeria’s regimes to control the population without providing genuine development. Within the system, the military, including the intelligence services, held predominant positions while the presidency and the regime’s affiliated parties (the National Liberation Front and the National Democratic Rally) provided the civilian façade for the true holders of power. With very few exceptions, the political parties have been an appendage of the regime and serve as an alibi that provides it with cosmetic illiberal ‘democratic’ credentials, the objective of which consists in gaining international legitimacy among Western powers.
The Algerian military has always used a civilian front to rule; however, this has changed since the forcible removal on 2 April 2019 of Bouteflika by the military’s strongman, Ahmed Gaïd Salah (AGS), and his associates in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Undoubtedly, AGS has used Hirak to his own advantage to remove all his military and civilian opponents. Under the guise of a widespread anti-corruption campaign, he imprisoned dozens of former high-level officials, while keeping his own associates in place. Algerians supported the anti-corruption campaign because under Bouteflika’s rule Algeria experienced incredible levels of corruption; indeed, a very corrupt, utterly unethical oligarchy linked to the regime had emerged and dilapidated the country’s wealth. Taking advantage of the favorable price of oil until 2014, this class and its patrons in the regime utilized the hydrocarbon revenues to enrich themselves, while the population at large experienced hardship. The absence of rule of law and widespread bribery were the hallmark of Bouteflika’s regime, which knowingly encouraged these unlawful lootings, misappropriations, thefts, squandering and illicit enrichment. All these grave ills and the humiliation Algerians were subjugated to (seeing their president mocked throughout the world), largely explain the incessant demands of Hirak for the dismantlement of the political system. Bouteflika’s seeking a fifth term in office was only the spark; however, Algerians had accumulated grievances against the kleptocratic regime for many years. But Hirak understood that the anti-corruption campaign was a stratagem to divide and eventually stop the protests.
Although Algerians support the armed forces, they soon realized that AGS and the High Military Command have sought to maintain the system. Indeed, it imposed a roadmap, which, in fact, was traced by Bouteflika before his removal. The goal of the roadmap was dual: to appoint a president of AGS’ choice to provide a civilian façade for the military and to rejuvenate the system with the AGS-supported group. While Hirak succeeded in forcing the cancellation of a planned election in July, AGS was able to impose an illegitimate presidential election on 12 December, the strong opposition of millions of Algerians at home and abroad notwithstanding. The election saw the designation of five candidates, two of whom had served as prime ministers and two as ministers under Bouteflika. Participation in the election was the lowest in Algeria’s history. Though the official announcement was 41% participation, in reality, the best estimate ranged between 10% and 15%. As Die Zeit put it, the Algerian regime should have obtained the Nobel Prize for Electoral Fraud. Former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune allegedly obtained 58% of the votes.
The prospects for Algeria are rather pessimistic despite the peacefulness that has characterized Hirak. Hirak demands the dismantlement of the system and the exclusion of the personnel that had served Bouteflika, including AGS, who had supported all his terms. Instead, the military has imposed personnel from the old regime. This is bound to aggravate the crisis for several reasons. These decisions have intensified the rupture between the rulers and society; the rupture has been consummated. There is a risk of severe fissures within the military with unknown consequences. The new president has no legitimacy in the eyes of the population; his appeals for dialogue are perceived as an attempt to divide the movement. The economy is in shambles, especially since the price of oil has dwindled. The rentier regime has never diversified the economy despite many promises. The current stalemate has dissuaded potential foreign direct investments. Algeria is now at an impasse with radicalization of Hirak, whose demands have remained intact, and the military high command, which wants to preserve the system. The democratic transition Algerians have called for is not on its agenda. Undoubtedly, Algeria is at a crossroads and no one can anticipate what the future might be.