Algeria Decides

Octogenarian Statesman Steps Aside

Weeks after Algerian protesters took to the streets, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has resigned.

North Africa is once again the stage for a wave of public protests, eight years after political unrest swept through the region, toppling the longstanding rulers of Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia.

This time, revolt is brewing in Algeria and Sudan.

Back in the tumultuous 2010-2011 period, the leaders of Algeria and Sudan felt the threat of overthrow, but managed to avoid it with vague promises of reform.

Now, however, after weeks of protests on the streets of Khartoum and Algiers, the leaders of both countries have had no choice but to step down in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Although Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir was removed from power on April 11, and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on April 2, it is not business as usual in either country.

Let us not mix up the two nations; although developments in Algeria and Sudan are—in the larger scheme of things—related, circumstances differ in a number of important ways.

In Algeria’s case, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, had been in power since 1999, during which time his government has largely failed to improve the lives of nearly 42 million Algerian citizens.

Despite growing street protests, Bouteflika was determined to run for yet another term, but was forced to initially withdraw his nomination in March, and when the army finally switched sides, to step down altogether.

With Bouteflika resigning, protesters are worried that the old political establishment—comprised of the usual mix of faceless businesspeople, well-connected bureaucrats, and high-ranking military officers—will prepare itself for a new era and put in place another leader of their choice.

This fear is compounded by the fact that Bouteflika, incapacitated by health problems, had not been personally running the country for years anyway.

The protesters have not stopped taking to the streets despite Bouteflika’s stepping down, and are demanding a complete removal of the previous regime and all of its cronies.

According to Algeria’s Constitution, an election must be held in the space of 90 days, but most opposition members believe that a democratic and transparent election is unlikely to be organized by then.

And history shows that premature elections can be ideal opportunities for presiding political establishments to have their puppet leaders sworn in.

In fact, Abdelkader Bensalah, the current acting head of state who took charge after Bouteflika’s resignation, is largely mistrusted and rejected by the protesters.

Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army chief who suggested that Bouteflika should be pronounced “unfit for office,” has fallen out of favor with many protesters as well.

However, a large number of Algerian magistrates have threatened to boycott the proposed election in July. As magistrates play a central role in election oversight, this can effectively cancel the forthcoming vote.

A delay could give enough time to Algerian civil society to reinvent itself and find a new figure to rally around.

At present, there is no opposition figure supported by all protesters who could fill the void, a fact that greatly increases the chance of civil conflict.

Among all the uncertainty and chaos, however, there is a beacon of hope. The protests in Algeria have been by-and-large free of violence, and the army has not confronted protesters as of yet.This adherence to peaceful political change is particularly important, with the experience of, say, Libya, has shown that violent revolts against undemocratic regimes in the MENA region often backfire.

If all goes well in the critical months ahead, Algeria can go through a transition period and reemerge in a more democratic incarnation.

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