Since February 22, Algeria has been shaken by unprecedented nationwide demonstrations, which remind many of us of the 2011 uprisings in other Arab countries. Algeria escaped that so-called Arab Spring, but it experienced a much earlier period of unrest when weeklong riots erupted in October 1988. The nationwide violence ended only after the regime agreed to implement political reforms, including ending the single-party system and opening to pluralism. That democratic opening lasted only three years, however, and its failure led to a decade-long civil war, in which as many as 200,000 people are believed to have been killed, according to figures released by human-rights NGOs. Many Algerians say with national pride that they started the Arab Spring 25 years earlier than the rest of the Arab world. Algeria was not touched by the 2011 uprising for two reasons. First, the bloody decade of civil war (1992–2002) was still fresh in memory, so Algerians were wary about another uprising; and second, the government had enough financial means at the time to appease social unrest.
The Failure of the First Democratic Transition
In order to understand the current uprising, it is worth going back to the 1990s. In December 1991, after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won a majority of parliamentary seats in the initial round of Algeria’s first free elections, it was poised to form a new government. The military, however, was surprised by the results and felt threatened by the Islamist victory, so it canceled the second round and forced the sitting president, Chadli Bendjedid, to resign. The Islamists then launched a guerrilla war, attacking the security forces. The military appointed as head of state Mohamed Boudiaf, a hero of the liberation war (1954–62) who had been living in exile for 30 years—but he was murdered after only five months in office. Public opinion was not convinced by the official story, which accused the Islamists of the assassination (many have long suspected the military of being behind Boudiaf’s murder). Gen. Liamine Zeroual, a former army chief of staff, was then appointed president, and in 1995 he was elected to the office. But Zeroual was forced to resign at the end of 1998 because the military hierarchy did not agree with him on the negotiations he was conducting with the jailed Islamist leaders. The military then asked Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former minister of foreign affairs (1964–78), to run for office.
In April 1999, Bouteflika was elected with the promise that he would bring peace to the country. Three years later, the intelligence service, a directory within the ministry of defense, reached an agreement with the Islamic Salvation Army, the military branch of the FIS. Officially, that was the end of the bloody decade that had put Algeria in turmoil.
Bouteflika: 20 Years in Office
Bouteflika has been credited with bringing peace, as well as economic improvement following the enormous increase in oil prices, from $20 in 2000 to $140 in 2008. Investments in infrastructure contributed to a fall in unemployment and somewhat eased the housing crisis. In 2004, Bouteflika ran for a second term, promising on the campaign trail a larger welfare state made possible by the hydrocarbon financial bonanza. But in 2005, a year into his second term, he underwent a major medical operation that dramatically reduced his physical capacities. He relied on the government to maintain his popular image, and, despite declining health, he ran successfully for a third term in 2009. The official discourse argued that continuity was in the interest of the nation. In 2013, a stroke prevented him from walking and speaking. Since then, Bouteflika has given no public speech and has not fulfilled his official duties, among them receiving foreign officials or attending international summits. He travels to France and to Switzerland only to go to hospitals. Yet, despite physical limitations, he ran for a fourth term in 2014. Some high-ranking officers, including Gen. Tewfik Mediene, the strongman of the intelligence service at the time, expressed reservations, but they accepted the final decision made by their colleagues in the hierarchy.
Bouteflika’s health deteriorated further, preventing him from attending meetings and rallies, where only his portrait in a giant frame was displayed. This totemic photo is today the laughingstock of the young demonstrators. The official announcement on February 18 of his candidacy for a fifth term was the last straw for the population. Millions of citizens demonstrated nationwide on February 22 to give voice to their anger. They felt that being asked to elect a mummy was an insult to their national pride. The following Friday, March 1, the protesters demanded regime change. On March 8, International Women’s Day, the number of demonstrators, including women, grew even more.
To calm down the street, the regime announced that Bouteflika, now 82, would not run for a fifth term, but that he would stay in office until political reforms are implemented. The presidential election, planned for April 18, was postponed. The demonstrators, however, were outraged by this blatant attempt by the regime to extend Bouteflika’s fourth term. In the streets, protesters were shouting, “We wanted elections without Bouteflika, but you imposed Bouteflika without elections. Shame on you!”
A Demand for Political Legitimacy
The most striking feature of the uprising is that the gigantic rallies taking place are peaceful and socially mixed, with men and women, old and young, holding up signs deriding the rulers. One of them read, “Since you ask us to vote for a photo in a frame, we would rather vote for Leonardo da Vinci’s La Gioconda.” The demonstrators are also warning the Western powers in a humorous way not to get involved in their domestic crisis. Students from Algiers University held up a sign saying, “America, stay away from us. We don’t have oil anymore; we have only olive oil.” To French president Emmanuel Macron, who sent a message supporting Bouteflika, the students answered, “It is your right to marry an old lady. It is our right to choose a young president.” It is the first time that Algeria has experienced a peaceful uprising full of humor, giving the image of a festive national uprising. Old-timers are saying they have not seen such joyful crowds since the independence celebration of July 1962.
Although they are peaceful and joyful, the hundreds of thousands of young demonstrators are adamant in their resolve to get rid of the regime. Algeria has entered a revolutionary phase aimed at challenging the political legitimacy on which state institutions have rested for decades. For historical reasons, the army has always been the provider of that legitimacy, playing the role that the electorate plays in democratic regimes. The military hierarchy appoints the president and asks the administration to organize elections, but they are essentially farcical. Even though the Constitution grants the president the prerogatives of a head of state, he actually only endorses political decisions made on his behalf by the military hierarchy. The presidency is simply the institution through which the military passes its decisions, which are implemented by the government and adopted as laws by the National Assembly. As far as the military hierarchy is concerned, choosing an obedient president who accepts this pattern of rule is crucial. The army fears the rise of an Algerian Erdogan who would call into question its supremacy.
The intelligence service shapes the political field by infiltrating the parties, the unions, the NGOs, and the press, forcing them to submit to the unwritten rule of the system: that the army is the sole source of power. It decides the number of seats granted to the parties in the elected bodies. Out of almost 400 representatives in the National Assembly, only 50 seats are allotted to the opposition, a gesture intended to show that Algeria is a democratic state in which the government is freely criticized by political parties. This setup has reached its limits, with massive corruption at all levels of the state administration. It is the main factor behind today’s deep unrest, which will result in either regime change or in chaos—which would not only endanger the stability of North Africa but also have serious consequences for Europe, with waves of refugees.
Syrian Chaos or the Tunisian Model?
Today there are two political actors facing each other: the army and the demonstrators in the street. The scale of the protests is so large that the regime cannot use violence to quell the peaceful uprising without putting at risk the unity of the army. Even the most authoritarian regime cannot neutralize millions of protesters by force. In an attempt to appease the street, on March 26 the army chief of staff, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, made a speech in which he asked the Constitutional Council to declare the president unfit to rule for health reasons, on the basis of Article 102 of the Constitution. The sitting president will be replaced for a period of three months by the president of the Senate. If accepted by the demonstrators, this scenario will give the regime the opportunity to organize new elections. The demonstrators, however, have answered that this is too little, too late. They want a transition led by credible people who never belonged to the regime.
Many observers of the Middle East/North Africa region fear that Algeria will repeat the Syrian nightmare, with its chaos and tragedy. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, ousted in March, has threatened the demonstrators, warning ominously that in Syria, too, it started peacefully, with roses. Asked about this parallel, a young woman who was demonstrating answered, “It won’t be Syria; it will be Tunisia, where the democratic transition got rid of the old regime.”
She is probably right. There are at least two key factors that differentiate Algeria from Syria. The first is geopolitical, and pertains to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Soon after the protests began in Syria, the Gulf monarchies, including the Saudis, began sending money and weapons to the Islamist insurgents. Fearing a future Syrian regime allied to Saudi Arabia, Iran and its ally Hezbollah supported President Bashar al-Assad. Geopolitics has thus not only deepened the conflict in Syria but been an obstacle to regime change there. But that country’s meddlesome neighbors are far from Algeria, and neither Iran nor the Gulf monarchies have major social, ideological, or economic investments in Algeria.
The second factor pertains to the social fabric of the two countries. Syria is made up of different religious communities, and the minorities feared that a new regime dominated by intolerant Sunni Wahhabis would persecute them. Assad’s regime took advantage of these divisions to mobilize resources at both the domestic and international level. Algerian society is more homogeneous, with the overwhelming majority of Algerians being Sunni Muslims belonging to the Maliki rite. Even the Berber issue does not divide the population. Berberophones had wanted the government to recognize Berber as an official language in Algeria, along with Arabic, and to allow Berber to be taught in the schools. The government consented some years ago, and now the language is taught in many parts of the country. As far as the Islamists are concerned, they have lost much of their influence—and now they are asking for a civil state, not a religious one. The example of Tunisia is evidence of this evolution. The main divide in Algeria now is between the majority of the population and the regime, widely perceived as corrupt. And that gives hope for a positive outcome to this uprising.