After years of simmering dissent and recent massive protests, Algerian strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned from power on Tuesday, bringing an end to his 20-year rule over the North African nation. Despite the historic development, Algeria continues to be rocked by a renewed wave of protests, this time targeting the interim government that has replaced Bouteflika.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has praised the movement for its “mature and calm nature.”
The Algerian protests
After he suffered a stroke in 2013, Bouteflika became wheelchair bound and largely mute. Since then, he has nearly vanished from public view, only to be seen on billboards and rare video appearances. Already grappling with large scale unemployment and economic decay, Algerians increasingly began to question the 82-year-old leader’s fitness for office. The perennially-ill president was also seen to be dominated by a clique of family members, businesspersons, and military figures.
The inflection point in public anger occurred in early February this year, when Bouteflika announced that he would run for the presidency for the fifth time in the April 2019 elections – a foregone conclusion, given the country’s record of stage-managing polls. Thousands took to the streets, capturing international spotlight on February 22.
The protests kept expanding until March 3, when Bouteflika, sensing the first threat to his regime, announced that if re-elected, he would convene an assembly to rewrite the Algerian constitution, while also vowing to desist from running again after reforms were put into place. With no timeline given for this process, protesters demanded a complete makeover on an immediate basis, ignoring his plea for re-election. As outrage kept ballooning, Bouteflika declared on March 11 that he would not vie for a fifth term, and cancelled the April 2019 election, while promising reform. This led to further escalation among protesters, as Bouteflika did not make it clear when he would step down.
Meanwhile, even members of Bouteflika’s ruling party and the military establishment began seeing common cause with the protesters. The crucial push arrived on March 26, when army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah openly called for Bouteflika to quit. Bouteflika finally resigned on April 2.
The regime has now been replaced by a 90-day transitional government, composed of Bouteflika’s own loyalists, and is led by longtime ally and former Senate leader Abdelkader Bensallah. Many see the interim government as a continuation of Bouteflika’s rule, and there are fears of a hostile takeover by military chief Salah.
Algeria under Bouteflika
Upon independence in 1962, the 132-year French rule was succeeded by a socialist government, in which Bouteflika was junior foreign minister. Decades of political repression led to an uprising in 1988, forcing the ruling National Liberation Front government to introduce reforms. In the first free elections that were held in the oil-rich country in 1990, Islamist groups emerged as frontrunners. Soon, the military seized power, and the country plunged into a deadly civil war which killed over 2 lakhs.
As the blood-soaked conflict dragged on, military leaders reached out to Bouteflika, who at the time was living in exile. Upon assuming the presidency in 1999, Bouteflika brought an end to hostilities by 2002, and has been credited for maintaining stability in the country ever since.
Since then, the leader has clung on to power. For many years, Bouteflika managed to keep dissent at bay by evoking the country’s war torn past. Algeria even waded through the Arab Spring in 2011 without significant turbulence.
Things became difficult for the strongman with the global crude oil downturn, when unemployment began to soar and welfare programs became difficult to sustain, giving rise to widespread discontent in the country with over 50% youth.
Political freedoms have been rare under Bouteflika. Elections have been criticised for their irregularities. In the 2014 elections, Bouteflika was declared to have won with 81.5% of the vote, despite never having physically campaigned. Journalists and political opponents are also routinely imprisoned.