Written by Adam Nossiter
For weeks, millions of protesters filling Algeria’s streets have demanded the end of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year rule, as well as the “System” of cronyism and corruption he oversaw. On Tuesday night, the wheelchair-bound, 82-year-old president was finally forced from power. The final push came from the army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, a former ally who belatedly came around to the protesters’ view that the president was physically unable to perform his role, and was being used by a tight circle of family members and businessmen to preserve their privileges.
The country’s constitutional council ratified the resignation Wednesday, formally ending the rule of a man who had locked down Algeria’s politics for a generation, but leaving the country on the threshold of new uncertainties. Even though the protesters remarkably succeeded in removing Bouteflika from office without a single life lost or shot fired by the security services, the standoff is far from over. What happens now? Bouteflika, or the people around him, succeeded in at least one goal: The former president’s hand will continue to be felt, at least in the short term. An interim government named by Bouteflika on Sunday night is still in charge.
It will be presided over by a Bouteflika ally, the elderly head of the country’s senate, Abdelkader Bensalah, for 90 days, while elections are organized. The prime minister named by Bouteflika, former Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui, is seen as a Bouteflika loyalist and hard-liner, castigated by the political opposition and protesters as the man who organized rigged legislative elections in 2017 and has violently put down protests before. Who is running things? The interim government presided over by Bedoui and Bensalah is nominally in charge.
But it is certain that the army will keep a close watch on it. It is equally certain that its credibility with the street is limited. And it is an open question as to how long it lasts. The images on Algerian television were telling: A feeble-looking Bouteflika handing his resignation letter to the elderly president of the country’s constitutional council, watched by another elderly man, Bensalah, who will decide the country’s destiny as Bouteflika’s temporary replacement. That scenario is unlikely to reassure the thousands of youthful protesters who gathered to celebrate Bouteflika’s departure Tuesday night in central Algiers.
Although their main demand has been met, the two other men in the televised images symbolize the protesters’ other complaint: that Algeria remains in the hands of the “System,” the nexus of compromised politicians, businessmen and military who have kept democracy firmly at bay. Will this satisfy the protesters? That is unlikely. The interim government is already seen as Bouteflika’s creature, and Bensalah is widely known as a Bouteflika loyalist and the beneficiary of the ex-president’s patronage.
The protesters have been unified under the slogan, ‘‘Système degage!” or ‘‘System Get Lost!’’ Everybody associated with the Bouteflika regime is suspect in their eyes and has no legitimacy. They are demanding nothing less than a clean slate — new leaders, real elections and a real rule of law. Algeria has known none of these things. Meetings of opposition politicians and civil society groups are taking place in Algiers to map out a future for the country.
Out of these meetings, a few figures have emerged who could play a leading role, notably human rights lawyer Mostefa Bouchachi. What is the military likely to do? The unresolved issue for the coming days is, how far the military is likely to let the protesters go in their demand for an overhaul of the “System.” Salah himself, though now proclaiming himself on the side of the crowd, was very much part of the old regime. The army has been the ultimate arbiter of political life since independence 57 years ago.
This time, too, it was the army that gave the final push to Bouteflika. Without the army’s support it is unlikely the protest movement would have been successful in its goal to oust the ex-president. Is the army now willing to turn the country’s future entirely over to civilians, with no say? Unlikely.
“They are not going to stop Algerians from searching for a new Algeria, but they want to be present — an actor — because they have interests to protect,” said Hasni Abidi, Algerian-Swiss director of the Center for Study and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World, in Geneva.“It this role that is problematic,” Abidi said. “The army is the only decisive factor. But since Feb. 22” — the date of the first demonstration — “there is another actor: the street.”He added: “It is the army that is saying to the street: ‘I am your interlocutor.’ ”