April 06, 2019
Algerians gather during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers, on April 5, 2019. PHOTO: AFP
ALGIERS (WASHINGTON POST) – Thousands of Algerians poured into the streets after Friday prayers demanding a transition toward democracy and the ouster of key allies of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who resigned this week after 20 years in power.
The protests were the starkest indicator yet that Bouteflika’s ouster, at the insistence of the country’s powerful military, has failed to satisfy the tens of thousands of Algerians who have staged massive anti-government street protests nationwide over that past six weeks in this vast North African country.
Rather, Bouteflika’s departure appears to be only the start of a struggle whose ultimate denouement is far from certain.
Protesters are now more emboldened in seeking a dismissal of the remaining vestiges of the political order that has governed the country since winning independence from France in 1962 – and is now widely derided for its cronyism and corruption.
A circle of Bouteflika allies – the influential lawmakers, relatives and business executives known as the “pouvoir” or power – remain in control of the levers of the nation. They have become the protesters’ new targets.
“The people want them all out,” chanted the demonstrators on Friday (April 5) by the ornate main post office in the centre of the capital. By the afternoon, thousands more protesters from all walks of life – young and old, middle class and poor – were flowing along the main boulevards as contingents of riot police watched.
The mood was festive and joyful, with many draped in Algerian flags or waving them. Others carried posters emblazoned with images of officials in Bouteflika’s government.
One read: “You will be judged.”
Friday’s demonstrations came at the end of one of the most tumultuous weeks for Algeria, Africa’s largest country by area and a major oil and gas producer. Bouteflika, its longest serving head of state, joined the ranks of autocrats in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen who have been forced out of power by populist revolutions since the Arab Spring uprisings that swept across the region in 2011.
A veteran of Algeria’s war for independence, Bouteflika came to office in 1999 and presided over the end to a bloody civil war, known as “the Black Decade,” that killed more than 200,000.
As disillusionment grew over his government’s corruption, high unemployment and lack of opportunities, Algerians grew frustrated with his clinging to power despite his increasing infirmity. He also had little connection to Algerians, having virtually disappeared from the public eye following a 2013 stroke.
So when the ailing 82-year-old leader decided to run for a fifth term in office, tens of thousands of Algerians started staging protests in February. That, and a slew of key allies defecting from his fold, eventually forced Bouteflika to postpone the elections scheduled for this month and agree not to run for another term.
But many Algerians saw the move as a way to extend his fourth term and so the massive protests continued. The nation’s all-powerful military was also losing patience. Bouteflika’s political life began to unravel when General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff, urged lawmakers to deploy constitutional measures to declare the president unfit for office. On Tuesday, Gaid Salah bluntly demanded that Bouteflika vacate the presidency. Hours later, he did.
Many Algerians, though, remain wary. The constitution calls for the head of the upper house of Parliament, Abdelkader Bensalah, to become interim leader until an election can be held. But Bensalah has also been a key Bouteflika ally.
Also remaining in the political picture is Said Bouteflika, the president’s powerful brother, as well as other influential Bouteflika backers.
On Friday, many of the protesters were blunt in their disapproval of “le pouvoir”. Some carried effigies of Said Bouteflika and Ali Haddad, a business tycoon and Bouteflika ally who was arrested last weekend while trying to leave the country and was accused of corruption. The effigies of the men, along with another member of “le pouvoir,” had nooses around their necks.
“I am protesting for the same reasons I did on the first day,” said Slim Saci, a 37-year-old human resources manager who joined the demonstrations with his girlfriend. “Against injustice, for a democratic and free Algeria, where there is equality between men and women.”
Rachid Chaibi, an activist and member of the opposition Socialist Forces Front, a party known as the FFS, said the fundamental goal of the protesters is “the radical change of the entire existing system.” “Algerians don’t want a replacement of a facade,” said Chaibi. “They want to rebuild their country’s political and social system from ground zero. That’s something everyone agrees on.”
Concerns remain about the army’s role in the transition. While Algerians have applauded Gaid Salah and the military for speeding up Bouteflika’s departure, they have not forgotten that until two weeks ago, the army was instrumental in keeping the regime in power. In 1988, the army violently cracked down on protesters and later annulled a 1991 election won by Islamists, plunging the country into civil war.
Many Algerians also are aware that Egypt’s army played a similar role during the 2011 revolts that brought down President Hosni Mubarak, and later ousted the democratically elected Islamist president in a coup. Today, Egypt’s former top general Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is president, and its military is an omnipresent force.
While the Algerian army’s grip is not as strong, Gaid Salah and other top brass remain kingmakers. On Friday, some protesters expressed concern about the army’s growing involvement in politics.
Smail Ahcene, 35, the owner of a car rental company, said that Gaid Salah’s call for constitutional procedures to declare Bouteflika unfit for office was “an entanglement” and that the military “should not go into that aspect”. The army, he added, must remain neutral.
“Its role, now, should be to assure the protection of this revolution,” said Ahcene, who was carrying an Algerian flag.