For the past four weeks, thousands of Algerians have been pouring onto streets across the country, their discontent scrawled loud and clear on improvised banners, inscribed with such messages as: "Either you leave or we're going to leave", "you're robbing the country" and "no fifth mandate for you, Bouteflika". The outpouring of national rage, with echoes of the 2011 Arab uprisings, has followed in the wake of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's decision to stand for a fifth term last month. Exasperated with his domination of the country's politics for two decades and amid swelling anger over the stark disparity in wealth – despite Algeria being the world's fourth largest gas exporter and the 10th biggest exporter of oil, few of the riches trickle down – his decision to stand was the final straw for many. Earlier this month, Mr Bouteflika capitulated to their demands by rescinding his pledge to stand and promising a transition of power but for the protesters, it has been too tiny a concession. They want a complete overhaul of the system, not just the presidency. On Monday, the National Co-ordination for Change, a collective of opposition leaders, released a series of demands titled Platform for Change, urging Mr Bouteflika and his government to step down immediately.
Algeria is now at an impasse. Mr. Bouteflika has always feared that necessary socio-political and economic reforms could empower a middle class that will undoubtedly demand a shake-up of Algeria’s decades-old establishment. Now, in an unprecedented nationwide upsurge, demonstrators who began gathering after Friday prayers to march in more than 30 cities and villages are protesting on a daily basis. Their ranks include teachers, students, lawyers and doctors, crossing generational and class divisions to unite in their indignation at the 82-year-old ailing president's refusal to go.
Much of their chagrin is channelled towards the country’s high rate of youth unemployment, flawed social welfare programmes, inefficient bureaucracy, struggling economy and ossified ruling class, prompting one banner to read: “You have millions. But we are millions.”
But it is not simply the octogenarian president – who suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since – that they have to contend with. In Algeria's shadowy political establishment, the defenders of the political order are "le pouvoir", or "the power", made up of army officials and intelligence services. They will not be keen to lose their grip on the political process. Putting the frail Mr Bouteflika up for a fifth term was a gross miscalculation. While the president has agreed to hand over power as well as promising constitutional reforms, stage a national conference to tackle issues of grievance and set a new date for a presidential election, he has stopped short of stepping down immediately and has, in effect, extended his presidency, due to end on April 28.
But the dissent has clearly rattled the status quo, which this week went on a tour of allies to convince them to support its road map – and to send a clear message home that it still has the backing of world powers. Newly appointed deputy prime minister Ramtane Lamamra hastened to Russia this week and was due to go to China. Both supply weapons to the North African nation and have pledged their support. Russian foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov said after Tuesday’s meeting that Moscow “supports Mr Bouteflika’s plan to launch a national conference that would organise new presidential elections”. He also asserted that “Russia is concerned by what it considered to be an attempt to destabilise Algeria”, words that will assuage le pouvoir’s concerns – for now. Before his visit, Mr Lamamra also went to Paris, where the French foreign affairs minister Jean Yves Le Drian and president Emmanuel Macron endorsed the regime’s plan, and yesterday he was in Berlin, assuring the public that “the presidency will be handed over to a person elected by the Algerian people”. Western powers will be closely watching developments over the next few weeks. Algeria has taken a lead role in monitoring and countering terrorism in the region and its proximity to Europe makes its role critical to international security operations.
There is a feeling among Algerians, however, that the pledges of reforms, primarily steered by the existing regime, are empty promises and they are no longer convinced they represent real change. They know the regime will not give up control easily. Mr Bouteflika and his entourage have had two decades and billions of dollars of revenue to carry out necessary reforms and lay the foundations of a true democracy and viable economy but they completely and utterly failed to deliver.
Besides, Mr Bouteflika’s promise to hand over power to an elected president does not hold much hope for Algerians. No exact plan for a handover, nor a successor, has been put forward. The sacking of prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia and his replacement by the former interior minister Noureddine Bedoui carry little reason for optimism. Mr Bedoui has so far failed in his attempt to set up an “inclusive and technocratic interim government”, with 13 trade unions and several civil servants turning down his invitation for talks. He claims his mission is to “include women and young people” who are demanding genuine political change and that his government would be in charge only for a short transitional period until a national conference could be followed by presidential elections.
But many analysts think he is too embedded in Mr Bouteflika’s inner circle and his would-be government is another ruse to control the political process and the appointment of Mr Bouteflika’s successor.
Algerians want immediate political change through a smooth transition that would see the emergence of fresh faces. Even the two former foreign affairs ministers, Lakhdar Brahimi and Mr Lamamra, have been rejected by the hirak (the Arabic term for a popular mass protest movement) as they are both suspected of being frontmen for Mr Bouteflika’s agenda.
In fact, while he has declared “the voice of the people must be heard”, Mr Brahimi, a veteran diplomat and former UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, is known for being close to Mr Bouteflika and is deemed by some to be too entrenched in the political establishment.
So far, most opposition leaders have rejected Mr Bouteflika’s master plan. It is clear the authorities have failed to appreciate how unpopular they have become after years of misrule. And it is in this context of high tension that the University of Lyon-based Algerian sociologist Lahouari Addi thinks that “the military institution is facing a historical challenge. . . and the strategic interest of the country requires the army to stand on the side of the population. The army should be a facilitator and sponsor of the democratic transition as the old order is over. Trying to resurrect it would be disastrous.”
Activists in the National Co-ordination for Change are hoping the military will abide by its constitutional role. Memories live long of the army’s intervention in 1992, when it violently seized power in a coup after the Islamic Salvation Front emerged victorious in national democratic elections. The decade of bloodshed and torture that followed was thought to have claimed some 200,000 lives.
The army’s role in this crisis is therefore crucial, particularly if Mr Bouteflika remains in power after his constitutional mandate runs out. As political commentator Antoine Basbous says, although the army seems reluctant to throw its weight behind a man “who no longer represents the present nor the future of the country and is fading biologically, the whistle will be blown to signal the end of the game”.
During his recent visit to the southern borders of the country, army chief Ahmed Gaed Salah said the military "should and would take responsibility for finding a quick solution to the crisis", something of a departure from his previous comment that the protesters were "being led astray by foreign hands". If the army decides to withdraw its support, Mr Bouteflika's days in power are almost certainly numbered. But it is still too early to say whether, as it claims, the army "shares a vision of the future" with Algeria's people. For their sake, one can only hope that is true.
Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian independent scholar based in the US