Algeria protests: president stands down amid unrest
Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigns after getting cold shoulder from government allies
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has resigned from the position following nationwide protests and calls for an end to his 20-year rule.
According to Al Jazeera, the ailing 82-year-old leader “announced he was stepping down with immediate effect in a letter published by state-run APS news agency on Tuesday”, just hours after the country’s army chief “demanded action to remove him from office”.
Bouteflika, who suffered a major stroke in 2013, has “recently lost support from his own allies”, with the coalition ally of Algeria’s ruling party last week urging him to resign, reports The Guardian.
According to APS, Bouteflika notified Algeria’s 12-member Constitutional Council of his decision to end his mandate shortly before stepping down. "My intention... is to contribute to calming down the souls and minds of the citizens so that they can collectively take Algeria to the better future they aspire to," he said in a letter to the council president.
Under the Constitution, the president of the upper house, the Council of Nations, steps in as interim leader for up to 90 days so that presidential elections can be organised.
It is unclear who will take over permanently from Bouteflika. Bloomberg reports that his removal from office looks likely to “deepen uncertainty” in the North African OPEC member nation.
Despite such fears, hundreds of thousands of Algerians took to the streets late on Tuesday to celebrate his resignation.
However, protesters told the BBC that the demonstrations would continue in order to topple the rest of the Bouteflika regime. “We need to remove the whole previous regime and that is the hardest thing,” one said.
Protest leader Mustapha Bouchachi added that the resignation “changes nothing”.
Yasmine Bouchene, of the Les Jeunes Engages (Activist Youth) collective, told The Guardian that Bouteflika’s removal was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
“The demands didn’t change. We want them all gone. People are in downtown Algiers, celebrating this miniature victory, while also chanting that it’s just the beginning,” Bouchene said.
What’s behind the protests?
The protests were triggered by the president’s announcement in February that he would seek a fifth term, in elections scheduled for 18 April, despite severe ill health.
Bouteflika “has been all but absent from the public eye” since suffering a debilitating stroke in 2013, “prompting critics to question whether he is being used as a puppet candidate by a shadowy cabal of civilian and military figures close to the octogenarian,” Al Jazeera reports.
Although the protests started as student-led demonstrations, a broad cross-section of the population – some of whom have never been politically active before – quickly took to the streets, says Dalia Ghanem, an Algerian resident scholar at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“I’ve seen people from different generations and from different socio-economic backgrounds. Students were there, lawyers were there, doctors were there, the unemployed were there. This was really the scream of the people,” she told CNN.
Several lawmakers of the ruling FLN party resigned to join the protests, and even some long-time allies of Bouteflika expressed support for the demonstrations.
Is this the beginning of something bigger?
The events in Algeria have revived memories of the popular uprisings that swept the region in 2011, toppling the leaders of neighbouring Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Andrew England writes in the Financial Times.
Rana Jawad, the BBC’s North Africa correspondent, is wary of such comparisons, saying that the “days of romanticising popular movements in this region are long gone”.
But others are not so sure. Channel News Asia reports that the “coincidence of grievance and political aspiration” suggests that this uprising has much in common with the Arab Spring, but adds that while those uprisings “dissipated after the regime ratcheted up state spending and allowed for limited constitutional reforms, one hopes that this new opportunity for fundamental change won’t be squandered”.
According to Politico, demonstrators appear to have “learned the lessons of the Arab Spring protests and avoided the type of slogans people used in 2011”, such as “the people want the fall of the regime”. Instead, they simply called for “no fifth mandate”.
What is Bouteflika’s legacy?
Despite the widespread recent protests, Bouteflika was once regarded by many as a heroic figure in Algerian politics.
When he came to power, in 1999, the country was in the grip of a brutal civil war between the government and extremist factions that had raged for almost eight years. The war ended in 2002, and Bloomberg says that “many Algerians who lived through the violence still credit Bouteflika for his role in restoring peace”.
His popularity was boosted further in the 2010s by the introduction of significant increases in state benefits, and constitutional changes that granted more political rights to key constituencies, including women, business people and the indigenous Amazigh community.
But Bouteflika has also been criticised for ramping up these welfare payments using an unsustainable oil boom that ended in his fourth term, leaving the government cash-strapped.
According to experts including Algerian scholar Ghanem, Bouteflika also amended the Constitution to be able to run for office beyond the mandated two terms and “covered up high-level corruption and supported laws that weakened civil society”.