People celebrate on the streets after Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika submitted his resignation, in Algiers, Algeria April 2, 2019. [Ramzi Boudina/Reuters]
On February 10, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – or those who have been speaking for him over the past six years – announced that he was running for a fifth mandate as head of state. It seemed that the incapacitated president was going to prevail once again, despite widespread popular discontent.
By April 2, everything had changed. After seven rounds of mass demonstrations, along with the daily mobilisation of students, workers, activists and concerned citizens, Bouteflika has officially resigned. He will not finish his fourth mandate. It would be false and unfair to proclaim, as has the New York Times, that Bouteflika resigned under army pressure. The people are responsible, not the military. A peaceful popular mobilisation has put an end to the routine of government mediocrity, political absurdity and petty corruption.
The ruling coalition that controlled the state has slowly crumbled over the past couple of months. They failed as they used to govern: in a disorderly fashion, attached to their vested interests and without ever convincing the population with their mea culpa. Members of the so-called Revolutionary Family, ruling parties, business owner associations, and trade unions progressively abandoned the president. Their compromised leaders couldn’t cope with the discontent coming from within their ranks. Officers in the army, led by the chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, eventually joined the movement at the end of March.
Yet, protesters are demanding much more. Bouteflika was the symbolic head of the ruling coalition, but the current movement seeks to uproot all of it. “Yetanahâw gâ’a,” an already legendary meme and one of the most iconic catchphrases of the past few months, means “they should all get taken away.” This is nothing short of a revolution. After a decade-long civil war and twenty years of increasingly grotesque politics, the Algerian people want to renovate their republic. This implies a profound yet peaceful renewal of the political and socio-economic fabric of the country.
Conversely, the events of past few days (the appointment of a new technocratic government, Salah’s public calls for Bouteflika’s dismissal, France supporting the “continuation of democratic transition”) all display the same logic. They aim to channel popular impulses and attenuate the effects of this revolution to ensure the “continuity of the state”.
Protesters aim to save the state from those who endangered it with their mismanagement. Yet, ensuring the continuity of the state has also been a way for factions of the crumbling ruling coalition to preserve their interests. Among other tricks, this resulted in Machiavellian negotiations conducted by the presidency and former members of the secret services in order to convince former President Liamine Zeroual to lead the transition. As usual, and despite the civil yet firm injunction of the population, members of the ruling elite tried to neutralise the effects of political change.
Counter-revolutionary forces are still far from being defeated. This is notably the case with the army, which is now the most powerful institution in the country. By hastening Bouteflika’s resignation, the army’s staff did not only echo popular demands. They also eliminated the last competing pole of power in the regime since the restructuring of the country’s intelligence services in 2015. As it stands, the army chief is the most influential man in the country, and he will defend his interests and those of other high-ranking officers. Their interference in the unfolding crisis is inevitable. While Gaid Salah is largely compromised, the army still has a genuine political legitimacy.
Other fragments of the ruling coalition are also still relevant. Because political parties and other peripheral organisations are in disarray, the technocracy is more than ever in charge of the daily management of the country. The new government led by Noureddine Bedoui is an assemblage of high-level public servants and technicians. These technocrats have remained pillars of the regime and navigated successive crises since the late 1980s.
As for the two figures in charge of ensuring the transition after Bouteflika’s resignation, they are both compromised members of the establishment. The current head of the constitutional council, Tayeb Belaiz, occupied key ministries (employment, justice, interior). His name surfaced during the Khalifa Bank corruption scandal, without juridical consequences. He was appointed by the presidency on February 11 2019, just a day after the announcement of Bouteflika’s candidacy. The head of the Council of the Nation, Abdelkader Bensalah, is supposed to become head of state during a ninety days interim period. He has remained until the end a devoted supporter of Bouteflika, which is unlikely to appease the protesters.
While counter-revolutionary elements are still in control of the Algerian state, a couple of key issues will affect the outcome of the revolution. It remains to be seen whether political opposition forces will support popular mobilisation by proposing a coherent alternative to the bureaucratic-military apparatus. For the first time since the 1992 military coup, these opponents are in a position to seize power. After suffering from pervasive fragmentation and discredit, they have the difficult task of proving that Algerian politicians can be responsible and respectful of their constituents.
The second sensitive issue is the economic side of the revolution. As the judicial apparatus has turned its wrath against crony capitalists associated with the presidency, it seems that the systematic embezzlement and corruption that have undermined the country might finally be addressed. Yet, these structural problems will not be solved by punishing a handful of businessmen, as powerful as they might be. These flaws are inherent to the Algerian state apparatus, and thus to those who are still in charge – namely, technocrats and high-ranking officers. Moreover, economic justice cannot be limited to a mere struggle against corruption. The promise of redistribution and collective well-being inherited from decolonisation still has to be fulfilled.
In conclusion, the situation in Algeria is full of uncertainty. Peaceful revolutionaries face a well-entrenched bureaucratic-military apparatus, which has been channelling and derailing transitions for more than 30 years. Yet, contrary to the catastrophising and paternalistic narrative characteristic of Western media, there are some reasons to be optimistic.
First, both sides have demonstrated their rejection of violence and their refusal to do anything that would lead to a repetition of the civil war. While there was no reason to doubt the pacifism of the population, it is important to notice that even members of the army have been reluctant to militarise the crisis.
Second, the patriotism of the movement is deeply rooted in the national political culture. The Algerian people, as sanctified when associated with the war of independence, have slowly resurfaced over the last decade. Political opponents of various stripes have shown their awareness of this evolution and have tried to overcome their divisions, beyond the fractures of the “Dark Decade”. In a platform released on March 19, they rejected any direct intervention of the army and expressed their attachment to a radical and peaceful change.
Finally, and most importantly, the Algerian people, and especially the youth, have proven to be politicised, organised and conscious of the stakes of the current crisis. They have regained their dignity by themselves, without the help of any foreign power or the mediation of any representative. Such an exemplary political performance will compel the future leaders of the country, whoever they might be, to meet the standards of their own people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.