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Here’s why Algerians are protesting

A projected fifth term for the ailing president has ignited calls for change.

- February 25, 2019

On Friday, Algerians took to the streets to protest the candidacy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term. While Algeria is no stranger to protests, with people speaking out against economic and political conditions, these protests are the biggest since 2011.

The nationwide protests on Friday, with the main theme of “No to the fifth term!,” were peaceful and larger than expected. This success created excitement, and smaller protests have been taking place. The protests will probably complicate the upcoming presidential election, and their outcome will largely depend on how the regime responds.

How did we get here?

The Algerian regime (the so-called pouvoir) has rival camps, including crosscutting military and civilian actors. To select the regime’s candidate for the April presidential elections, several names representing these camps were debated. But because there was no consensus on any candidate, the regime decided to continue with the current president.

Bouteflika, 81, has spent most of his fourth term in office away from the public eye due to his ailing health. He could not even announce his own candidacy with a news conference, opting for a written statement. The leaders of the four parties in the regime coalition announced Bouteflika’s candidacy and their support in a news conference days before that.

Because elections are not free and fair in Algeria, Bouteflika’s candidacy means an almost certain fifth term. After the official announcement of the candidacy, people started to raise their voices. News of small protests in subway stations, streets and stadiums circulated online for several days. Following calls on social media, people took to the streets all around the country on Friday.

How should we understand these protests?

First, these protests are the consequence of the regime’s own doing. The pouvoir wanted to keep internal unity and had good reason for it. In 1988, increasing divisions between the regime’s rival camps had opened a Pandora’s box leading to mass protests, a tumultuous democratization process, the regime’s temporary loss of power, a coup d’etat and a subsequent decade-long civil war.

To avoid a similar scenario, the regime prioritized internal unity and decided on Bouteflika to avoid divisions, despite his known health conditions. Even though this seemed to be the safest option, the decision-makers did not foresee this public reaction.

Second, the protests are not necessarily anti-regime. Even though these factors are effective in the buildup, the direct demands are not bread, freedom, social justice or even clean elections. “The people want the fall of the regime” is not the central slogan as it was in the regionwide protests in 2011. Rather, on one occasion, the protesters chanted, with a twist, “The people want to pave the way,” to move on from Bouteflika.

The protests are anti-Bouteflika or, more precisely, anti-fifth term. Bouteflika is not necessarily a hated figure. He had legitimacy for a long time, as he was seen by many as the savior from the civil strife and the builder of stability during his first terms in office. But, practically speaking, he has not been ruling the country for the last few years, and people are aware.

Most of the protesters could have been content with another candidate. If the regime decided on another consensus candidate who is not a contentious figure, we probably would not see such protests. Protesters do not chant for any of the opposition candidates, either. They are mainly against having a president whose health makes him unfit to serve a fifth term.

Possible trajectories

While it is early to foresee what comes next, these protests are clearly different from those of 2011, given the limited demands. Furthermore, the development of protest movements cannot be estimated only by the protesters; it also depends on the regime’s response. At this point, we can only speculate on potential responses and scenarios of protesters and the regime.

First, the regime may select a new candidate to replace Bouteflika. Since this would be a direct response to the protesters’ demands, a new candidate could resolve the issue. However, there are two risks to consider. On the one hand, this may, again, result in internal divisions for the regime. On the other, it could prove to be more difficult to convince people with an alternative candidate. If people are mobilized enough by the time a new name is announced, they may react to that candidate as well.

Second, the regime may use full repression and disperse, beat and arrest protesters to prevent further demonstrations. Because the protests are in an early stage, it is possible to end them with strong measures. However, this runs the risk of turning a protest movement with limited demands into a wide-ranging anti-regime movement.

Third, the regime may allow controlled protests until the tensions cool down as a middle-ground solution. On the one hand, the regime may show some muscle through controlling the Internet and limited repression of protests, as seen during the protests on Sunday. On the other hand, it could provide limited concessions or buy off potential leaders of the protests.

This third scenario is similar to the strategy that the regime used in 2011 against the protest movements. But there are two differences today: First, in 2011, Bouteflika went on national television and promised reforms to absorb pressures. Today, it is not clear what reforms can be promised against a demand to replace Bouteflika. Second, the regime used its resources to increase salaries, lower the cost of food imports and subsidize certain main consumption items to materially incentivize the end of protests at the time. Algeria, however, is going through an economic crisis, preventing such a strategy.

The presidential election is less than two months away, and the opposition is weak, divided and unprepared for such a popular protest movement. While there is not much doubt that the regime’s candidate would win the elections under normal conditions, the coming weeks will be another test of the Algerian regime’s resilience.

M. Tahir Kilavuz is a PhD candidate of political science and a fellow in the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame.