Algeria was largely untouched by the uprisings that in 2011 led to the downfall of dictators in neighboring Tunisia and Libya, as well as Egypt. But when Mr. Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, put himself forward for a fifth presidential term, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in February, making Algiers look a lot like Cairo eight years ago. Six subsequent weeks of largely leaderless demonstrations have been dominated by young people, who could not abide the prospect of further rule — at least in name — by an 82-year-old man who has not spoken in public since he suffered a stroke six years ago.
Algeria’s largely opaque ruling clique, dominated by the military, hasn’t yet yielded to the demands of the protesters for an end to the current political system and a transition to genuine democracy. Led by the army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, it is trying to preserve itself by casting off its most despised elements. In addition to retiring Mr. Bouteflika, the regime arrested one of the country’s richest men and seized the passports of a dozen other business tycoons who had profited from their connections to what Algerians call “Le Pouvoir,” or “The Power.”
It’s too early to tell how much further change will go. The constitution calls for new elections within 90 days, but if the political system is not reformed, the protests appear likely to continue. For now, those with interests in the Middle East ought to take some lessons — starting with the Trump administration. President Trump has bet on the region’s latest generation of dictators, including Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, even as they have pursued the most brutal repression in their nations’ modern histories. Yet Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not looking stable: The regimes have failed to offer workable economic solutions, especially for the swelling youth population.
An adjustment of U.S. policy is badly needed. Mr. Trump, who has invited Mr. Sissi to visit the White House next week, ought to press the Egyptian ruler to stop suppressing civil society and jailing peaceful opponents — especially secular liberals who advocate peaceful reforms. Above all, Mr. Sissi should be pressed to drop his misguided attempt to change the constitution so that he can serve until 2034 — effectively, for life. Algeria offers another vivid example of what can happen when unaccountable rulers entrench themselves while ignoring their societies’ pressing need for change.