CAIRO — Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced this week to end his two-decade rule by popular pressure and, ultimately, the powerful military brass. The question now: Can the protesters usher in democracy?
The Algerians who poured into the streets for the past six weeks seek a clean break with the current political order. To many, Bouteflika’s ouster is only the first notch in their struggle to bring about a democratic transition. They want to end the monopoly of military veterans, lawmakers, business tycoons, and clan members that has backed Bouteflika for decades and still retains control of the country.
“The system must go,” many protesters have chanted in the massive demonstrations.
Will the army brass, though, allow this? They, after all, are part of what’s collectively known as “le pouvoir” — the power.
The last time Algerians tried to bring about a democratic transition, the army felt so threatened that it violently suppressed the uprising.
In 1988, thousands of youths revolted across the country to protest rising prices and high unemployment. Security forces killed about 500 people and injured 1,000. The protests eventually led to the fall of the country’s ruling party, and to democratic elections in 1991. To this day, many Algerians call that revolt their Arab Spring moment.
But when an Islamist government was elected, the military annulled the victory, triggering a vicious civil war that killed more than 200,000 people. Algerians refer to it as the “Black Decade.”
This time, Algeria’s security forces have not used force to quell the demonstrations. Nor did the protesters, who carried out widespread nonviolent resistance across the nation. Many analysts said that was due to the memories of Algeria’s bloody past.
“The civil war has played a role in shaping people’s consciousness,” said Andrew Lebovich, a North Africa expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And it seems to have at least played a role, amid many other factors and influences, in the constant calls from protesters to keep demonstrations peaceful, no matter what.”
Can this continue?
Bouteflika’s resignation came after the military’s powerful chief of staff, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, demanded that Bouteflika leave office and urged a transition along the lines provided in the constitution. According to the constitution, the head of the upper house of parliament, Abdelkader Bensalah, will become interim leader, for a period no longer than three months, until an election can be held. Bensalah is a key ally of Bouteflika.
Salah, in a statement Tuesday, said the army would “support the people until their demands are fully and completely satisfied.” But those demands seem to conflict with the constitutional transition envisioned by the army.
“If these crowds remain large, if the protesters get more frustrated, if there aren’t much larger concessions, there is a significant risk of violence in Algeria which, of course, has regional repercussions,” said William Lawrence, a political science professor and North Africa expert at George Washington University.
So far, no one has emerged as a clear successor to Bouteflika. The protesters do not have a clear leader or a clear plan for what they seek.
“There is a certain naivete among the protesters, a lack of understanding of Algerian history and politics,” Lawrence said. “Nobody has stepped up, either promoted by the regime or by the protest crowds, that can grab the reins of the ship of state and navigate the ship.”
“Le pouvoir” remains in place. The army, now more powerful than ever, hovers in the background.
“The military is ruling the country from the tip of a pyramid of power,” said Dalia Ghanem Yazbeck, an Algerian who is a North Africa analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Even if there is a new leadership, we may wait a long, long time until this pyramid of power disappears entirely.”
At stake in Algeria is more than the future of a single country. Algeria is one of the world’s major oil and gas producers and plays an essential role in addressing regional conflicts, containing illegal migration to Europe and countering terrorism.
And the political uncertainty comes as the country’s economy is faltering. Falling global oil and gas prices have resulted in widespread unemployment, especially among youth.
“Against this backdrop, a bungled leadership transition and continuing economic stagnation could lead to further instability in Algeria that would have significant ramifications for U.S. counterterrorism interests and regional stability,” Geoff Porter, the head of a risk consulting firm focusing on North Africa, wrote in a Council on Foreign Relations analysis.
What happens next could also affect other authoritarian Arab regimes that have suppressed restive populations and no longer felt threatened by them.
“Algeria can serve as an inspiration, if not now, but years from now,” Yazbeck said.
Some analysts expressed concern that prolonged unrest could enable Islamic militants to regroup.
In the 2000s, a splinter force of Algerian Islamists who fought in the civil war pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, eventually naming themselves al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Their goal was to topple the Algerian government. Today, AQIM, as it is called, is among al-Qaeda’s most well-funded affiliates, raising money mostly through kidnapping Westerners for ransom in West and North Africa.
Under Bouteflika, Algerian security forces have largely neutralized al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The last al-Qaeda attack came three years ago, and there have been a handful of smaller Islamic State-inspired assaults, according to security analysts. But AQIM has not fully abandoned its cause in Algeria and could capitalize on any widening political instability, analysts said.
“In the absence of a rapid and nonviolent resolution, the unrest is likely to spawn profound security challenges — not only in terms of disruptions and security crackdowns, but also by providing additional space for Algeria’s militant groups to recover and expand,” wrote Scott Stewart, a terrorism and security analyst with Stratfor, a risk analysis firm.
European governments are also concerned that continued instability could lead to large numbers of Algerians crossing the Mediterranean Sea to search for a better life. Already, Algerians represent one of the largest groups of migrants to reach Europe by sea last year.