Abdel Aziz Bouteflicka: an inglorious end to an era
By Imran Yawer
On Tuesday, April 2, President Abdel Aziz Bouteflicka finally succumbed to popular demand and handed in his resignation to the Head of the Constitutional Council, Tayeb Belaizon. In his message published by the state media, the former President of Algeria stated; ‘I have the honor to formally notify you of my decision to terminate my term as President of the Republic, as from today’. He thanked the people for ‘having him rule the country for 20 years,’ and sought forgiveness ‘for any failing’. The message added that he was ‘leaving the political scene without sadness or fear, for the future of our country.’ Finally, he urged the people ‘to stay united.’ Following Mr. Bouteflicka’s resignation, President of the Council of the Nation, Abdelkader Bensalah, took over as acting President with the mandate to hold elections within a period of 90 days.
In a related development, signifying an end of an era, the State Prosecutor has opened cases against some of the businessmen and officials close to the former President on charges of corruption and banned them from transferring assets abroad. Action has also been taken in arresting leading tycoons, including Ali Haddad, Mahieddine Tahkout and Reda Kouninef. Reportedly, the army has also ordered investigation into cases of alleged corruption.
As news of Mr. Bouteflicka’s resignation spread, gleeful Algerians swarmed the streets to savour their victory. At the same time, many view the resignation as a deft maneuver by the regime to perpetuate power and influence in the country. It is widely believed that during his sustained debility, Mr. Bouteflicka was relegated to a mere figurehead for an opaque clan of officials, businessmen and politicians, representing the deep state, and who are still at the helm of affairs. For them, the former President, even in his most frail state of health, remained a symbol of stability and legitimacy. With him now gone, and haunted by the prevailing political uncertainty, the ruling clan would hope for a quick return to normalcy and a smooth transition that would ensure continuity of the system and their grip on the executive. For the protesting Algerians, determined to demolish an ossified political system, ‘the clan transition option’ would be unacceptable. In the resulting standoff, much would depend on the extent to which the government, and in particular the military, would concede to popular demand for a free and fair succession.
In the world of politics, it is sanctioned that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Awestruck by the tenacity and magnitude of the demonstrations, Bouteflicka’s long-time close confidants and consiglieres – including army chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Said Salah – finally distanced themselves from the beleaguered President. It was evident that they had under-assessed the resolve of the nation. In realisation that it was the end of the road for the President, the army chief issued a statement expressing admiration for the movement. He then called for impeachment proceedings, saying that ‘there is no more room to waste time…..we decided clearly … to stand with the people so all their demands get fulfilled.’ In fact, throughout the protests, the Algerian army stood in the rear, their truncheons sheathed, as they let events unfold. By declaring itself in sync with the broad-based popular movement, the military leadership hopes to rein in the uprising and salvage the system. And while the protesters want a clean break from the past, it is unlikely that the army will go along with such a move. Indeed, going by the pulse of the nation, the army is expected to face resistance from demonstrators calling for end to the system of exploitation. On the other hand, continued protests could test the limits of the army’s self-restraint. The fear is that the resulting deadlock could trigger violence, and in turn, the movement could degenerate into anarchy and mayhem, as has already been witnessed in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Amidst popular demand for wholesale reforms, the top priority for the caretaker set-up is to organise fair and free elections, and to ensure peaceful transition to a stable democracy. The protestors want to see the exit of the elderly generation of leaders who they blame for the country’s economic malice. However, there is no obvious successor or identifiable political figure who is acceptable to both the people and the army. Besides, Algeria does not have strong and organised political parties with roots in the people. In this backdrop, Mr. Bouteflicka’s resignation has created a leadership void, and with it, an uncertainty for the political future of the country. There is speculation that General Said Salah has an eye on the top slot but the Algerian people may not accept that. They have already said ‘no’ to the caretaker setup, to Bouteflika’s most trusted people, including Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, to the Head of the Constitutional Council, Tayeb Belaizon, and to Bensalah, the man expected to navigate the succession.
In the absence of a galvanized and effective leadership, the movement may find it difficult to mutate from protests to politics. It is rare that a leaderless movement can sustain the vigour and energy to see the change it desires. Now that Bouteflicka is gone, the movement will have to evolve into a formal political structure to stay relevant. The protestors in Algeria have till now displayed a very high political maturity. They have challenged the deeply entrenched political order, and managed to dislodge the President of the Republic without spilling a drop of blood. But now is the time for the political process to start. Prolonged protests and continued evolution of demands brings not only the risk of confrontation with the state, but it also creates political space for the Islamists to regroup and rebound.
Finally, the transition government will face the monumental challenge of transforming the country’s stagnant and state-dominated economy. After the 2014 global downturn in oil prices, Algeria’s oil revenues started declining, and the reserves fell from $178bn in 2014 to $80.6bn at the end of June 2018. More so, youth unemployment is at 28 percent, and economic growth is just 1.6 percent. The Algerian people bemoan the erosion of their buying power as the dinar has lost value, and the former government’s much trumpeted economic diversification plan was never really followed. In addition, foreign investment has been slow to come to Algeria because of an unfriendly and non-cooperative business environment for new companies. As a result, the economic downturn has hit the vulnerable population the hardest. In this scenario, a mismanaged succession could spell instability for the country and for the region.
The Algerian people’s fight is not only against systemic inadequacies, but also the existing political status quo flowing from the vestiges of the Bouteflika power structure, and the totally unresponsive nature of the system to the needs of the people. These mass protests may have started out as anti-Bouteflika demonstrations, but with the passage of time, emboldened activists are calling for a more drastic overhaul of the country’s government and its leadership. According to an Algerian civil right activist, the people want ‘radical change, a change in leadership, they didn’t want Bouteflika, they don’t want Bouteflika’s family, or Bouteflika’s clan — and they don’t want the old guard to stay in power. Their slogan is ‘système dégage’ or, ‘system, get lost’ ‘the whole apparatus of the state with its phony legalism and its compromised nomenklatura, must go’.
The writer is a former ambassador