Algeria: Protests Surge as the Country's Elites Hunt for a Credible Successor

4 MINS READMar 8, 2019 | 20:26 GMT
The Big Picture

For the last three weeks, Algerians have taken to the streets in protest at longtime President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's attempt to seek a fifth term. An economic crisis over the last five years and a lack of clear economic or political reforms from the regime have laid the groundwork for the recent bout of protests. The unrest comes at a time when the powers that be are struggling to find a clear successor to Bouteflika, who faces serious health problems, meaning the regime also has no clear path to its preservation.

For the third week in a row, thousands of Algerians took to the streets nationwide after Friday prayers to protest President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's re-election bid in the North African country's April 19 election. The protests — the largest the Bouteflika government has faced since taking power in 1999 — have remained largely peaceful, though security forces have used tear gas in some cases.

Bad Economy, Bad Health

Much of the unrest stems from anger over the country's economy, which has languished in crisis since the 2014 collapse in oil prices. A subsequent budget crunch forced Algiers to enact a painful austerity program. But instead of going to international debt markets to cover its budget, the government risked increased inflation by choosing to borrow from the Algerian central bank as part of a five-year economic plan announced in 2017.

But Bouteflika, whose health has steadily declined since a debilitating stroke in 2013, has not been seen in public since November 2018. On Feb. 21, he went to Switzerland for medical treatment, but he has yet to return. In any case, poor health makes it unlikely he would be able to finish a new five-year term. This, along with the lack of an obvious successor, means the regime faces peril ahead, regardless of what happens on the streets.

No potential successor appears likely to satisfy the interest groups that make up the regime, which explains the ailing Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term.

The recent unrest has rattled the regime backing Bouteflika, who finally completed (by proxy) his registration to run for the elections on March 3. Not long after, state television read out a letter from the president in which he promised to hold a national dialogue a month after his prospective re-election to discuss economic, political and social reforms. In addition, Bouteflika vowed to hold a new presidential election in which he would not run within a year.

A Lack of a Credible Successor

The proposal is risky for the regime, because it has no obvious choice to replace the longtime Algerian president. As one of the few surviving leaders from Algeria's fight against France for independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Bouteflika enjoys unique cachet. He used this revolutionary credibility to draw Algeria out of its so-called "Dark Decade" of vicious civil war. Since then, he has erected a regime that includes members of the military and intelligence services that helped bring him to power and business and political elites that he has used to balance against the military. As a result, diverse patronage networks and power bases now support the regime.

No potential successor appears likely to satisfy all the interest groups that constitute the regime — hence the ailing Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term. But should he win, the promise to hold a snap election means the regime would have a year at most to find a suitable successor. Various factions of the regime have been jockeying to name this successor, which has resulted in military purges over the last year. There is no guarantee, of course, that the public would embrace whoever emerges in this competition.

The public appearance of splits among regime elites and its support base will indicate whether the unrest in Algeria will deepen. Already, the National Organization of Mujahideen, a group of veterans of the war against France, have backed the protests — a significant move given that the president uses his wartime service to bolster his standing. Eight members of Bouteflika's ruling National Liberation Front have also resigned in the last week. Whether Algeria's fragmented opposition can unify to force an actual national dialogue will also go a long way to determining how things play out. Thus far, some opposition elements have demanded the postponement of the elections, while others have said they will boycott the April vote. But with or without unrest, the age of Bouteflika will soon end.

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