Joy and foreboding hung in the air as the protesters surged into the centre of Algiers just past midnight on Monday.
There were students and labourers, pious young women in headscarves and secular leftists sporting berets. The thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life demanded an end to the 20-year reign of Algeria’s ailing, 82-year-old president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, hours after he announced he would be running for a fifth consecutive term on 18 April.
“This is a republic, not a kingdom,” they chanted.
Algeria’s well-armed, highly trained security forces were standing guard. Some of the protesters felt fear as they entered the Place du 1er Mai, the very heart of the Algerian capital. At first the police seemed to block the way, but then at around 1:30 am, they relented, giving the protesters control of the square.
“The police gave up,” one protester told The Independent. “They were tired, and the crowd was extraordinarily resilient.”
Algerians frequently protest, but the two-week wave of protests against a fifth Bouteflika term now erupting across Algeria may constitute the greatest political challenge to the country’s complex regime in 30 years.
On Sunday, the wheelchair bound Mr Bouteflika, currently under medical treatment in Switzerland, promised in a statement to stay in office one more year, draw up constitutional reforms, stand down, and call for early elections.
“I listened and heard the heartfelt cry of protesters and in particular of the thousands of youth who asked me about the future of our country,” said the letter, which was read aloud by his campaign manager.
But few trust him and his entourage at their word. Mr Bouteflika pushed through constitutional changes a decade ago so he could run for a third term, and promised five years ago to change the constitution and hand power to the young. He never did.
Protesters hit the streets again on Monday, with hundreds flooding the centre of Constantine and other cities.
“Historically Algeria’s protests have been about tangible things that the government can respond to - sanitation, water, electricity,” said Geoffrey Porter, a senior fellow and North Africa specialist at West Point and CEO of North Africa Risk Consulting. “These protests are about the system. And it’s difficult for the government to alter the political system in a way that mollifies their concerns.”
Dominated by competing networks of security officials and politicians with roots in the dominant National Liberation Front (FLN) that drove the French out of the country in the 1960s, the nation’s political elite has grown out of touch, and some say corrupt and incompetent.
Algeria is Africa’s largest nation by land mass, an oil and gas-rich behemoth with one of the most modern militaries in the developing world, and an important if off often quiet security partner to the West, especially in combating extremist groups in North Africa and the Sahel.
Algeria’s international partners have taken notice of the protests. "France is following very closely what is happening in Algeria,” said Didier Guillaume, a French cabinet minister, said in television interview. “It looks like what happened before in other countries, such as Tunisia or Egypt. We need this region to be calm and peaceful.”
But trouble has been brewing in Algeria for years. Despite its resources, the nation of 41 million consistently punches below its weight economically and diplomatically. It has failed to invest its hydrocarbon revenues in industries that could provide jobs for its burgeoning youth, instead doling out patronage cash to maintain loyalty to the state. Unemployment is at nearly 12 percent and youth unemployment at 30 per cent.
Analysts warn that the country’s economic state is about to worsen with mismanagement leading to increased domestic gas consumption and decreased state revenues. Fitch Solutions, a London consulting firm, predicted earlier this year that Algeria’s annual growth rate will plummet from about 2.5 per cent, to 1.25 per cent in the next several years, not nearly enough to employ youth entering the job market.
Resentment towards the ruling elite runs wide and deep, with many among the youth, students, and struggling middle class utterly lacking faith in the country’s leadership. In recent years, Algiers authorities tightened already stringent restrictions on foreign journalists visiting the country, so there are few if any independent assessments of how and whether the protesters are connected to the broader malaise.
The protests also may signal a generational shift. Algerians took to the streets demanding political change in the late 1980s, sparking a brief democratic opening followed by a crackdown by generals against surging Islamists and a calamitous 1990s civil war that continues to haunt the country.
That may be why many Algerians were reluctant to take part in protests that coincided with the Arab Spring uprisings eight years ago. Videos of protests posted to the internet in recent days, show hundreds of Algerians in their early 20s, who never experienced the horrors of the 1990s. The demonstrations of the last few days have a devil-may-care spirit that may spook some older Algerians shaped by a war that left hundreds of thousands dead.
“There won't be a 5th term for you, oh, Bouteflika,” is one slogan protesters have been chanting. “Even if you bring the commandos and add the SWATs.”
So far, Algerians across the political spectrum appear supportive of the protests. On Monday, news presenter Nadia Madassi abruptly resigned amid allegations she was censored. Jurists and doctors have called for strikes. Labour action in the energy sector could prove decisive.
A former Algerian minister, Sidi Ferroukhi, on Monday resigned from parliament and the FLN in a Facebook post seen as a gesture of solidarity with the protesters.
But many Algerians could become squeamish if the protests turn violent either at the hands of demonstrators or the security forces. Except for neighbouring Tunisia, protest across the Arab world have rarely led to democratic openings - but more misery regardless of outcome.
Still, Algeria has a far messier, pluralistic, and flexible political system than other Arab autocracies. It has a relatively free press and allows limited freedom of expression. Some 20 candidates are said to be running for the presidency, though none of them has much name recognition or will be able to marshall state resources like Mr Bouteflika.
Ali Benflis, a former prime minister turned prominent opposition leader, announced Sunday that he would not run, instead sketching out a roadmap for political change by postponing elections until October and forming a “technocratic, independent government tasked with organising a presidential election as well as running the usual affairs of the state
Algeria’s leadership is less a one-man show than an intertwined network of political, military, and business leaders. Even if Mr Bouteflika were to agree to stand down, it remains unclear who could win the confidence of both protesters and the ruling elite.
“There is a finite pool of qualified candidates that could run Algeria,” said Mr Porter. “And that finite pool is all in some ways connected to the current political system.”
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