Algeria’s protests and presidential election, explained

On February 22, 2019, protests broke out across Algeria, from big cities such Algiers to small towns such as Tamanrasset, against incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s potential candidacy for a fifth term. In power since 1999, the 82-year-old former foreign minister’s health has been deteriorating since he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, and he is seen by many Algerians as incapable of carrying out the duties of the office. Once the representative of an independent Algeria that harbored revolutionary movements and their leaders around the world, he is now a symbol of shame and ridicule within a country in dire need of systemic reform. Bouteflika announced in March that he will not run for a fifth term, but protesters have continued to push for change. In order to understand the protests rocking the North African nation right now, we must first look at Algeria’s history and specifically Bouteflika’s presidency. Then we must examine the reasons for the protests themselves and analyze the protests in a domestic and international context. Finally, we must consider the significance of Bouteflika’s decision to not run for a fifth term and what his decision portends for the future of the country.       

For a large portion of Algeria’s recent history – 1991 to 2002 – the nation was wracked in a civil war that killed 150,000 to 200,000 people. In 1999, Bouteflika ran for the presidency and won. In that same year, he implemented the Civil Concord Law, a piece of legislation negotiated with the Islamic Salvation Army, a militia group. As a result, thousands of people associated with this group and similar groups were pardoned for their crimes. Over time, Bouteflika strengthened his hold on power, winning elections by enormous margins in the coming years. In 2013, he became virtually incapacitated upon suffering a stroke. After this incident, he made very few public appearances and his brother, Said Bouteflika, became more prominent in Algerian politics.   

The protests themselves are representative of youth unrest across the continent. Young Algerians who took to the streets saw Bouteflika’s potential candidacy for a fifth term as another way to deny their generation a chance at economic and social mobility and another sign that generals, businessman, politicians, and le pouvoir – the Algerian term for elite citizens who actually control the country’s democracy – are unwilling to hand over power. Another point of contention was the manner in which he confirmed his election campaign. According to Algerian law, presidential candidates are required to register in person. However, Bouteflika decided to send his campaign manager in his place to file the paperwork necessary to confirm his reelection bid. Electoral institutions such as the Constitutional Commission have said this violates electoral law. Such moves have only intensified the opposition to a fifth term for Bouteflika amongst those protesting in the streets.

Regarding analysis of the protests in the domestic and international context, there are many factors to consider. Starting with domestic implications, a letter that Bouteflika himself penned as a response to protesters’ calls for his resignation can be used to contextualize these protests. The letter addresses several issues that have been the source of frustration for many Algerians, and promises to institute socioeconomic and political reform, aimed toward young people. These reforms include overhauling domestic governance structures and rectifying harga, an Arabic term referring to a sense of economic and social alienation, through resource redistribution, and including youth in civic life.

As Bouteflika’s decision not to run pertains to the international community, there are many different factors at play. For the United States, counterterrorism interests are critical – and the Bouteflika regime has helped undermine the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and monitored suspicious elements of the Algerian community around the world with the help of other countries. As for the European Union, many of their collective concerns about the protests in Algeria and the consequences relate to a fear of the ongoing migration crisis being exacerbated, along with threats to energy security. The current administration has deterred Sub-Saharan African migrants from making their way across the Mediterranean, aiding European nations like France and Italy. In light of the recent political upheaval, there is uncertainty in certain international corners about whether Algeria will continue to be a reliable partner on this issue. As for energy security, Algeria is a critical source of energy for the EU, responsible for half of Spain’s natural gas supply. In the first six months of 2018, 10.7 percent of the EU’s total non-EU natural gas imports came from Algeria, which demonstrates the intimate relationship between the EU and Algeria on energy matters.

The significance of Bouteflika’s decision that he would not run for a fifth term is considerable and has delayed the date of the election. Protesters, dissatisfied with these moves, see it as a ploy to delay a political transition so as to allow Bouteflika to pick someone from the le pouvoir to preside over the country rather than someone who is favored by the people or emerged from a separate democratic process that the people are in favor of. Whether the results of the next election, originally slated for April but now with no certain date, will placate the population is undeterminable at this moment.


Author: Raj Rao

Raj Rao is a staff writer at The Compass. He is a freshman in the Elliott School majoring in international affairs. Outside of writing for the Compass, he is a member of Roosevelt Institute at GW.