Date: Saturday, 02 March 2019
Thousands poured into Algeria’s streets on Friday for a second week of unusual demonstrations against the country’s aging and ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose decision to run for a fifth term has aroused unexpected popular opposition.
Analysts and local journalists said the size of the antigovernment crowds all over the country was the largest in over 30 years, and spoke of a possible shift in the balance of power in a place ruled for years by a gerontocracy left over from the country’s war of independence against France nearly 60 years ago. They said this Friday’s crowds were even bigger than those of last week.
Frustration with a president so enfeebled that his framed image — known as “the frame” — replaces his physical presence at government rallies appears to have boiled over, analysts said.
Mr. Bouteflika turns 82 on Saturday, is paralyzed and in a wheelchair following a 2013 stroke, and has not spoken in public in seven years. He left the country earlier this week for medical treatment in Switzerland and has not returned.
The streets of Algiers were thick with demonstrators, many of them young, who took to the protests after Friday prayers. Many held signs saying “Stop!” and shouting “F.L.N., get lost,” referring to the historic ruling party.
Last week the F.L.N. party leader, Mouad Bouchareb, scornfully told the demonstrators: “To all those calling for change: I say dream on, and sleep well!”
Those comments enraged the crowd. “It’s a republic, not a kingdom!” some shouted, while others yelled, “You’ve stolen the country.”
Over and over the demonstrators said they were on the street because they had had enough of Mr. Bouteflika. “I’m demonstrating against a fifth term, because our economic and political situation is so bad,” said Kamel, a hotel receptionist in Algiers who would not give his last name for fear of government reprisal.
Street protests are officially banned in the capital and the police have not hesitated to use force to repress them. As Mr. Bouteflika’s condition has steadily deteriorated, the government has stifled opposition by adopting security laws with often vague and broad definitions of what qualifies as a threat to the state.
But this time that strategy does not appear to be working. The country’s extensive security forces have been mostly passive as citizens have coursed through the streets of Algiers shouting slogans against Mr. Bouteflika’s candidacy. On Friday, there was occasional use of tear gas, but the police appeared to be well disposed toward the crowds on the whole, observers noted.
For years the government has tamped down opposition by holding itself as the only alternative to the chaos of the country’s bloody civil war in the 1990s, when some 200,000 were killed in an Islamist uprising. That legacy also helped keep the country calm even as others around it were swept up in the Arab Spring of 2011.
But many in the crowd, noted Mustapha Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer in Algiers, are now too young to have known the so-called black decade of the ’90s.
“It’s a movement of the young, and of all Algerian citizens,” Mr. Bouchachi said in a telephone interview from the capital. “It’s this feeling of dishonor, that the regime is daring to present as candidate a man who is gravely ill, and who runs nothing.”
“It’s this contempt for Algerians that is pushing this uprising, along with the rampant corruption,” he added. “The president is incapable both of managing the state, and of naming officials. This person can no longer read or write. He’s been taken hostage by a mafia band.”
Decision-making is thought to emanate from a small circle around Mr. Bouteflika, including his brother Said and the army chief of staff, Gen. Ahmed Gaïd-Salah, who this week warned against “doubtful appeals that are pushing Algerians toward the unknown.”
As the president has all but disappeared from public view, speculation has mounted that Mr. Bouteflika has become a placeholder, while the competing circle around him, divided by clan loyalties, has grown attached to the spoils of power and remained deadlocked over how to move forward.
Algeria, heavily dependent on oil and gas — over two-thirds of state revenue comes from it — faces a crisis of youth unemployment in a country where over 70 percent of the population is under 30. State revenues have dropped sharply with the fall of the price in oil, forcing the government to make cuts in the social programs that otherwise keep citizens quiescent.
“I’m not demonstrating for myself. Our generation is finished,” said Mourad, an engineer in his 50s who was in the crowd in central Algiers. “I’m marching for my children. I’m demonstrating so that our kids no longer have to endure classes of 45.”
The demonstration were not limited to the capital. In Algerian’s second city, Oran, the streets were “black with people” Friday, the independent news website TSA said. The government rarely admits foreign journalists into the country, one of the most closed in the Arab world. On Thursday, dozens of journalists were arrested protesting against state media’s refusal to cover the ongoing protests.
“It’s a huge mobilization,” said Nacer Djabi, a well-known Algerian sociologist, in a telephone interview from Algiers. “You can see it today. There are millions of people, and it’s all over the country. People have seen this candidacy as a provocation, and a humiliation. He doesn’t represent Algeria anymore, inside our outside the country. People don’t see how a president that sick can run Algeria.”
Mr. Bouteflika was an influential young colonel in the liberation army of the early 1960s and later served as Algeria’s foreign minister. He has won his recent elections with huge majorities, leading to suspicions of vote rigging, though the Algerian system is so opaque it is difficult to know for certain.
But the stretch for a fifth five-year term and the country’s general stasis are now apparently frustrating and mobilizing a new generation of youth.
“The number of people who are coming out is really big,” said Fatiha Benabbou, a constitutional scholar in Algeria who signed a letter denouncing Mr. Bouteflika’s candidacy. “It’s the young who people thought were completely depoliticized, those who don’t even vote,” she said. “They don’t want this fifth term. It’s sort of a humiliation for them.”
And for those who had voted for the president in the past, “they don’t detest Bouteflika, but they are saying, ‘He’s done four, and that’s enough,’” said Ms. Benabbou. “These are minimal demands. This country is governed by a gerontocracy that is immobile.”