The myth of stability in Algeria

The image of Algeria as an island of stability in an otherwise turbulent region was shattered, once and for all, when mass protests erupted in mid-February this year, after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he would run for a fifth presidential term, despite having been seriously disabled ever since he suffered a stroke in April 2013 and rarely appearing in public thereafter. Demonstrations against this decision quickly gained momentum, drawing in millions of people from all age groups, professions, social classes and regions. Many regime loyalists found it increasingly difficult to back a fifth term for the president, who had come to power in April 1999 but whose ailing health had made him increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by key economic, military and political elites. Indeed, the only reason why these central powerbrokers – who largely operate behind the scenes in Algeria and have thereby become known as ‘le pouvoir’ – had kept Bouteflika in power for so long was because they could not agree on a suitable successor.

The protest movement, triggered by the prospect of a fifth term for the ailing president, soon came to focus on a set of wider grievances. These included rampant poverty and unemployment, especially of university graduates, alongside political exclusion and, last but not least, growing popular dislike for the hogra, the term Algerians use to describe the contempt they feel directed by the ruling class towards ordinary people. On 26 March 2019 Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, an historical move which caught not only Algeria’s central powerbrokers but also many analysts and scholars of the region off guard. To an extent, this development bore similarities to the Arab Spring over eight years ago, when the demands of protesters quickly broadened to include deeper social and political change, which then escalated, in some cases, into the toppling of autocrats who had been in power for decades – a fateful chain of events that, even then, had been anticipated neither by policymakers nor by scholars. This then raises two questions: Why did the Algerian protests erupt when they did? And could we have seen them coming?

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