How much longer will Algeria cling to a tenuous stability if that stability comes at the cost of its dignity?
By Brendan Ng
Boston – For two weeks now, thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets in cities across the country and beyond to protest the announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika intends to seek a fifth term in office. In the past few days, the voices of activists and student protestors have been picked up by global media as many around the world struggle to comprehend the unbelievable series of events that have led up to this latest wave of very public outcry.
A grasp of this history reveals the incredible crossroads Algeria finds itself at today, as these street protests have come to represent nothing less than a battle for the country’s political soul. While many remain hopeful of a brighter future to come, there is significant reason for caution. Before understanding today’s protests, however, it is first necessary to understand the events that have taken place over the course of Bouteflika’s time in power.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika became president in 1999, presiding over the final years of Algeria’s bloody civil war. When the war finally ended in 2002, he continued ruling with significant support from traditional elites and a war-weary public.
At the time, many expected that a stable Algeria would prosper with its substantial holdings of oil and natural gas. While the post-war period has been prosperous for a select few—notably, elites in Bouteflika’s regime known as “le pouvoir”—many Algerians are struggling. Recent data shows unemployment rates to be astoundingly high for young people: 26.4 percent for people under the age of 30 (around two-thirds of the country’s total population).
Politically, things have been deteriorating since 2013, when Bouteflika suffered a stroke and lost the physical and mental capacity to fulfill his presidential duties. That is why in the past few weeks, many Algerians were shocked and horrified by an announcement that Bouteflika would seek a fifth term in office.
A core motivation behind the protests is the concept of “hogra”—a mark of contempt, insult to honor and general belittlement. Ordinary people feel as if this latest announcement from Bouteflika’s inner circle is an insult, and compounded with the decades of rule-bending and inequitable leadership Algeria has suffered through over the past decade, it has crossed a line.
One of the basic rules for candidates seeking presidential election is to personally turn in their forms to the administration. In his rapidly deteriorating physical state, however, Bouteflika is not even able to leave his Swiss hospital bed, much less return to Algiers with official documents.
Thus, Bouteflika’s decision to run for president is an extremely transparent move by the ruling elite (including the president’s brother Said) to cling to their positions of power even as Bouteflika is clearly not well enough to serve as an effective head of state. This indignity proved too much for many Algerians.
The protests are an important shift because they are breaking an implicit contract between the regime and the Algerian people. The source of the regime’s power has been its ability to offer stability to a country that desperately needed it after a horrific civil war. This stability came at a high price, however, as the government and those in power made no substantial efforts towards systematic change in a country that has become increasingly economically imperiled.
Algerians today face an impossible decision. Considering their position in a regional context with memories of the Arab Spring looming large, it is impossible to overstate the value of stability—Algerian people are no doubt looking at Syria as an example of what can happen when an authoritarian regime chooses to stand its ground against a popular protest movement. Simultaneously, however, it is clear that Algerians have reached a breaking point.
The protestors in Algiers and across the country are certainly familiar with the military’s less-than-peaceful track record of dealing with protests, but are still taking to the streets on an enormous scale.
The level of corruption being challenged is systemic, but those in power seem hell-bent on continuing along with business as usual. Earlier this week, notable Bouteflika loyalist and Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah gave a speech directed towards protestors, threatening, “There are parties who wish to bring Algeria back to the years of violence … A people that defeated terrorism knows how to preserve the stability and security of its nation.”
As government officials and top military leaders appear prepared to dig in their heels against any efforts towards systemic reform and protestors show no signs of slowing down, Algeria has come to a day of reckoning.
For how much longer will the country cling to a tenuous stability if that stability comes at the cost of the nation’s dignity?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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