Mounting frustration at their ailing president’s bid for a fifth term has brought protestors to the streets in Algeria, where Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the regime’s candidate for April elections.
Bouteflika, in power for 20 years, has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke. He is currently in Switzerland for what his office calls “routine medical checks”.
Thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the 81-year-old’s candidacy in recent days.
Did the government expect protests?
The authorities were probably aware that a bid for a fifth term would be unpopular.
But it was difficult to foresee how the nearly unprecedented protests would escalate so quickly.
Complacency may have set in because Bouteflika’s successful 2014 bid was accepted “relatively easily”, according to Louisa Dris-Ait Hamadouche, who teaches political science at the University of Algiers 3.
For Zoubir Arous, a sociologist at the University of Algiers 2, the architects of the bid for a fifth term “have made a big error”.
“They did not anticipate that society had reached this level of maturity and (political) consciousness,” he told AFP.
The government’s stubbornness in sticking with Bouteflika even amid protests “is an under-estimation of the shockwave” already in motion, Arous said.
For fellow sociologist Nacer Djabi, the regime did not see the protests coming because its leaders have “lived in isolation for 30 years and are cut off from the people”.
Why have the protests gained traction?
One major source of anger is the humiliation Algerians feel in seeing their country’s image defined by a head of state whose speech is impaired and only appears in public in a wheelchair.
Arous believes people are angry because Algeria has “become the laughing stock of the world”.
Nacer Djabi argued citizens “accepted the fourth term because they thought Bouteflika would not die (in office) — but the fifth (term) is too much”.
“Young people… who use social networks see what is happening elsewhere, and see the country’s humiliation”, he noted.
Dris-Ait Hamadouche agrees that a sense of humiliation is palpable.
With Algeria’s heavily oil-dependent economy hit by tumbling crude prices, Bouteflika’s fourth term has also been marred by “an accumulation of frustrations”, she said.
She also thinks the much-mooted possibility of the president’s brother Said becoming the next president “is not an acceptable option for Algerians”.
“Even if democracy is not a very rooted notion, Algeria is a republic” and not a dynastic system, Dris-Ait Hamadouche said.
Finally, the “Bouteflika Generation”, born around the president’s accession to power in 1999 and the driving force of the protests, is too young to have experienced the country’s devastating 1992-2002 civil war, which the authorities evoke to discredit demonstrations.
What are the regime’s options?
The presidential camp has until midnight on Sunday (2300 GMT) to confirm Bouteflika’s candidacy — and campaign under pressure from the protests, without the active participation of the president.
Alternatively, it could find another candidate.
But Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term “seems to have been born out of the system’s incapacity to agree an alternative candidate” over the last five years, according to one diplomat.
Unanimously agreeing on a replacement in the next few days would therefore be challenging.
The protests do not appear to be winding down — and the scale of rallies planned to follow weekly prayers on Friday could be decisive.
For the diplomat, the regime has to choose between “saving the men” (Bouteflika and his entourage) and “saving the system”.
It is difficult to make predictions, given the opacity of Algeria’s political system.
If the regime decides to persist with Bouteflika’s candidacy, it must be prepared to rapidly squash the protests.
That could “lead to chaos”, Arous warned.
Could the protests smash the system?
While protesters initially shouted the slogan “no to a fifth term”, many have since called for a change of regime.
“The first aim is the withdrawal of Bouteflika’s candidacy. But the population will not stop there — young people will want to change the system”, said Nacer Djabi.
But this raises a problem: in a country dominated by a single party since independence, and where the opposition is never heard, who will steward this change?
“Nobody in Algeria at the moment is capable of offering a credible alternative,” said Dris-Ait Hamadouche.
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