Publication Inequality / Social Struggles - Social Movements / Organizing - State / Democracy - International / Transnational - Africa - North Africa Mass Protests and Political Intrigue in Algeria

Algeria’s youth is challenging the country’s ruling elites and opening up the political arena



April 2019

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Proteste in Algier, 2. April 2019
Algiers, 2 April 2019: protests continue one day after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared his intention to step down. RYAD KRAMDI / AFP

But while the protest movement hopes for profound reforms and continues to mobilize despite President Bouteflika’s resignation, rival factions of his clan within “le pouvoir” attempt to seize power

Algeria’s heterogeneous protest movement, consisting of people from all walks of life, has been challenging the current political order with an impressive intensity and perseverance for weeks and continues to push for a profound change of the political system. The movement turned out to be extremely resilient and acts remarkably cautious and peaceful in the light of Algeria’s recent history. One of its primary goals has been already achieved as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has stepped down in early April after weeks of countrywide protests. But mass mobilization against the ruling class continues ever since as the movement seeks a real change of the system and appears to not give in on politically motivated concessions such as Bouteflika’s forced removal from power. However, it remains uncertain whether the demands and goals expressed by activists, opposition figures, and protesters will lead to genuine political reform.

The longer the wave of protests lasts, the more indications surface that various factions in Algeria’s fragmented regime which were increasingly marginalized in recent years are trying to exploit the mass mobilization against President Bouteflika and the country’s ruling elites in order to oust and replace the “clan”[1] represented by the ailing head of state for years. Since the massive decline of state revenues stemming from the extremely profitable oil and gas exports in 2015, Bouteflika’s clan had increasingly monopolized political and economic privileges and aggressively revoked established mechanisms of negotiating consensus among influential factions of the regime.

Those now marginalized clans are evidently trying to gain ground behind the scenes while mass protests continue across the country. A faction rallying behind the former head of the once unimpeachable Algerian intelligence service DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité), Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediène, who was formally removed from power in 2015, could play a key role in the forthcoming reorganization of le pouvoir (“the power”)—a term often used in Algeria for the ruling elites—and might re-emerge from the current political crisis as a strong political stakeholder. Although reports in Algerian newspapers indicate that Tewfik is indeed involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations with security officials and retired politicians about how to manage the political transition, it is still unclear whether Tewfik or his former allies will be able to take a lead in the political sphere. It also remains uncertain which political actors will evolve as more powerful within a reshaped political class and how the security apparatus—in particular the army command and Tewfik’s former support base—will be affected by the recent escalation of the regime’s internal tug-of-war.

Despite the looming rise of counterrevolutionary forces, the protest movement has the potential to change the political and social fabric of the country in the long term and enforce partial reforms toward a more inclusive political system. Its heterogeneity and lack of leadership are currently as advantageous as its consistent peacefulness, since these factors make it extremely difficult for the security apparatus to discredit or hijack the movement and violently restrict the newly established political freedoms in the public sphere. Whether the movement will be able to induce real change also depends on how future dynamics between civil society and opposition parties develop. In order to resist attempts by rising factions in the security apparatus to hijack, discredit, or infiltrate the movement, it must maintain resilience and an extreme vigilance in the medium and long term.

Socio-Economic Protests as Harbingers of Today’s Politically Motivated Mass Mobilization

The immediate trigger for the ongoing wave of protests was Bouteflika’s controversial candidacy for the presidential elections originally scheduled for 18 April 2019. But without the significant increase of socio-economically motivated protests and strikes in recent years, such a mass movement would have hardly materialized to this extent. Ahead of Bouteflika’s re-election in 2014, the grassroots movement “Barakat” had been able to successfully mobilize against Bouteflika’s presidential bid for a fourth mandate, but could not even come close to what the country is witnessing today in terms of popular dynamic.[2] While it was still unclear at the time how strongly Bouteflika’s health had deteriorated since his stroke in 2013, the ruling class was effortlessly able to buy a fragile, but only superficially stable social peace. Extensive oil and gas revenues allowed the government to maintain its vast spending on food and fuel subsidies, state-sponsored housing programs, as well as loan schemes for young people to set up businesses, while parts of the oil rent was shared with various factions of the ruling class. When global oil prices collapsed in late 2014, Algeria was plunged into a political and socio-economic crisis.

The country’s currency reserves as well as the state budget have dropped significantly since, while inflation and the depreciation of the Algerian national currency skyrocketed. The central bank’s “easy money” policy, massively intensified by former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, additionally fuelled the Algerian Dinar’s depreciation.[3] Prices for imported goods rose significantly as did the black market rate for the Dinar. The official exchange rate today stands at around 135 dinars for one euro, but the black market rate rose to up to 215 dinars. With the macroeconomic decline socio-economically motivated protests and strikes intensified, especially since 2017. Independent trade unions in the health and educational sector in particular challenged the government’s social and economic policies with protests and strikes that lasted for months. The strikes in the educational sector, most notably in public schools, peaked in 2018 and were called off without achieving tangible results, but brought independent trade unions closer together.

However, protests and strikes in the health sector became a real threat to the political status quo in 2018. Young resident doctors did not call for higher salaries but better working conditions and investments in public health, thereby indirectly challenging the government’s controversial spending policies. Bouteflika’s clan is not only accused of rampant corruption and embezzlement of public funds, but also of squandering public money for controversial large-scale projects such as the increasingly expensive Great Mosque of Algiers, overpriced football stadiums, or the East-West highway. In early 2018 resident doctors launched a countrywide strike that lasted for months and even staged a major rally in downtown Algiers attended by several thousand protesters for the first time in years despite public gatherings and assemblies in the capital being effectively banned since 2001. With rhetorically quick-witted campaigns in social media the Algerian medics also cleverly responded to attempts by the government to discredit the strikes and the movement, illustrating how effective governmental propaganda can be countered through social media.

Bouteflika’s Presidential Bid: The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back

In view of this tense social and economic situation, but also due to the increasing opposition within Algerian society against the state’s leadership since 2014, Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth mandate became a catalyst for this frustration and the final straw that broke the camel’s back. The clan behind the 82-year-old president was not able to agree on an alternative solution to the ailing head of state in power since 1999, and thus designated him as their candidate for the upcoming vote scheduled for April 2019. Representatives of the alliance behind Bouteflika consisting of the four political parties of the “Presidential Alliance”—the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), in power almost uninterruptedly since Algeria’s independence in 1962, the Rassemblement National Démocratique (RND) led by former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, the Mouvement Populaire Algérien (MPA) of Amara Benyounes, and the moderate Islamist party Rassemblement de l’Espoir de l’Algérie (TAJ) led by former Minister of Transportation Amar Ghoul—had already started campaigning in favour of Bouteflika’s fifth mandate months before. This campaign was additionally backed by the Forum des Chefs d’Entreprises (FCE), the powerful businessmen’s association led by construction tycoon Ali Haddad, and the leadership of the state-controlled trade union federation Union Général des Travailleurs Algériens (UGTA). However, the alliance delayed the official announcement of the candidacy as long as possible, apparently sensing the political brisance of yet another presidential bid by the ailing head of state.

Bouteflika’s candidacy was mainly seen as preposterous, as the president has been wheelchair-bound since suffering a stroke in 2013. He has hardly been able to carry out his duties ever since. His last speech was in 2012, while public appearances are rare and seen as utterly absurd. Therefore, it is obvious Bouteflika himself is not in charge but representatives of his clan who are defending their political and economic privileges in an increasingly aggressive manner. In addition to private business elites and powerful oligarchs such as the Kouninef family, this clan consists of Bouteflika’s younger brother Said, officially acting as a presidential adviser, but also Algeria’s chief of staff and Deputy Minister of Defence, Ahmed Gaïd Salah. To this day it remains unclear whether the presidential clan is dominated by its civilian or its military wing.

Bouteflika’s candidacy was officially announced in early February. Only days later several cities in eastern Algeria and the Kabylia region largely inhabited by Berbers witnessed spontaneous, explicitly politically motivated protests by hundreds of people for the first time in years. People were mainly chanting against Bouteflika’s presidential bid during these marches. A few days later, protesters in Khenchela in eastern Algeria forced local authorities to remove a giant portrait of Bouteflika hanging at the municipality headquarters. Anonymous calls for protest on social media for the following Friday multiplied immediately afterwards. This time the protests were massive. On 22 February hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets and marched peacefully across the country, chanting slogans against the ailing head of state and Algeria’s ruling elites. Once these protests materialized as nationwide mass marches dynamics in the streets quickly became irreversible and affected almost all social strata and political camps in the country, triggering an unprecedented mass mobilization in Algerian society. While lawyers, students, judges, journalists, and even retired and disabled former military personnel stage their own proper marches in Algiers, Annaba, Oran, and almost all major cities across the country on a daily basis, the Friday protests are constantly growing, mobilizing millions of people every weekend.

Strategic Damage Control

Ever since it became clear that the movement’s popular mobilization had reached a critical mass and could no longer be contained, the elites behind Bouteflika launched several advances to respond to the demands in the streets without giving up control of the now inevitable political transition process. However, they were not able to curb the impressive mobilization on Algerian streets—quite the contrary. On 11 March the state’s leadership made its first noteworthy concessions, announcing the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia who was addressed rather hostilely during the marches, a postponement of the elections, and a “National Conference of Consensus”. In a letter officially written by Bouteflika, the head of state also promised to not run in these now postponed elections but would remain in office until further notice. The streets responded to this clear breach of the constitution with yet another wave of protests that again eclipsed the previous popular mobilization. The nationwide mass protests on 15 March were the largest the country had seen since demonstrations commenced in late February.

The appointment of Algeria’s Minister of Interior Noureddine Bedoui as the country’s new Prime Minister was immediately framed in the streets as a politically motivated manoeuvre with the goal of distracting the movement and was as vehemently rejected as the speech of army chief Gaïd Salah in late March, in which he called for the “immediate” application of article 102 of the Algerian constitution and thus the early dismissal of the president. Article 102 allows the head of state to be declared unfit to rule for health reasons and replaced by the president of the upper house of parliament, the Conseil de la Nation, to head the presidency for a transitional period of up to 90 days. When protests had just started the application of this article was called for by protesters themselves. But now the majority of political parties, civil society groups, and activists mobilizing in the country for weeks agreed almost unanimously that it was up to the Constitutional Council to call upon this article and not the army chief, as the military has no constitutional power to do so. During the following Friday protests on 29 March, Gaïd Salah’s straightforward interference in Algerian politics caused him to become the target of slogans and chants himself for the first time since protests had commenced.

On 31 March the presidency announced the appointment of a new government led by Bedoui. Only six of the 27 ministers remained in office, including Deputy Minister of Defence Gaïd Salah. The street responded instantly. Only a few hours later thousands of people marched through downtown Algiers chanting loudly against the new government and le pouvoir. With these manoeuvres the ruling elites are attempting to maintain control over the transition process and buy time for behind-the-scenes negotiations between the various factions of le pouvoir. But this also provides time for the extremely heterogeneous protest movement consisting of opposition forces, civil society groups, and grassroots networks, as it likewise urgently needs to better organize itself, discuss alternative solutions and initiatives, as well as means and ways of how to protest, but also to prepare for attempts by rival factions of Bouteflika’s clan to seize power on the back of the movement.

Peaceful, Forceful, and Loud: Algeria’s Protest Movement Opens Up the Political Arena

The longer the wave of protests lasts the more intensely Algeria’s society politicizes. While at the beginning protests were fuelled above all by young activists, opposition parties, and civil society organizations but also informal actors such as supporters of numerous football teams from Algiers and other cities across the country, organized workers increasingly became a driving force in the movement and in the streets. Not only are independent trade unions now playing a crucial role for popular mobilization, but also unions affiliated to the UGTA federation are gradually joining the movement. Protests are also reported from the epicentre of Algeria’s state-run economy as the state-owned oil and gas company Sonatrach is increasingly affected by strikes and protests at oil and gas facilities, despite the fact that the Sonatrach leadership under Bouteflika ally Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour repeatedly assured that production would continue unaffected by the nationwide protests.

At the same time, the country’s public space opens up and politicizes itself in an unprecedented intensity. The de facto ban on protests and assemblies in the public sphere, enforced by authorities for years, has been practically lifted across the country, and civil society and the general public are bursting with self-confidence. Since late February, political meetings, public debates and events and spontaneous gatherings in the streets became a new reality of everyday life, which in view of the continuing and consistent peacefulness of the protests cannot be curbed easily by restrictions and repressive measures of the authorities. The fact that Bouteflika—for weeks the primary target of the protest movement—remained in office for weeks, had ensured that the inevitable fragmentation of the ideologically extremely heterogeneous masses continued to slumber beneath the surface. Even during the two weeks following Bouteflika’s official resignation, almost no party flags or symbols displaying affiliations with civil society groups or other civic organizations were seen during the protests. But it is only a matter of time until leftists, liberals, and above all conservatives (who are strongly represented in Algerian society) will face fierce ideological turf wars over the future political, social, and economic orientation of post-Bouteflika Algeria. The decisive factor for the success of a transitional phase not exclusively determined by former regime cadres will be whether these heterogeneous political camps will be able to agree on economic, social, and political rules accepted by a majority of relevant civic actors and major strata of society in order to effectively counter predictable attempts by emerging regime factions affiliated to Bouteflika and the security apparatus to crush the movement or prevent genuine reform, especially in the context of upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

Bouteflika’s Power Base Collapses

It is already evident that Bouteflika’s faction within the ruling elite as well its rivals is preparing intensively for the inevitable political transition. Bouteflika’s former power base has already collapsed, and some his former allies are setting course for a change of political leadership. The country’s two most powerful governmental parties, the FLN and the RND, as well as the Algerian businessmen’s association FCE have faced fierce internal divisions and even open rebellions against their leadership for weeks. The initial cautious breeze of solidarity within the UGTA right after the mass protests commenced has now turned into an open revolt against Abdelmajid Sidi Saïd, the Secretary General of the federation since 1997. He has been an outspoken supporter of Bouteflika for years and has campaigned for a fifth mandate for the ailing President for months. His dismissal is considered inevitable.

More and more officials working for Algerian state media or the judiciary are also publicly joining the protest movement and openly rallying against Bouteflika and his entourage. But there are also countless officials who once profited from the now-dismantled political status quo who are now changing political affiliations in a partly opportunistic, partly pragmatic manner to prevent being undermined by Bouteflika’s removal from power. Others are already subjected to investigations by judicial authorities. Former FCE leader Haddad was only arrested in late March when trying to cross the border to Tunisia. Other arrest warrants and travel bans against Bouteflika cronies have reportedly been issued, but it remains uncertain whether there will be an effective prosecution of people charged for corruption or embezzlement of public funds. However, initial investigations against Haddad and the Kouninef family have already been launched.

Meanwhile, there are growing indications that certain factions within the state and the security apparatus were not only passively tolerating the protests but actively encouraging them. While police forces were surprisingly restrained when facing protests from the very beginning, Algeria’s national police department, the Direction Générale de la Sûrete Nationale (DGSN), explicitly distinguished between “rioters” or “thieves” taken into custody after protests on the one hand and demonstrators on the other in several public statements concerning arrests made during the Friday marches. After the 15 March protests, video footage of the mass demonstrations in Algiers recorded from police helicopters were even published online, tangibly illustrating for the first time the extent of the mass mobilization on Algerian streets. These and numerous other hints clearly indicate that certain factions within the state and security apparatus are actively involved in attempts to destabilize Bouteflika’s rule.

Algeria’s Discredited Opposition

Meanwhile, it remains utterly unclear how the heterogeneous protest movement consisting of activists, opposition parties, and civil society groups from all walks of life operating in today’s public sphere could establish political representation credible and powerful enough to successfully channel demands and goals from the movement and at the same time pool political power. Alliances able to compromise between different ideological camps in the movement need to emerge sooner or later in order to prevent counterrevolutionary factions within the regime from regaining absolute political power. But most of the established political parties labelling themselves as “opposition” as well as civil society organizations have been widely discredited in the Algerian general public for years. This applies not only to semi-oppositional parties such as the Trotskyist Parti des Travailleurs (PT) led by Louisa Hanoune but also to former oppositional strongholds like the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS). The PT recalled its deputies from the lower house of parliament in late March in order to distance itself from le pouvoir and backed the protest movement from the very beginning, but was also considered a political ally of former DRS chief Tewfik for years and even partially and repeatedly backed President Bouteflika. The FFS on the other hand already recalled its deputies from the lower house of parliament shortly after protests commenced, but faces heavy internal divisions ever since. For decades the FFS was considered one of the few “real” opposition parties, but was ultimately subjected to infiltration by state bodies as were other parties and NGOs.

One of the main pillars of the Bouteflika camp’s strategy to maintain power was to co-opt opposition parties, but also to allow the security organs to infiltrate them along with civil society groups. Since Bouteflika took office in 1999 the FLN and the RND have formed coalition governments with both moderate Islamist parties such as the Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix (MSP) as well as nationalist parties such as the MPA. The so-called political Islam represented by parties such as the MSP in particular had strongly lost credibility ever since. Although the PT was never formally integrated in any government, its repeated participation in parliamentary or presidential elections legitimized those votes. The same is true for the left-liberal Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie (RCD), a party with a stronghold in the Kabylia region. Hanoune, former RCD head Saïd Sadi, but also Abdallah Djaballah—the long-serving leader of the moderate Islamist El-Adala party—and other prominent opposition figures were all booed when they appeared at protests in Algiers and Béjaïa.

While the regime’s various camps are expected to reorganize and reposition themselves in the short and medium term, opposition parties likewise have to pave the way for a fresh start. It remains unclear whether Bouteflika’s civilian camp will be able to recover from the ongoing collapse quickly. But Tewfik’s faction within le pouvoir as well as Gaïd Salah’s power base in the army is expected to play a crucial role in the upcoming months. Tewfik’s faction already launched a test even before the mass protest movement materialized when Ali Ghediri, a former general and ally of Tewfik, announced his intention to run in the presidential election originally scheduled for April 2019. Although Ghediri proved to be rhetorically unappealing to many, his attempt to be nominated for the vote proved that Tewfik’s camp is pursuing political ambitions. Despite those attempts by powerful regime factions to exploit the mass protests in order to seize power and replace Bouteflika’s clan as the leading faction of le pouvoir, the protest movement continues to mobilize. Algeria’s youth is well aware of the recent history of their country. They do not want to repeat the scenario that hit Algeria after the 1988 uprising, triggering an unprecedented civil war and a counterrevolution that brought the old elites back to power. Algerians also closely watched what happened in the region after 2011. As of the lessons learned after 1988 and 2011, the protests did not stop for a single day after Algeria’s ruling class tried to divide the movement with limited concessions such as Bouteflika’s removal from power. However, if the protest movement wants to prevent being crushed and side-lined by the ongoing power struggle and tug-of-war between the regime’s different clans, it must consistently adhere to peaceful forms of protest, maintain its mass mobilization in the streets, learn to accept painful compromises, and above all—in whatever form—prepare for the upcoming elections and develop a common strategy for how to deal with the transition process.

Sofian Philip Naceur is an independent journalist based in Cairo.

[1] Algeria’s ruling elite consists of several rival groups of interest—also known as clans or factions—which, in the case of the alliance supporting Abdelaziz Bouteflika for years, included several political parties, powerful business elites, members of the security apparatus and influential media figures. Bouteflika’s clan within the ruling class is now challenged by the protest movement and rival factions and collapses gradually since early March.

[2] The Barakat movement was considered the first successful attempt in years to mobilize in Algeria out of an explicit political motivation. But it is believed that the movement was successfully infiltrated and, thereby, hijacked by rival faction of Bouteflika‘s clan.

[3] With this “easy money” policy the Algerian government was able to avoid external borrowing, thus exposing the country’s economy to the international financial markets. In previous years, however, Algeria’s ruling elite had largely failed to diversify the economy, reduce its flagrant dependency on imports, or implement fundamental and sustainable economic reforms and create local employment in order to liberate large parts of the population from their dependency on state subsidies and other forms of governmental support.