A Term Too Many: Protesters Tell Algerian Leader It's Time to Go

(Bloomberg) -- Imams across Algeria were instructed to warn worshippers against taking to the streets. Tell the faithful to beware of provoking the kind of conflict that’s ravaged Syria and Iraq, the government cautioned. It didn’t work.

Since Friday, unprecedented protests calling on 81-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to rule himself out of elections set for April have erupted across the country. The demonstrators have been overwhelmingly peaceful -- when police fired tear gas to control crowds in the capital Algiers, activists helped treat wheezing officers sent out without masks. Yet it’s clear that a predominantly youthful nation has finally run out of patience with the elderly man at its helm.

A Term Too Many: Protesters Tell Algerian Leader It's Time to Go

The protesters are thirsting for change but the ruling party can’t agree on an alternative to Bouteflika, and a fractured opposition isn’t able to lead the charge. The OPEC member that borders six African nations and has been a feature of western security alliances against militant threats is in uncharted territory.

“Hey, Bouteflika: No fifth term,” hundreds of students chanted at a campus rally in Algiers on Tuesday. “Bouteflika is old and feeble,” said a protester who gave his name only as Sami to avoid being identified by authorities. “We want something better for the country, we want younger people in power.”

It’s easy to see why there’s anger. While the wheelchair-bound Bouteflika hasn’t addressed the nation in more than five years, inflation has climbed, foreign reserves slumped and unemployment remained high. The International Monetary Fund forecast 2.7 percent economic growth this year, insufficient to provide the jobs that Algerians -- two-thirds of the population is under 30 -- demand. An expensive safety net of subsidies paid for by crude sales kept the peace after the Arab Spring, but can’t be sustained in the long term under cheaper oil.

Unfortunately for ordinary Algerians, finding a replacement for Bouteflika, who took power in 1999 before many of the protesters were born and was incapacitated by a stroke six years ago, is largely out of their hands.

Once venerated for bringing the North African country together following a decade of civil war with Islamists, Bouteflika is increasingly seen as a consensus figurehead kept in office by “le pouvoir” -- a loosely defined ruling elite that includes the military, leading businessmen, and the governing coalition dominated by the president’s National Liberation Front.

Who Else?

At the moment, there’s no sign that anyone else is acceptable to all the critical powerbrokers, said Jonathan Hill, director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College in London. Bouteflika’s “old, he’s clearly not well and he barely campaigned last time. So the fact that you’re using him again strongly suggests there isn’t an accepted replacement,” he said.

The political opposition is weak and divided, and hasn’t articulated an alternative or provided serious election contenders. Among those contesting this year and popular with young voters are Rachid Nekkaz, a 47-year-old businessman, and former television journalist Ghani Mahdi, 48.

A Term Too Many: Protesters Tell Algerian Leader It's Time to Go

“There’s a large enough proportion of the electorate that supports Bouteflika. Then there are so many opposition parties, they tend to split the vote,” said Geoff Porter, president of North Africa Risk Consulting.

Bouteflika has in past elections won more than 90 percent of ballots, results dismissed by human-rights groups and challengers as rigged.

The protesters themselves are concentrating only on the first step of their mission. “We just want this dictatorial regime to end. I don’t know what will happen in the future,” said Karima, who joined the campus demonstration.

Medical Tests

As rallies were held over the weekend, the government said Bouteflika would travel to Geneva for routine medical tests.

While well-known cartoonists have caricatured the president’s incapacity as symbolic of Algeria’s struggles, his role in ending the 1990s violence that killed as many as 200,000 people is still respected, especially by older voters. Memories of that carnage are still vivid and helped prevent an Algerian version of the uprisings that toppled leaders across the Arab world in 2011.

So the ongoing mass protests are likely to have touched a nerve within the establishment. University professors signed a letter backing the rallies, while students staged a mock funeral to represent the ailing leader’s political demise. At the headquarters of Radio Algerienne, journalists protested orders stopping them from covering the demonstrations.

As yet, there are no signs of cracks in the country’s power hub.

Army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah described the calls to demonstrate as “suspect.” The head of the FLN, Mourad Bouchared, said God had sent the president in 1999 to look after the country.

In a speech to parliament on Monday, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said Algerians had every right to protest peacefully. Yet, “the elections will take place in less than two months,” he said. “Everyone has the right to propose a candidate and the matter will be decided at the ballot box.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.