Why Algeria Is Still Protesting After Ruler Relents

(Bloomberg) -- Bowing to weeks of mass protests, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika abandoned his bid to run for a fifth term and postponed a planned April 18 election until after a national conference on the country’s political future. The move was a partial victory for protesters, but many said they would carry on pushing for a clear change in leadership. Their demonstrations, which invoke comparisons to the Arab Spring protests of 2011, are being watched closely in Europe and elsewhere: Algeria is not only one of Africa’s largest energy producers but has been a bulwark against Islamist militancy and undocumented migration from other parts of the continent.

1. How did the protests start?

The protests erupted in the capital Algiers after the ailing, octogenarian leader announced he would run for a fifth term in office. Demonstrators are fed up with corruption, high unemployment and a president who’s held power for 20 years. Initial demands that Bouteflika drop his re-election bid have snowballed into calls for deeper political change. Sparked by anonymous posts on social media, the protests have spread throughout the North African country and don’t appear to have an organized leader. So far, demonstrators and the police have gone to great lengths to keep the gatherings peaceful.

Why Algeria Is Still Protesting After Ruler Relents

2. What has Bouteflika promised?

Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke in 2013 and is rarely seen in public, pledged at first that he would step down early if re-elected. That failed to placate demonstrators and, if anything, made them bolder in their demands. The protests expanded to include strikes by workers, teachers and students, as well as the closure of some shops and suspension of train services. On March 11, Bouteflika withdrew his candidacy and said the presidential elections would be held after a national conference on the contours of the next political era. He also promised that a new constitution would be drafted before the end of the year. The leader, who had just returned to Algiers following medical treatment in Geneva, even acknowledged that his age and frail health could allow him only to assist in “laying the foundation for a new republic.”

3. Are demonstrators happy now?

Not necessarily. When Bouteflika withdrew his candidacy, celebrations erupted in the Algerian capital, but so did calls for more protests. Some accused the 82-year-old of using the election delay to extend his term by stealth, rather than resign and hand over power. People were unhappy no new date was set for the election to be held. And others said they were frustrated the decisions on the future political landscape looked likely to be made by the old guard. Although Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigned, he was replaced by Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui to lead a transitional government, with Ramtane Lamamra, a Bouteflika ally, as his deputy.

4. Is this kind of unrest new?

Yes and no. The country was relatively untouched by the turmoil of the Arab Spring, but Bouteflika faced smaller protests when he last ran for office in 2014. Back then, the government used water cannons against demonstrators but also boosted food subsidies and raised wages. The tactics increased state spending by 16 percent, which was a manageable challenge when oil traded over $100 a barrel.

5. Can’t leaders just do that again?

Handouts would be more difficult this time around because Algeria’s economy is still struggling to cope with four years of lower crude prices. Inflation is rising, and the country’s foreign reserves are projected to plummet to $67 billion this year from $177 billion in 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund. Algeria’s budget deficit peaked at 16 percent of GDP in 2015 but has since narrowed.

6. What’s kept Bouteflika in power?

Bouteflika is surrounded by a shadowy coalition of military, intelligence and business leaders known colloquially as “le pouvoir,” or “power” in French, who effectively run the government. Reports from the country suggest that Bouteflika was on the ballot because the pouvoir hadn’t settled on a suitable successor. The military, the country’s most powerful institution, is best positioned to take control of the government if Bouteflika dies or the protests spin out of control. The president had retained a loyal following, especially among many older voters.

7. Is there any official opposition to his rule?

Yes, but it’s fragmented. Opponents hadn’t been unable to unify around a candidate to run against Bouteflika, yet they’re also unsatisfied with what the regime is now offering. “This is a new ploy to trick the people. It seems the authorities have not understood the message of the street protests,” Zubida Assoul, leader of the small opposition Union for Change and Progress, told Echorouk TV following the president’s withdrawal. “They said: ‘Go.’”

8. How did Bouteflika come to power?

The National Liberation Front, known by its French acronym FLN, has ruled Algeria since the country won independence from France in 1962. Bouteflika, who has been in office since 1999, is Algeria’s third president and its longest-serving head of state. He is credited with restoring calm following a decade-long civil war that erupted after the military overrode an Islamist electoral victory in 1991. Older Algerians haunted by memories of the civil war have tolerated periodic government crackdowns to maintain calm, but young people have little connection to the war that gave the regime its credentials.

9. What does unrest mean for oil and gas?

The country’s national oil company, Sonatrach, has been at the heart of multiple corruption probes and has had six chief executives since 2010. Algeria has had five energy ministers over the same period. The government could try another “series of reshuffles aimed at placating protesters” angry about corruption, says Riccardo Fabiani, an analyst with research consultants Energy Aspects Ltd. But with the vast majority of oil and gas facilities located in remote areas far from urban centers, Fabiani adds, “the risk of disruption is low.” Sonatrach Chief Executive Officer Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour said in comments to Elbilad news site that demonstrations have not affected oil and gas production. Investors are nevertheless watching with concern to see if strikes that have hit other industries spread to Algeria’s energy industry.

Why Algeria Is Still Protesting After Ruler Relents

10. How important is Algeria to world energy supply?

Algeria is a member of OPEC but one of its smaller producers, pumping about a million barrels of crude a day. Still, it supplies more than 10 percent of Europe’s natural gas (making it the third-largest supplier after Russia and Norway), which it exports by ship and pipelines under the Mediterranean to Italy and Spain. The country has ambitious plans to develop its onshore and offshore gas fields, start a trading business, revamp and build refineries and boost output of petrochemicals. The expansion hinges on stable political leadership and new laws that would attract foreign investors.

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