On Monday, April 1, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika conceded that he would resign before his fourth term ends on April 28. The announcement comes after mass protests spanning over a month, calling for his removal by the nation’s Army Chief.
The protests began in late February after he announced that he would pursue a fifth term in addition to his 20-year rule. The response from protesters has largely argued that he is unfit for office. After a stroke in 2013, the President has been largely hidden from the public. On the rare occasion where he has made an appearance, he has been presented in a wheelchair. Reports have also suggested that the President is mostly nonverbal.
What originally called for the resignation of one man has over the course of a month transformed into a demand for an overhaul of the entire system. On March 26, the nation’s highly influential army chief appeared to back the call for the president’s removal by declaring he would start the constitutional process to declare President Abdelaziz Bouteflika unfit for office.
So how did the physically ailing 82-year-old come to be Alergia’s ruler? A political career in the 1960s was seeming cut short by a financial scandal that disgraced him and led to his exile in the later half of the 1970s. However, Algeria was not quite finished with him. In the early 1990s, he was summoned back to end a civil war initiated by the military’s refusal to accept the democratic election victory of the Islamic Salvation front. After which, he assumed the presidency and promised to rebuild the country and economy. But after suffering a stroke in 2013 that confined him to a wheelchair, Bouteflika is no longer recognized as the charismatic figure of the late twentieth century.
It is a common belief that the president has been persuaded to try to extend his rule by family members and other ruling elite. For them, the president serves as a puppet, who they are manipulating for financial and influential gain. After announcing that he would not be pursuing the fifth term after all, Bouteflika made a statement that he would take “important steps to ensure the continuity of the functioning of state institutions.” The statement has been broadly interpreted as a final attempt to cement his grasp on the system before being removed from office. The statement inspired even more extensive protests. The Army Chief has demanded his resignation as well.
The move made by the Army Chief does not sit well with some. If the ruling elite is using the president as a front, then military control is surely a part of that. It would then be in the interest of the military to preserve the president’s position. So why is the military acting against their own interests? Could it be that the military recognizes Bouteflika is no longer a viable figurehead and seek to replace him? This would make sense since the military has made no mention of a desire to overhaul the entire system as protesters have called for. Protesters are also aware of the conflict of interest and have voiced their intention to keep on protesting even if Bouteflika leaves. In their minds, the only way to make sure that the corruption of the old government does not persist is to scrap the entire system and start over.
While this may work, is it reasonably possible to rewrite the entire governmental structure of a country? The country would clearly be susceptible to outside influence if it experienced such a broad level of restructuring. What would replace the existing system and what would that look like? A solution that is not to the military’s satisfaction could potentially lead to another civil war. Regardless, the solution that Algerians seek is likely more complicated and time-consuming than assumed. Systematic change is slow. While the removal of one man from office may not be a huge step towards that goal, it is a first step that should be acknowledged.