“Game Over” for Algerian President After 20 Years in Power

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika casts a ballot in Algeria’s legislative election in 2012. ( Wikimedia Commons )

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika casts a ballot in Algeria’s legislative election in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

Cheering and honking horns resounded in the streets of Algeria as then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of the National Liberation Front (FLN) party left office after announcing his resignation on April 2. The day after his announcement, Algeria’s Constitutional Council declared the President’s seat vacant for the first time in over two decades. Senate Chief Abdelkader Bensalah, an ally of Bouteflika, is now Acting president and has 90 days to organize a new presidential election in which he himself cannot run.

Protests against Bouteflika, mainly driven by Algeria’s youth, began in mid-February when he announced that he would run for a fifth term despite having suffered from an incapacitating stroke six years prior. Since then, he has rarely made public appearances. In response to his re-election bid, protesters flooded the streets with banners displaying the popular slogan, “Game Over,” calling for an end to his presidency.

Hoping to appease the public, Bouteflika withdrew his re-election bid on March 11 but delayed the presidential election indefinitely, provoking further public outrage. On March 26, Lieutenant General and Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah called for the application of Article 102 of the Constitution, which allows for the removal of an ailing head of state. Three days later, protesters once again took to the streets with signs saying, “102 is half the answer, the whole gang has to go.” In other demonstrations, protesters chanted, “Bouteflika get out, and take Gaid Salah with you.”

Following these demonstrations, Bouteflika announced a reshuffling of Cabinet positions, supposedly intended to aid the country in its transition to a new government. Bouteflika appointed 21 new ministers out of 27 total positions, with Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui at the head of this new government. This reshuffling, in addition to Bouteflika’s offer to leave office at the end of his term on April 28, failed to placate protesters.

Aligning himself with public opinion, Gaid Salah released a second statement demanding the “immediate” application of Article 102. In his statement, he also referenced Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution which state that sovereignty rests in the Algerian people. He said, “There is no more room to waste time.” Hours later, Bouteflika resigned.

In his resignation letter, Bouteflika wrote, “This decision which I take in my soul and conscience is destined to contribute to the appeasement of the hearts and minds of my compatriots, to allow them to take Algeria towards a better future to which they legitimately aspire.” After 20 years, Bouteflika’s rule came to a close.

However, protests did not end there. Demonstrators continue to push for the removal of the 3B: Senate Chief Abdelakder Bensalah, Head of the Constitutional Council, which regulates elections; Tayeb Belaiz; and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui. Many protesters are further demanding the dismantling of the entire system of politicians, military officials, and wealthy businessmen known as “Le Pouvoir,” or “The Power,” who control Algeria’s political system behind the scenes. After Bouteflika’s stroke, his brother, Said, is also believed to have gained increasing political influence.

The Algerian military, in particular, is known to stand at the center of political power. Gaid Salah, having turned his back on Bouteflika, claimed that the army's “sole ambition” is to “protect the people from a handful of [other] people who have unduly taken over the wealth of the Algerian people” and promised to “support the people until their demands are fully and completely satisfied.” Some believe that the army’s actions demonstrate a move in a new direction as slogans now include: “The army and the people are brothers.”

Others, however, continue to chant ‘‘Système degage!” or ‘‘System Get Lost!’’ as they see Gaid Salah’s decision to support Bouteflika’s resignation as a ploy to win the people’s support and take advantage of the power vacuum at the top.

What a new system would look like remains unclear as activist groups lack an organized leadership structure. In March, the National Coordination for Change, a newly-formed, bipartisan umbrella group, issued a “Platform for Change” which calls for “radical changes… based on new foundations and new leaders,” including the dissolution of Parliament and an end to military intervention in politics.

However, many activists have already denounced the platform as signatories include two former high-ranking members of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which fought on one side of Algeria’s civil war during the Black Decade from 1991 to 2002.

Despite the National Coordination for Change’s efforts, activists lack a cohesive, unified front. Amidst the uncertainty over Algeria’s future political system, one popular slogan retains hope: “1962: country liberated, 2019: people liberated.” The strength and durability of that slogan will be tested at the next presidential election within 90 days.