Algerian students protest Bouteflika’s re-election bid

Most recent protests included tens of thousands of university students who demonstrated February 26 across the country.
Wednesday 27/02/2019
Police stand guard as students protest in Algiers against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plan to extend his 20-year rule, February 26. (Reuters)
Widening protests. Police stand guard as students protest in Algiers against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's plan to extend his 20-year rule, February 26. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Large numbers of protesters have been taking to the streets in Algeria for only the second time in three decades, seeking broad political change as they oppose Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s re-election bid.

Most recent protests included tens of thousands of university students who demonstrated February 26 across the country, including at the University of Algiers and in Annaba, Constantine, Ouargla and Tizi Ouzou.

Organised under the slogan "Not in My Name," the protests were in reaction to student unions supporting Bouteflika's bid.

About 100 lawyers also demonstrated February 25 against a fifth term for Bouteflika.

There were protests reported in more than 40 cities February 22 across Algeria after Bouteflika, who turns 82 on March 2, announced he would seek a fifth term in office.

Bouteflika, who has been in office since 1999, suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since. His backers say he retains a firm grip on state affairs despite his health problems but many claim a small circle of family members and loyalists make decisions on his behalf.

The protest movement has mobilised Algerians from all walks of life.

“We consider ourselves servants of the Algerian people to march with them towards a more open and tolerant horizon and [to] change a system that has brought about violence, corruption, regionalism and marginalisation,” said a statement by prominent Algerian intellectuals and university scholars.

University students joined journalists and lawyers in their own street protests, which were expected to grow until March 2, the deadline for candidates to submit an application to run in the April 18 presidential election.

Many argue that Bouteflika is unfit to hold office and that the country’s political elites are using his stature to shore up power.

“Where on Earth could we find leaders as irresponsible as ours, who are defying the laws of nature in shamefully exploiting the sickness of a man for partisan political and venal interests?” asked political writer Abderrahmane Merad.

The demonstrations, which have remained largely peaceful, are not thought to be organised by any particular political figures or parties.

Brahim Oumansour, an Algerian-French research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Research Institute (IRIS) cautioned that "these are not riots. The demonstrations are calm and prudent", he told the French paper L'Opinion.

The current popular movement recalls similar protests in 1988 when mostly disillusioned young people demanded better economic conditions and democratic reforms.

At the time, protesters were derided in state media and the government ordered a deadly crackdown to quell the movement but after weeks of protests, leading governmental figures and the army agreed to implement reforms.

That uprising drew many to the country’s Islamist movement, stoking deep divisions and setting the stage for a civil war in the 1990s. That legacy made many Algerians impervious to Islamism or any form of anti-state activism.

This time, the nature of the protests is different. Islamists are not a driving force in the movement and the few of them among the protesters seem to have been drowned out by those advocating a change of the regime.

Algeria has some dozen political parties composed of respected secularist and nationalist leaders but they have struggled to connect to large constituencies. The country also has a vibrant opposition media, whose content is widely disseminated on social media.

Analysts said if Algeria’s leaders, including military chiefs backing Bouteflika, continue supporting his re-election bid, there could be larger protests and divisions within the military.

Authorities first threatened to crack down on demonstrators but praised the “peaceful demonstrations.”

“The president’s backers are betting on the slowdown and fatigue of the protests,” said political writer Makhlouf Mehheni. “They are avoiding provocative comments while touting the reforms promised by Bouteflika.”

They are also pressing demonstrators to accept elections as the litmus test instead of taking to the streets. Algerian novelist Asmaa Bouzid said protests were unlikely to be quelled until the government promised change.

“This time around, the Algerians have no fear because there is no worse situation than the one they are going through,” said Bouzid. “They really have no choice but continue the protests.

“The one who has no future, he has no fear of the present.”