President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, has not spoken publicly for six years since a stroke left him paralyzed. In power since 1999, the ailing leader’s bid for a fifth term while confined to a hospital bed in Switzerland infuriated Algerians and brought hundreds of thousands out to the streets in protest, including students, teachers, lawyers and even journalists. They believe that, behind their virtually invisible leader, the energy-rich north African nation is being ruled by a clique of shadowy civilian, business and military figures, including Bouteflika’s own family members.
Algeria has the world’s 10th largest proven reserves of natural gas, is its 6th largest gas exporter and has the 3rd largest proven reserves of shale gas.
Since Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, its regime has been balanced between the interests of competing clans within the ruling establishment including the powerful military. The police and Algerian intelligence services are the mainstays of rule in the country, but mass dismissals and purges in the high ranks in recent years have altered the balance of power at the top, although the security services remain strong. Furthermore, a new financial elite has emerged enriched by wealth amassed from the infrastructure projects funded by Algeria’s gas revenues.
If Bouteflika were to die in office without a successor, it is feared that a power vacuum would further disturb the balance of power and lead to instability.
On March 3, Bouteflika was reported to have offered to stage an early presidential election for which he would not stand. This offer was dismissed by the protesters as a ruse for extending the rule of the nameless clique which rules the country in his shadow.
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahya tried to scare them by raising the specter of the civil violence, which ravaged Syria, or even Algeria’s own civil unrest of the 1990s, which left around 150,000 dead. He was angrily rebuffed. In that conflict, even liberal opponents of the Algerian government were believed to have collaborated with the security services to suppress Islamist insurgents.
The distrust of those days seeped into all social strata up to the present day. Compromise and dialogue are therefore hard to envisage,
Taken off guard by the volume and intensity of the popular protest movement, the regime is playing for time while hoping to save itself by finding a credible successor to President Bouteflika. They have little hope of finding one before the presidential election on April 18. It is belatedly dawning on those decision-makers that the regime and Algeria’s entire ruling system is in danger of capsizing, taking with it the governing National Liberation Front party and the military. For now, the protesters are refusing to disperse and have announced they would be back on the streets on Friday, March 8. The regime is at a loss as to how to handle this threat, whether by brute force and the inevitable bloodshed or a genuine attempt at dialogue. It may be too late for both. On Tuesday, March 5, another powerful group weighed in on the side of the protesters: The influential National Organization of Mujahideen – veterans who fought alongside Bouteflika in the 1954-1962 war of independence against France, with a call: “It is the duty of Algerian society in all its segments to take to the streets.”