An ailing 82-year-old refusing to relinquish the presidency, resentment against a ruling civilian and military cabal, and an economy in crisis have sparked mass protests across Algeria in recent weeks.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika praised the peaceful nature of the ongoing demonstrations and “maturity of our citizens, notably youth” in a message to mark International Women’s Day on Friday.
Bouteflika also warned Algerians over “possible infiltration of misleading parties” who may seek to “provoke chaos” in a statement published by the Algeria Press Service.
Why is everyone sick of Bouteflika?
Protesters have been hitting the streets in the capital, Algiers, and other cities across the North African country for weeks, demanding Bouteflika withdraw from contending forthcoming elections. The announcement on Sunday that the octogenarian will seek a fifth term in office has sparked fury among Algerians.
During his first two terms in office, Bouteflika, who first came to power in 1999, won praise for steering his country back to stability following “the black decade” of the 1990s when a bloody civil war left more than 150,000 dead.
Bouteflika won a third term in 2009 – despite ongoing health problems – in a landslide victory which opposition candidates labeled a “charade.” Algerian lawmakers, loyal to the president, paved the way for Bouteflika to run again by changing the country’s constitution which previously capped presidential limits at two terms.
Even though he suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since, he won a fourth term in 2014. However, as another election looms, popular disillusionment has spiraled over the undemocratic rule of le pouvoir, or the power, as the establishment clique propping up Bouteflika is known.
While there were some smaller protests against his election in 2014, enough is finally enough for Algerians, according to Dalia Ghanem, an Algerian resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“He’s been there for 20 years. He’s been very sick since 2013. He hasn’t been able to talk to his people for the last six years, let alone govern,” Ghanem tells CNN. “(These protests) are about getting back their dignity.”
Protests are fairly common in Algeria. What makes these any different?
For years the country has faced rising unemployment and a debilitating financial crisis as a result of a collapse in oil revenues, which has often led to protests. But Ghanem argues these demonstrations should not be viewed in the same way.
“We are seeing a unique sequence of events we haven’t seen since the 90s. These protests remind me of the protests that my mother used to drag me to when I was young,” she explains.
In the last several weeks, Ghanem says she joined several marches and while they may have started as student-led demonstrations, she saw a broad cross-section of the population – some of whom have never been politically active before – in the streets with a clear demand: No fifth term for Bouteflika.
As time has gone on, activists have added calls for the elections to be scrapped altogether, and for a more drastic overhaul of the country’s government.
“I’ve seen people from different generations and from different socio-economic backgrounds. Students were there, lawyers were there, doctors were there, the unemployed were there. This was really the scream of the people,” Ghanem says.
Ghanem says protesters have been taking deliberate steps to keep protests non-violent.
“Young people were telling me ‘No, no, no, we do not want to replicate what happened during the ‘black decade.’”
She recalls how when passing a hospital, thousands fell silent so as not to disturb patients inside, and a similar action when protesters passed a funeral and did not want to further distress mourners.
“I talked to many people who would tell me ‘we don’t want our image to get damaged by international images of Algerians being violent. We don’t want to be seen for instance like (France’s) yellow vests. We are not like that.’ “
Too little, too late?
On Sunday, Bouteflika’s campaign manager said if re-elected, the president would orchestrate a national conference to pave a way for debate over amending the constitution and deciding a time for early elections.
However, the regime’s talk of compromise did little to placate voter frustrations and was met with ridicule, says Stephen McInerney, executive director for the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy.
For many Algerians, he says, the suggestion of early elections was simply a play for time by the country’s ruling party, the National Liberation Front, which appears to have been unable to choose a successor to Bouteflika.
“They tried to buy themselves more time, but on the other hand, they’ve had quite a bit of time and they’ve known this election was on the calendar,” McInerney adds.
Is this the start of something bigger?
While there does appear to be some parallels between the start of the Arab Spring and the recent Algerian marches, experts are wary of drawing comparisons.
McInerney says these protests feel very reminiscent of what was witnessed in Tunisia in January 2011. He adds that similar protests erupted in Algeria at the same time but were quickly and violently quashed.
“In the past, the default position [for the regime] has been to crackdown on protests … The nature of these protests, they’ve chosen not to do that. They’ve been more careful and thoughtful and strategic in how they respond,” he says.
McInerney says there are some concerns the regime will try to trigger violent clashes, perhaps by sending pro-regime thugs into the protests to create violence as a pretext for a crackdown.
For now, protesters seem intent on continuing their calls for Bouteflika to withdraw and planning further peaceful marches.
“If the determination continues and if the protesters keep their demands clear … and if they remain peaceful, this might transform into a big social movement,” Carnegie research scholar Ghanem says, adding that countries across the Mediterranean will be closely watching how events unfold.
“Algeria’s stability is Europe’s stability. I think Europeans are watching very closely,” Ghanem concludes.
CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi contributed to this report.