Algeria’s embattled, long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned from office last week after weeks of mass protests. Bouteflika, who was in power for 20 years, had already been forced to drop plans to seek a fifth term in office. The 82-year-old dictator was subsequently declared incapable of carrying out his duties. This was prompted by Algerian army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, who said Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke six years ago and has rarely appeared in public since, was unable to function as president and was being used by a tight circle of family members and businessmen to preserve their privileges.
The country’s constitutional council ratified the resignation last week Wednesday, formally ending the rule of a man who had locked down Algeria’s politics for a generation, but leaving the country on the threshold of new uncertainties.
The demonstrations have also led to calls for the whole political system, in which the military plays a significant role, to be overhauled. With Bouteflika’s resignation, the leader of Parliament’s upper chamber, Abdelkader Bensalah is now the acting president. Parliament will today, April 9, elect a new interim president to steer Algeria through a transition period and democratic reforms after almost 60 years of rule by veterans of the 1954-62 independence war against France.
Under the Algerian constitution, Parliament needs to formally confirm the vacancy of the presidency and elect an upper house president to run the country on an interim basis for three months until elections. But Bensalah, the current upper house chairman and likely person to emerge as interim president, is facing pressure from protesters to quit as he, like Prime Minister Nouredine Bedoui and Tayeb Belaiz, head of a Constitutional Council, are seen as close to Bouteflika. Demonstrators want a completely new political landscape but these three were part of the old guard that kept Bouteflika in power for 20 years.
Even though the protesters succeeded in removing Bouteflika from office without a single life lost or shot fired, the real challenge begins now. Protesters have been emboldened and unified under the slogan, ‘‘Système degage!” or ‘‘System Get Lost!’’ Everybody associated with the Bouteflika regime is suspect in their eyes. They are demanding nothing less than a clean slate – new leaders, real elections, and real rule of law. Yet the unresolved question is how far is the military likely to let the protesters go in their demand for an overhaul of the “System.” General Salah himself, though now proclaiming himself on the side of the crowd, was very much part of the old regime.
The army has been the ultimate arbiter of Algeria’s political life since independence. This time, too, it was the army that gave the final push to Bouteflika. Without its support, the protest movement could not have ousted the ex-president. The army may not be willing to turn the country’s future completely over to civilians. The situation remains fluid but after a decade-long civil war and twenty years of grotesque politics, the Algerian people want to renovate their republic.
The protesters’ demands – saving the state from those who endangered it with their mismanagement – are fully legitimate. Yet, to ensure political stability and the continuity of the state, all factions and stakeholders including the military class and ruling elites must consent to peaceful and amicable resolution to the ensuing impasse.
The formation of a new coalition government to oversee the transition after Bouteflika’s resignation even if headed by compromised members of the establishment, is adhering to the constitution which will guarantee a peaceful democratic transition and elections.
Finally, the Algerian people, and especially the youth, have proven to be organised and conscious of the stakes of their current crisis. They have regained their dignity by themselves, without the help of any foreign power. Such an exemplary political performance will compel the future leaders of the country, whoever they might be, to meet the standards of their own people.