The reluctant resignation of Algeria’s veteran president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was greeted with noisy celebrations by street protesters who spent weeks demanding his departure. But his premature downfall after 20 years in power does not signify the end of the Algerian revolt. It may be just the beginning.
Now the next phase begins – a struggle to overthrow the country’s oligarchic, elitist governmental system and not merely its elderly figurehead. Under current rules, Algeria faces a 90-day transition period until a new president is elected. There is already confusion over what should happen next.
When state television showed pictures of Bouteflika, 82, handing in his resignation letter, he was flanked by Abdelkader Bensalah. According to the constitution, Bensalah, president of the council of the nation (the upper house of parliament), must now hold the fort until a new leader is elected.
But Bensalah is a long-time Bouteflika loyalist and a senior establishment figure. He often stood in for the ailing president at official functions and supported his ill-fated attempt to seek a fifth term. If, as some suggest, Bensalah seeks the top job on a permanent basis, it will infuriate those intent on root-and-branch reform.
Adding to the confusion, another member of the ancien regime, Liamine Zéroual, Algeria’s president from 1994-99, claimed to have been asked to lead the transitional government, al-Jazeera reported. Meanwhile, ministers appointed on Sunday as part of a last-minute bid by Bouteflika’s inner circle to keep power remain in office and are insisting on “continuity”.
By keeping protests peaceful, and forcing the army to support them – it was an intervention by the army chief of staff, Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, that finally persuaded Bouteflika to go – Algeria’s reformists have already achieved more than most of their predecessors in the 2011-12 Arab spring revolts.
But as Egyptians who overthrew another long-entrenched president, Hosni Mubarak, have since discovered, changing the system is harder – and can backfire. The Algerian army’s priority was to halt the street unrest. It is far from clear that Salah is prepared to tolerate the sort of open-ended, democratic reformation opposition parties are advocating.
Once the realisation sinks in that little of substance has changed in the way the country is governed, the joy of anti-regime protesters may turn to anger. And even if the elites suddenly agreed to surrender power, there would be no quick fix for endemic economic problems that fuelled the upheavals.
Pressure for more fundamental change may prove irresistible, particularly among the young. Despite the country’s position as a leading oil and gas exporter, more than one in four of Algerians under age 30 – totalling about 70 percent of the population – are unemployed. Many of them will have scant memory of the civil war that cost about 100,000 lives in the 1990s after the army overturned a 1991 election victory by an Islamist party.
The top priority for Salah who, for now, is Algeria’s de facto boss and will remember the war well, is to prevent a slide back into violence. If he mishandles the situation, he could provoke the very conflagration he hopes to avoid.
The spectre of deepening instability in Algeria is alarming for Europe, particularly “frontline” states such as Italy, Spain and France, the former colonial power. They fear new surges in uncontrolled migration, an increased terrorist threat and disruption to energy supplies. On the other hand, the EU should, according to its lights, be supporting Algeria’s movement for greater democracy.
Authoritarian regimes forming an arc of instability across north Africa, from Egypt and Eritrea to war-torn Libya and restless Sudan, will also contemplate Bouteflika’s fate with foreboding. It may not yet be Arab spring II, but the Algerian example of successful popular revolt could prove highly contagious.