The Irish Times view on Algeria: defiance on the streets

For many young Algerians, an ailing president symbolises the tired gerontocracy that holds their country back

Algerian protesters chant slogans during a protest against the fifth term of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, Algeria, on Friday.  Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

Algerian protesters chant slogans during a protest against the fifth term of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, Algeria, on Friday. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

 

After 10 days of rare street protests in Algeria over an attempt by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a fifth term as head of state, the ailing 82-year-old moved to appease the demonstrators at the weekend by announcing he would step down within a year if re-elected next month. In doing so, Bouteflika was acknowledging the legitimacy of the protesters’ complaints, but the protests are likely to continue until the crowds’ chief demand is met.

The country was barely touched by the Arab Spring protests in 2011

Since winning independence from France in 1962, the National Liberation Front (FLN) has run the country with the help of an influential military/intelligence apparatus that has suppressed potential challengers. Bouteflika, a veteran leader of the independence struggle, has been in power since 1999. He suffered a stroke in 2013 and has not spoken in public since.

Algeria, Africa’s largest country, is an important actor in the geopolitics of the region. Its oil, its proximity to Europe, its counter-terrorism work and its role in policing the trafficking routes of the Sahel give it an influence that belies its low profile in the diplomatic arena under the invisible Bouteflika. The country was barely touched by the Arab Spring protests in 2011. That was partly because of the generous subsidies the regime used to calm economic tensions, but another reason was many Algerians feared a return to the bloodshed the country experienced in the 1990s, when an estimated 200,000 people were killed after Islamists took up arms after the military cancelled elections they were poised to win.

Students protest against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to extend his 20-year rule, at a university in Algiers, Algeria, on Sunday. Photograph: Ramzi Boudina/Reuters
Students protest against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to extend his 20-year rule, at a university in Algiers, Algeria, on Sunday. Photograph: Ramzi Boudina/Reuters

Unlike in 2011, the regime cannot now throw money at the problem; a drop in global oil prices has forced it to cut back social spending. Those worst affected by a stalled economy and high unemployment are the under-30s, who make up almost 70 per cent of the population. Unlike their parents, they will not automatically tolerate a closed political system as the price for relative stability. To them, Bouteflika symbolises the tired gerontocracy that holds their country back. His departure alone won’t fix Algeria’s problems. But it would be a start.

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