The declaration by Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika that he is not going for a fifth term as president, has put a temporary pause on the popular revolt that has been rocking Algerian streets. However, with the indefinite postponement of elections, originally scheduled for 18 April, political unrest in the country is showing no signs of dying out.
The four terms of Bouteflika spanning 20 years stifled the people with unemployment, inequalities in jobs and social spheres and corruption under military hegemony, which drove the people to the streets in strike for the past three weeks. The 82-year old president, paralysed ever since 2013, has been keeping himself out of public view under treatment. Back home from Geneva after a two-week treatment, he made a statement the other day that he could never think of a fifth term and his goal was to strengthen the foundation of the republic. He has also presented a route map for the popular demand of regime change. As per this, an independent council will frame a constitution which after being subjected to amendments by the end of the year, will be put to vote in a referendum; and then the country will move to a presidential election.
Ever since the democratic election held in 1991, in which Islamic Salvation Front won an unprecedented victory, and the then president Chadli Benjedid overturned the popular verdict on 11 January 1992, the country has been thrown into internal strife for a decade. Later it was in 1999, in an 'election' which international observers called a farce and with the entire opposition suppressed, that Bouteflika came to power. His promise was that he would save the country from the economic and political crisis caused by the civil war. He also raised hopes among the people by declaring amnesty to prisoners including even the armed rebels and guerillas, and by exploring ways of dialogue and consensus. But in the backroom of power, the military was tightening its grip and taking control of the economy which was dependent on French multinational giant in oil and gas industry. Thus, when Bouteflika followed the same neo-liberal path of Benjedid, things went into trouble once again. When he got elected again in 2004, that his eyes got set on winning subsequent terms too, for which he amended the constitution. Thus while he was busy making his position safe to be president for life, the country nosedived into unemployment and economic collapse. The year 2011 witnessed widespread labour strikes for increase in wages and pension reforms. Country wide protestz were held in 2017 too, demanding reforms in financial regulations. Even as oil exports increaased, domestic economic situation was deteriorating. Figures show that a fourth of the population below the age of thirty are jobless.
When news came that Bouteflika, set to complete his fourth term in April, is entering the presidential contest as a candidate, that was too much for the people to bear who rose in angry protests. The people, comprising students who boycotted classes and workers who struck work, created a situation similar to that of the Arab Spring. When the regime tried to suppress popular ire invoking memories of the civil riots of the 90's, the protesters retorted by planning non-violent strikes along Gandhian lines. At the end of agitations in which student and labour organizations and women observing International Women's Day, brought big cities to a halt, Bouteflika was forced to withdraw from his move for a fifth mandate. But suspicions linger that this step back is just a ploy to defuse the protests temporarily, and post that he may try to run the administration with the support of the military as done before. Right after filing nominations on 3 March, Bouteflika assured that the constitution would be amended through a national dialogue and election would be held within a year. Among the promised steps, except that he has become prepared to relinquish power, indications that the status quo ante of the rule will continue.
With the issue of the election declaration, prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigned and was replaced by Noureddine Bedoui, former inerior minister and a close aide of the President. Another of his coterie was appointed to the newly created post of deputy prime minister. These moves are read as tactics with military assistance to extend the time for restoration of democracy. Opposition leaders and political watchers alike opine that these measures have to be seen not as victory of popular protests but strategy of the ruling estalishment to overcome them. Therefore, the people will not step back from their agitation. The only way open before the two sides, and north Africa at large, to avert conflict in Algeria is restoration of true democracy.