For many of those protesting in Algeria during the past month, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the only leader they have ever known. In power for 20 years, the ailing 82-year-old had been seeking a fifth term in elections due to be held next month, but was met with staunch opposition.
Following widespread protests in which students played a pivotal role, the April 18 election has been postponed and Bouteflika has revoked his candidacy. However, it is now not clear when the election will take place, leaving Bouteflika in power for the foreseeable future.
In the past five years, accusations of nepotism and corruption in Bouteflika’s government have gained significant traction on university campuses across the country as the president failed to address the grievances of younger voters. He has also been largely absent from public life following a stroke in 2013 which left him in poor health.
Despite Bouteflika not having given a public address since 2014, the ruling National Liberation Front had made it clear that he would be the party’s candidate in the April election. Given the shortage of credible political opposition, the move angered many Algerians and aroused deep-seated fears concerning the increasingly authoritarian nature of the regime.
Protests broke out in mid-February and grew substantially throughout the month. With half of Algeria’s population under 30, students have been at the center of the uproar.
A turning point came on Saturday, March 9, when the higher-education ministry ordered universities to begin their annual spring holiday immediately due to the disruption. The move enabled more students to join protests in the capital over the weekend.
With chants of “Hey Bouteflika, there won’t be a fifth term,” hundreds of thousands of students and other protesters took to the streets. Some observers likened the atmosphere to that of the 1956 general strike against French rule.
In a letter published several days before he returned from medical treatment in Switzerland on March 10, Bouteflika had warned of “chaos” but also praised demonstrators for “peacefully expressing their opinions.” However, as the authorities cracked down on protesters, journalists and activists, there were fears that the largely peaceful protests had the potential to turn violent.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 40 people were arrested on charges of “disturbing public order” during the first two weeks of protests, and on March 1, Internet access in parts of Algiers, Tizi Ouzou and Béjaïa was restricted, which heavily restricted the flow of information.
Despite these fears, it appears that the protests have been successful without widespread violence. In part, this is thanks to the decision of more than 1,000 judges who, on March 10, published a statement declaring that they would not oversee the election due to the protests.
“We announce our intention to abstain from … supervising the election process against the will of the people, which is the only source of power,” the judges’ statement said.
Additionally, Lt. Gen. Gaed Salah, the military’s chief of staff, had indicated, without mentioning the protests, that the military also supported the will of the people.
With students, the military and judiciary all apparently sharing the view that Bouteflika should step down, it became nearly impossible for him to hold on to power. Consequently, on March 11, a statement was published in his name saying he would not run again.
“There will be no fifth term,” the president’s message read. “There was never any question of it for me. Given my state of health and age, my last duty toward the Algerian people was always contributing to the foundation of a new Republic.”
The prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, resigned at the same time, and other government changes are expected soon.
These moves are likely to be the first step in a longer process and, given that there is no final date set for the election, there is a degree of trepidation surrounding the coming weeks. However, with the replacement of the unpopular prime minister and Bouteflika promising not to run for re-election, there are signs that real change may be on the horizon.
Although the coming weeks are likely to be tense and unstable, the recent demonstrations have proved to the rest of the country that the irrepressible voice of students and young voters must be heard.
Samuel Woodhams is a freelance journalist and senior researcher at the digital privacy group Top10VPN. He writes about the intersection of technology and politics, covering global digital censorship and international affairs.