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.