The Youth and the wheelchair: are we witnessing Bouteflika’s farewell?

For the first time in 20 years of reign, tens of thousands of Algerians marched on Friday 22th to express their dissatisfaction following the controversial announcement of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s fifth presidential candidacy. After suffering a severe stroke in 2013, Algeria’s current president was left in a wheelchair and critics around his health condition kept surging after he won the 2014th election.

Although the handful appearances of a severely diminished ruler stirred outrage among the opinion, the still fresh memories of the Algerian civil war – which caused at least 100 000 deaths between 1991 and 2002 – and the absence of a powerful and structured opposition, seem to offer little hope for immediate change. Behind the curtain, the president’s brother, Saïd, along with a small number of people, are said to be pulling the strings. However, the latest unprecedented and peaceful demonstrations seem to have eroded the status quo. For a very young population – 70% of Algerians are under 30 – the demand for change could override the power’s ability to mitigate the discontent.

Expected to win a fifth term

Surprisingly enough Abelaziz Bouteflika is expected to easily win a fifth term according to Middle East Eye: “Bouteflika is likely to win a fifth term as the Algerian opposition remains weak and fragmented, Reuters said”. If the figure of Ali Ghediri, a retired 65 years old general is regularly mentioned in the news, no one seems to really offer a tangible alternative. Furthermore, “Bouteflika’s re-election would offer short-term stability for the elites of the FLN, the army and business tycoons, and postpone a potentially controversial succession”. Put differently, a no-solution would, at the end of the day, be less costly for many political actors than a radical change. Hence, many of Bouteflika’s supporters do not hesitate to maintain that, despite his appalling physical condition, the president’s mind “remains harp, even though he needs a microphone to speak”, the Middle East Eye reports.

For example, Ahmed Ouyahia, the actual Prime Minister told the media that Bouteflika’s health was not “an obstacle” to performing presidential duties.  In addition, “many Algerians” credit “him ending a long civil war by offering an amnesty to former militants”. As a matter of fact, the current regime has often been waving the threat of a return of the Islamist that had been driven out of by the army in the early 1990’s, at the early stages of the “black decade”. An unfounded threat for many Algerians. Yet, The New York Times explains that “many Algerians would most likely vote for him again, for fear of the instability that his departure could unleash”. In that regard, it is important to emphasize that “Bouteflika is the only president in North Africa who was spared in the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring that started in neighbouring Tunisia in 2010”, recalls Aljazeera. “At the time, his government contained pro-democracy protests in Algeria with promises of reform and pay raises, financed by the country’s revenues from oil and gas”. Housewife Aicha Zaidi tells Arab Newsshe would vote for Bouteflika because thanks to him I have decent housing for my family”. Arab News also mentions Reporters, a daily newspaper which “welcomed the president’s pledge to bring in deep reforms saying it could accommodate opposition demands for changes”. On the other hand, Hamid Bramimi, 75, says that “Algeria had become the laughing stock of the world with a president who is invisible”. Indeed, like the recent massive and peaceful gathering show, a large portion of the opinion energetically calls for change.

Is Algeria ready for change ?

As Middle East Eye rightly points out, the president “will need to find a way to connect with the North African country’s young population, almost 70 percent of which is aged under 30”. Being part of a “thinning elite of the veterans who won independence from France in the 1954-62 war and have run Algeria ever since”, Bouteflika appears, more than ever, disconnected from the population. His dramatic health – the president can barely talk nor move his limbs – contrasts with the vigor of an extremely young population. Simultaneously, the promises of large economic spinoffs are still eagerly awaited, as Algeria’s finances have been hurt by the global drop in oil prices, explains Al Jazeera. In the meantime, the ruling elite proved reluctant in opening up to foreign investment, which in turn, has left the economy dominated by the state and firms run by business tycoons, details Middle East Eye.

This could partly explain why so many Algerians engulfed the streets on Friday 22th and stand ready to march again. “No to Bouteflika and no to Said” was the rallying cry, reports Middle East Eye. Apparently not too sure of himself, the regime now fears a large-scale propagation. To extinguish the embers, it is reported that it asked the imams to calm the believers during their sermon, but the impact remained “limited”. On the Internet, authorities hampered social networks, many users having experienced disruptions on the eve of the gatherings. Is Algeria ready for change? Nothing could be less sure.

Cover photo: AFP

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