By Luigi Lonardo
After two decades in power, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has announced that he will resign as President of Algeria. Luigi Lonardo explains that despite the announcement, there are signs it may not yet be game over for the country’s regime.
Almost ten years after the Arab uprisings, twenty years after taking power, Algeria’s president Bouteflika announced on Tuesday 2 April that he will ‘resign’. The inverted commas are justified by the scepticism with which such news may be received – if the President is indeed even alive. The 82-year-old has not appeared on television since 2013.
The President – actually, his office – announced the move following massive protests which began in February in the country’s capital, Algiers, calling for his resignation. The news of the resignation is bound to send shockwaves across Algeria due to the opportunity it may bring to regenerate the country’s political life; and across the Mediterranean given its repercussions for international security and the potential instability of a key partner in the EU’s migration policy and fight against terrorism.
APS, the Algerian news agency that first spread the news, reported that the President has, in fact, not yet resigned. His office has, instead, notified the Constitutional Council of his intention to quit before the end of his mandate, currently scheduled for 28 April this year. The ironic analogy with Brexit is easy: the statement was an intention to leave which may have the same implications as the Court of Justice of the European Union recently found in its judgment on the revocability of Article 50 TEU.
The official statement released by the President’s office reads: “This decision stems from my preoccupation to avoid that the verbal excesses that sadly characterise this period will result in drifts that may be potentially dangerous for the protection of people and goods, which is one of the essential prerogatives of the state. At the same time, this decision bears testament to my faith in a proud Algeria, worthy of her position and who takes fully on board her responsibilities in the international arena.”
There are signs that it may not yet be game over for the political system in Algeria. A new caretaker government, led by Abdelkader Bensalah, may continue the regime. Continuity may be granted, crucially, by the army – which, until now, seems to have supported Bouteflika (or at least has not explicitly distanced itself from him). Indeed, a key lesson from the Arab uprisings was that the army was the pivotal player in shaping the destiny of the country (significantly, Turkey’s president Erdogan was the only leader to survive without and indeed against the army in 2016). Support for Bouteflika is by no means limited to the army, but includes business and Islamists which have, de facto, run the country since independence.
Credit: Becker1999 (CC BY 2.0)
However, a generation of Algerians has grown up knowing of no other President but Bouteflika. Since independence in 1962, the country has been ruled by the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). Even in Algeria, almost ten years after a robust constitutional change in its neighbour Tunisia and massive protests in Morocco, times are a-changing. Marred by youth unemployment and receiving around one sixth of the foreign aid from the EU that Morocco receives, Algeria is ready to get shaken.
Even though the news of the President’s resignation was welcomed in Algiers by cheering crowds, Algerian people understand that the transition has only just started – if it has at all. Protests are by no means set to subside, even after the announcement. Indeed, if anything, they are bound to grow, feeding on this first success.
…and its implications for southern Europe
While the European Union is unlikely to take a strong united position on the unfolding of events in the near future, some of its member states probably will. Since the protests started in late February, the High Representative Federica Mogherini has not released any statements. One might speculate that this reflects a precise political strategy to keep Algeria’s situation below the radar, but member states’ reactions could suggest otherwise, as the quest for compromise is bound to start soon.
Political turmoil in Algeria – something from which the country seemed immune despite the momentous changes in its neighbourhood – is not in the member states’ interests. France’s priorities in Algeria include, but are not limited to, the containment of migratory routes – originating in West Africa – and the management of the tormented peace process in Algeria’s southern neighbour, Mali. Another example is Italy, whose interests in Algeria relate to energy – and have security implications: who will assure the steadiness of supply in case of political upheavals and regime change? France and Italy, together with Spain, are also linked to Algeria through the massive presence of Algerian émigrés on European soil.
Finally, Morocco, is another agent whose behaviour might significantly influence the outcome of the process that we are about to witness. The Kingdom, Algeria’s western neighbour and sworn enemy over many issues – among them the tense dispute over Western Sahara – has, so far, keep a diplomatically low profile on Bouteflika’s move.
Luigi Lonardo is a Lecturer at King’s College London.