The story so far
After weeks of resisting popular demands, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had a tight grip on the country with support from the military and the intelligence establishment for 20 years, on Tuesday submitted his resignation. Since February 22, tens of thousands of people, especially youth, have thronged the cities, including capital Algiers, where protests are legally barred, demanding that the 82-year-old leader go. Mr. Bouteflika’s resignation comes a day after Army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah declared that the President was unfit to continue in office.
His political career
Born in 1937, Mr. Bouteflika’s political career began in the pre-independence years. At age 19, he joined the National Liberation Army, the military wing of the National Liberation Front (FLN) that was fighting the French colonialists for independence. In the post independence government led by revolutionary leader Ahmed Ben Bella, Mr. Bouteflika was a Minister. In 1963, Bella appointed him Foreign Minister, a post which he would hold till 1979. In between, Bella fell in a coup but Mr. Bouteflika survived as he switched his loyalty to Houari Boumédiène, the new President.
After Boumédiène’s death in 1979, Mr. Bouteflika was sidelined along with the other old guard by the new President, Chadli Bendjedid. Faced with charges of corruption, he fled the country and lived in exile for six years. The Army brought him back to the central committee of the ruling party in the late 1980s when Algeria was going through a rough phase amid protests and a surge of Islamist politics. The government introduced some political reforms and held free elections in 1991 in which the Islamic Salvation Front emerged victorious. But the military did not allow the Islamists to capture power. They scrapped the election and appointed a new government, which plunged the country into a bloody civil war.
In 1999, when the country was still going through a violent phase, Mr. Bouteflika won the presidency. He stood as an independent, but with support from the military. His immediate focus was to resolve the civil conflict. He adopted a twin-pronged strategy — issuing amnesty to the lower ranks of the Islamist insurgency while at the same time going after the remains of militants (the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, was the main rebel faction).
In three years, Mr. Bouteflika brought the civil war to an end and his government built a strong welfare state funded by revenues from oil and gas exports. These measures bolstered his popularity and helped him stabilise his regime, often balancing between public demands, military power blocs and the interests of his own clique and family.
While Mr. Bouteflika is credited with ending the civil war and stabilising the economy, he was also known for his ruthless administrative style that denied several basic freedom to people. The presidential election was hardly free and fair. There has always been a strong political opposition against him. But Mr. Bouteflika has been a survivor. He survived the 1965 coup against his political mentor and President Bella. He survived the civil war. He survived even the Arab Spring protests of 2010-11 that felled fellow North African dictators Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia.
In 2014, Mr. Bouteflika won a fourth term without inviting much public protest even as he had withdrawn from the public by that time following the previous year’s stroke. But the resentment was gradually rising, particularly amid mounting economic woes following the 2014 commodity meltdown. The oil and gas sector has been the backbone of the country's economy accounting for about 20% of the GDP, and 85% of exports. The fall in commodity prices hit the economy hard. The economic growth slowed from 4% in 2014 to 1.6% in 2017. Youth unemployment stood at 29%.
While the country was battling economic woes, the President was missing from the public. The stroke had paralysed him. He has been wheelchair-bound and has rarely been seen in public, and never talked in public rallies. There were allegations that a clique around him was running the government. Five years of economic troubles and growing scepticism about the President’s health have added to the public resentment. So when the ruling party said Mr. Bouteflika will seek a fifth term in this year’s presidential election, protests erupted and they spread like wildfire across the country in weeks.
Why did he resign?
Mr. Bouteflika has tried to remain in control till he lost the support of the military completely. After the protests, he backed off from the early plan to seek a fifth term, but said elections would be postponed. He promised to introduce political and economic reforms but protesters rejected these offers. They said it was his tactic to continue in power without elections. And protests continued in Algiers and other cities. The Army’s role was dubious. It said “the people and the Army are brothers”, while at the same time emphasising on political stability. But the Army and the police refused to use heavy force against the protesters.
As it was evident that Mr. Bouteflika could not resolve the biggest political crisis in the country in years, both the ruling FLN and the Army turned against him. They wanted to rescue the regime, not the President. An FLN leader first said Mr. Bouteflika is history. On Tuesday, Army chief Salah held a meeting with generals and top officials of the Defence Ministry after which he demanded Mr. Bouteflika vacate immediately. That was a clearest message from the armed forces. Within hours, Mr. Bouteflika announced his resignation.
According to the country's Constitution, the head of the Council of the Nation, the upper house of Parliament, should become interim leader for up to three months if the President steps down and then elections be held. Abdelkader Bensalah, the current Parliament chief, has already taken over the responsibility.
It is to be seen whether the protesters will now vacate the streets and accept the transition. Some of them have called for a break with the system and demanded a democratic transition. They don’t want the vestiges of the old regime to in control of the country. But for now, only Mr. Bouteflika is gone. The regime he built with support from the military establishment has survived.