Algeria: “All Eyes On Me” – What exists for Bouteflika and FLN?

Summary: as Bouteflika formally confirms his candidacy for a fifth term as president the FLN faces unexpectedly large demonstrations in protest. Clock ticking.

We thank an Arab Digest member for the article below. Reuters confirms that Bouteflika’s official papers have been submitted. Bouteflika, who remains in Geneva, has written a letter (his first statement since protests broke out 10 days ago) making a number of promises: a national conference to work out and adopt reforms, a referendum on a new constitution, a fairer distribution of national wealth, more benefits for the young, a new electoral law, and a presidential election at a date to be decided by the conference at which he undertakes not to be a candidate (French text at link). Reuters comments that this is likely to be viewed as an attempt to appease the protesters, and that the protests continued last night.

Sunday 3 March, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is due to submit his papers seeking a fifth consecutive term of office in the general election set for 18 April, will be looked back upon as not just any day in the history of Algeria. As I write on 3 March, it appears likely that the next few days, if not few hours, could prove to be decisive and this will be remembered either as the ‘day on which the people’s voice prevailed’ or, failing that, ‘the beginning of the end’.

Which alternative prevails depends on the decisions the FLN and the government will be taking, whether to step back or press on into the darkness into which they have led their country.

It is true, as his agent claims, that, under the terms of the constitution (revised in 2008 to scrap term limits), Mr. Bouteflika has a right to stand despite serious question marks over his ability, for health reasons, to carry out the responsibilities inherent in the office of head of state. But two weeks of increasingly large — and, so far, peaceful — street demonstrations across Algeria have made it clear that the country at large has had enough, not only of Mr. Bouteflika himself but also of the FLN as a whole.

Following Algeria’s decade of civil war in the 1990s, any form of protest was banned in 2001, an embargo which remains in place to this day. But the FLN’s announcement that Mr. Bouteflika would again be its candidate has filled Algerians with rage and moved them on from ‘mere’ social media advocacy to street protests across 40 cities to date and involving up to 800,000 people in Algiers itself. Formal confirmation today of Mr. Bouteflika’s candidacy would be widely seen as confirmation (if any more were needed) of the contempt in which he and his clan hold the Algerian people.

The protestors have not been drawn exclusively from the younger generation; but, with 60% of the country’s 40 million population under 40, it is hardly surprising that they make up the majority. Many are too young to remember the civil war; and they are not going to be daunted by official references to the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria and what has followed there. As I write on 3 March, the consensus is that the protests today will be bigger still even though routes to the constitutional court, where candidates’ papers must be filed and where students are hoping to stage a sit-in today, have been blocked.

The FLN has been taken completely by surprise by the dramatic turn of events, its expectations having been formed by the belief, based on experience of the past two decades or so, that Algerians were either too apathetic or fatalistic (thanks to the FLN’s iron grip, one way or the other, on all elections since independence in 1962) to mount mass political protests. It does not, therefore, have a ‘Plan B’. Many see this as confirmation that the government and its cronies, including in the private sector, are too busy emptying the state coffers even to keep an ear to the ground.

To their credit, the protestors have given thought to possible alternatives. Sadly, however, all names that could have had any potential legitimacy have been tainted by association with the FLN. Most notably, Ramtan Lamara and Ali Benflis. While both are undoubtedly charismatic and widely seen as potential figures for a peaceful existance, Mr. Lamara has long been a mouthpiece for Mr. Bouteflika, while Mr. Benflis, who moved into the opposition a decade or so ago, was Mr. Bouteflika’s first presidential campaign head and also behind the 2001 law banning peaceful demonstrations.

Where we go from here remains far from clear. As things stand, there is a dearth of information. What is known, in addition to confirmation of Mr. Bouteflika’s intention to stand for re-election, is as follows:

  • The Presidential plane had not left Geneva following the departure of Mr. Bouteflika, who has not spoken publicly to Algerians since he suffered a stroke in 2013, to Switzerland for one of his frequent ‘routine medicals’;
  • According to the Algerian press he has released a declaration of his assets as required of all presidential candidates; and,
  • Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal has been removed as Mr. Bouteflika’s campaign head.and replaced by Abdelghani Zaalan.

As the world watches on and the fate of Africa’s largest country hangs in the balance, the clock is ticking. Tic, toc. tic, toc, tic…..

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