Bouteflika should retire with dignity

This time last year, Arab Research & Advocacy Bureau published an article on what to expect in Algeria after Bouteflika’s presidency ends. We published this article in light of his deteriorating health and the lapsing legacy of the Algerian civil war’s trauma.

The recent protests against President Bouteflika’s anticipated fifth term would have been unheard of less than a decade ago. Algerians would not have dared to question the legitimacy of Algeria’s military rule – at least en masse.

During the decade long civil war, Algeria’s secular, liberal and middle class factions were demonised by the Islamist side for their perceived role as French-facing traitors. Bouteflika’s military regime came off the back of suppressing Islamist radicalisation in Algeria. This came in a context of North African leaders justifying their regimes on the superficial premise of countering extremism. Some of these presidents were successful in countering extremism, but I believe that they were aware that these efforts would legitimise their failures in other policy areas.

With 70% of Algeria’s population being under 30, the memories of the Algerian civil war are fading in the minds of millennials. Bouteflika’s regime failed to redefine its strategy accordingly. Add to the mix high rates of unemployment, corruption and inefficient bureaucracy that Algerians often face in their day to day lives, even with trivial tasks such as going to public offices and consulates to renew paperwork as basic requirements for marriage, travel and home ownership.

It was evident that Bouteflika’s military regime would self-destruct once Islamism was adequately suppressed and other policy areas were left to deteriorate.

Algeria’s young talent

At the moment, President Bouteflika is in a de facto vegetative state. He can barely move or speak, yet has been put forward this year for another candidacy. He has not yet addressed the public about this due to his poor health. The predominant opinion emerging in North Africa is that he is a mere face for the military regime. The fact that his name has been put forward by somebody else is against the constitutional codes governing presidential candidacy in the country.

In other words, Bouteflika is propped up in a bid for stability, but there are deeper elite mechanisms ruling the country behind his superficial guise. But if the recent news has led to mass protest in Algiers, then exactly what stability is Bouteflika’s candidacy achieving?

Another double standard is the government’s position on regime change. Former president Liamine Zéroual resigned in 1999 after military factions questioned his reconciliatory approach towards radical Islamists. Now that Algerian youth are questioning the legitimacy of the new military regime in dealing with 21st century issues, that same regime will not let President Bouteflika resign with dignity to allow the country to continue to evolve and deal with changing issues.

Algeria’s young population are largely multilingual and often highly talented. Algerian youth have a history of revitilising art and cultural movements, for example with the raï music phenomenon in the 1990s, and Warda’s contribution to classical Arabic music which earlier gained worldwide exposure despite her as a liberal Arab woman.

A lot of Algerian music actually addressed political issues. For example, in Khaled’s modern rendition of Abdel Kader about Algeria’s 19th century anti-colonial leader. Akli Yahyaten’s modern rendition of the Kabyle song Yal Menfi equally addresses the many hardships of young Algerians living abroad in exile and forced political displacement. It is therefore interesting that radical Islamists viewed all secular liberals in the country as colonial traitors – these same people were actually extremely politically conscious and protesting colonialism in the country.

Young Algerian talent also branches into sport. Riyadh Mahrez, Islam Slimani, Hassiba Boulmerka, Noureddine Mourceli, Karim Benzema, Zinedine Zidane, Nabil Bentaleb, Sofiane Feghouli… the list goes on.

I also believe that there are many young Algerians qualified for democratically-elected leadership and government positions, including children of Algerian migrants in Europe who have often gone to study at top universities. Algerian intelligentsia therefore extends throughout history: Mouloud Feraoun, Albert Camus, Franz Fanon, Saint Augustine of Hippo and Leïla Sebbar are all household names in many politically conscious families.

Algeria’s youth need to be given a chance to become masters of their own destinies. Bouteflika’s bid suits the military elite who benefit from alleged corruption at higher levels of Algerian politics. It is an endorsement of the status quo. I don’t believe that President Bouteflika is completely aware of what’s going on, but elite pacts probably want him in place so that the status quo is not disturbed.

However, I believe that the military elite would actually benefit from a progressive and qualified young leader as they would reap the rewards of a more open economy situated on Europe’s doorstep. I predict that, if such a leader does come into power, Algeria’s border with Morocco would open due to imminent plans to create a regional, North African cross-rail network. This would ease tensions with neighbouring Morocco and create more harmony across the region.

Not only would the region benefit from freedom of movement and free trade, but there would be equally less opportunity for extremists to exploit division and tensions in the area.

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