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Uncertain next steps for Algeria after Bouteflika resigns

Algeria’s ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, resigned on Tuesday following six weeks of largely peaceful mass protests and pressure from the army. Geneva-based political expert Hasni Abidi analyses the challenges ahead in the post-Bouteflika era. 

Hundreds took to the streets of the capital Algiers after the announcement of the 82-year-old president’s departure on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, army chief of staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah demanded the veteran ruler, who has long been in poor health, be declared immediately unfit for office. 

State TV later showed Bouteflika handing his resignation letter to the head of the 12-member constitutional council. Also present was Abdelkader Bensalah, chairman of the upper house of parliament, who will run the country for 90 days until elections are held. 

Hasni Abidi

Hasni Abidi is a political scientist and specialist on the Arab-speaking world. He is director of the Study and Research Centre for the Arab and Mediterranean World (CERMAM), a think tank established in Geneva in September 2000. 

His work focuses on political developments in the Middle East and North Africa. He lectures at the Global Studies Institute at the University of Geneva and has published numerous works and articles.

swissinfo.ch: With the president gone, the Algerian army is again centre stage. What does this mean?

Hasni Abidi: The regime is crumbling. It is no longer what it was before February 22, the day of the first demonstrations. Street protests have managed to break the solidarity within the political regime, which is why the president’s office is isolated. 

The army was responsible for triggering article 102 of the constitution [which provides that a head of State can be declared unfit for office or resign himself, triggering organization of presidential elections within 90 days] following demands by protestors. The army wants to manage the transition, but this is not the position of all the political class and especially not what the Algerian people want.

swissinfo.ch: Can the army successfully manage the transition?

H.A.: Everything will depend on the level of citizen mobilization and how their demands are taken up by political parties and new figures who are emerging. Over the past twenty years, Bouteflika wiped out all political opposition and created a void around him.   

This void has now been filled by the army. This is the system that Bouteflika built up over 20 years. But the military is not trained to manage this transition. Hence, the need to accompany article 102 with reforms. The army is proposing a legal solution, in accordance with the constitution, but the Algerian crisis is deep and political. It is a crisis of legitimacy requiring a political response that goes beyond the strict application of the constitution. 

swissinfo.ch: If there is an election 90 days after Bouteflika’s resignation, could the protest movement and the demands of Algerians be simply ignored?

H.A.: There is a risk that the transition scenario the government put in place in 1994 with the presidency of Liamine Zeroual [whose name was put forward to lead the transition] could be repeated. We are facing two divergent paths: the one demanded by protestors, which requires a change of regime but has no clear roadmap, and the one proposed by the government, which calls for a transition, provided it is in charge and based on article 102 of the constitution. 

However, article 102 provides a very short timeframe to allow the opposition to get organised and chose candidates for the presidential elections. Demonstrators are calling for the setting up of a provisional body composed of independent figures with no connections to the regime. This is very different from what the constitution proposes – the only path favoured by the regime. 

swissinfo.ch: Since Algeria’s war of independence (1954-62), Geneva and the Lake Geneva region have been important locations for Algerian leaders and opponents. Is this still the case? 

H.A.: That period is long over. But with Bouteflika’s departure, another page will probably turn for Geneva. If Algeria starts a transitional justice process, it is highly likely that investigations will be launched into any funds placed in Switzerland, particularly by Bouteflika’s relatives. 

swissinfo.ch: Former jihadists who were offered an amnesty by the regime have much to lose from any changes. More broadly, what role might Islamist movements play in the future, as they did not take part in the mass protests?

H.A.: Bouteflika passed so-called ‘clemency and concord’ legislation followed by a referendum on civil concord drawn up by the army, which enabled the regime to tame Islamists. Several jihadists benefited from measures resulting from the amnesty and from financial aid. Other Islamist groups that accepted the 1994 transition were associated with power by being represented in parliament. They will be part of the transition, but they will no longer be able to promote their political virginity. This reduces the impact of Islamist movements, which are organized but extremely diverse. In any case, the regime can no longer use them to whip up fear and they no longer offer any credible alternative, as they have been rejected by most Algerians. 

swissinfo.ch: Are there risks of foreign interference in the Algerian crisis?

H.A.: Algerians are well aware of what happened during the Arab Spring and feel safe from the threat of foreign interference. Tunisia and Morocco are keeping a low profile. They have no interest in destabilizing their powerful neighbour. The ongoing transition [in Algeria] will determine the mobilization of citizens and even political events in neighbouring states. Morocco is still on hold since the mass protests in the Rif region [October 2016-June 2017] and Tunisia’s president is being challenged.

Translated from French by Simon Bradley