What’s next for Algeria?

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What’s next for Algeria?

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would not be seeking reelection, but it didn’t take long for high hopes to fade and disillusionment to set in.

At first, it seemed as if the ailing Bouteflika, who suffered a stroke in 2013, was conceding to popular protests against his bid for a fifth term in office.

For weeks, hundreds of thousands of Algerians had converged on the streets, angry over Bouteflika’s plan to extend his 20-year rule.

But no sooner had the celebrations erupted than the sweet taste of victory quickly turned sour

While the president was withdrawing from the race on Monday, he had also decided to delay the long-awaited poll.

In response, thousands of Algerians rallied in cities across the country to denounce what they saw as the government’s attempt to illegally extend the octogenarian’s hold on power. 

In a video that has since gone viral, a reporter for the Arabic service of Sky News was interrupted by an angry passer-by shortly after Bouteflika’s announcement was made. 

“We are not congratulating one another,” he said, denying what the journalist had said moments earlier. “It’s not true, we want all of them to leave.” 

Others on social media joked wryly that they would now have to change their slogans from “No to a fifth term,” to “No to an extended fourth term.” 

Promising economic and political reforms – starting with an immediate cabinet reshuffle – Bouteflika suggested holding a national dialogue conference to bring together various political parties and civil society actors. 

The goal of the gathering would be to devise a new constitution to be submitted for a referendum by the end of the year. 

Calls for another Friday of demonstrations, the fourth since protests broke out on February 22, quickly began to make the rounds on social media. 

Winning time, appeasing protesters 

Analysts said the measures were an attempt by the government and a shadowy clique that surrounds Bouteflika to appease the protesters and buy time. 

“I think it is a tactic by the president’s entourage to win more time and manage the transition,” said Youcef Bouandel, a political science professor at Qatar University. 

“Here I do not mean a transition to an open and democratic regime, but a transition from President Bouteflika to another person capable of keeping the status quo.”

The proposal was reminiscent of a similar offer made only a week earlier, suggesting that, if reelected, the president would organise a national dialogue conference, change the constitution, and call an election within a year an election, in which he would not run. 

Two new figures, however, were brought in to help with the transition: Ramtane Lamamra – named to the deputy prime minister position that was created by presidential decree on Monday – and Lakhdar Brahimi, both former foreign ministers.  

In their first media appearances since their appointment, both Lamara and Brahimi said they were appealing to the people’s good sense and encouraged them to engage in dialogue with authorities. 

In sharp contrast to previous government statements where the outgoing Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia suggested Algeria could turn into the next Syria, Lamamra insisted, “Syria and Libya made mistakes that we will not make.” 

“We will not fall [victim] to this cycle of violence,” the former ambassador to the United States told state radio. 

Brahimi, one of the architects of the 1989 Taif agreement, which brought the Lebanese civil war to an end, was just as conciliatory in his remarks.

“This is a big turning point for Algeria, we must all work together,” he said on state television. 

How Algerians will react to these two seasoned statesmen’s advances remains to be seen, but if social media is any indication, Brahimi’s role in mediating the crisis is proving to be divisive. 

In December, Brahimi, who is known to be a close confidant of the president, told French publication Jeune Afrique that “nobody really contested Bouteflika’s rule”. 

“I hope Algerians remember them more for their diplomatic careers and roles in international mediation than for the current choices they are making,” wrote Khaled Drareni, journalist and founder of the Casbah Tribune newspaper, on Twitter. 

Opposition unyielding 

Members of the opposition, who days before the protests failed to agree on a candidate to take on Bouteflika, have, in their overwhelming majority, rejected the president’s proposal, saying it constitutes a gross violation of the Algerian constitution.

In a joint statement on Wednesday announcing their rejection of the initiative, they called on “honest and rational” members of parliament to resign. 

Even the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), which had suggested earlier that the election be postponed, changed its mind. 

Habib Brahmia, spokesperson of the opposition Jil Jadid party, said protesters, and by extension opposition parties, were unlikely to take up the government’s offer because they felt the balance of power had shifted.

“Algerians were not fooled, they understood the plot,” Brahmia told Al Jazeera. “They also understood that their voice counts. They have no intention of getting robbed of their revolution.” 

Ali Benflis – Bouteflika’s former prime minister in the early 2000s who later ran against him – told Al Jazeera that notwithstanding parliamentary approval, the only time a sitting president can extend his term is if the country is in a state of war.

“I would imagine that the government would be forced into making more concessions later this week,” said Michael Willis, a professor of modern Maghrebi politics at Oxford University. 

“They may move back on that [recent decision] or they move the deadline for Bouteflika’s withdrawal to six months, and maybe keep on making minor concessions. But I don’t think that’s going to work.”

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