Algeria is marking the one-year anniversary this week of its massive popular uprising pretty much the way it started — with more street protests and a sense that demands for fundamental political change remain unmet.
The political landscape has shifted dramatically. Ailing octogenarian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika — whose quest for yet another term in office triggered the so-called Hirak protest movement — is out. In prison today are former prime ministers and other once-powerful establishment figures, including Bouteflika’s brother, Said.
The current president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 74, wants to reform Algeria’s constitution, among other areas. Even powerful army General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who orchestrated the ouster of Bouteflika and other members of his regime, is out of the picture, having died suddenly in December.
Yet protesters and analysts believe the fundamental pouvoir, or traditional power system of influential military and business leaders, remains in place. And while some suggest there are options for moving forward, the street and the government, for now, are at an impasse.
Not enough impact
“The people in the streets now aren’t enough to pressure the government to meet their demands,” said analyst Brahim Oumansour of the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations, referring to the dwindling numbers in recent months.
At the same time, he added, “I don’t think the Algerian government can continue failing to answer to their demands. The country cannot support such a political blockage.”
In the streets and on social media, protesters claim their movement is as strong as ever, and vow another mass demonstration next Friday.
“Fifty-second Friday of protest, the Hirak continues to be mobilized,” one Twitter post said, echoing many others.
Establishment figures remain
In other signs of recent changes, an appeals court confirmed this past week a 15-year prison sentence against Said Bouteflika, who was an unofficial "regent" during his brother’s later years in office, along with two intelligence chiefs, on charges of plotting against the army’s authority. Meanwhile, a controversial media boss once close to the ex-president was arrested on corruption charges.
But other establishment figures remain. Topping the list is Tebboune, a former prime minister and favorite of Algeria’s powerful army. He was among a short list of old-regime candidates for Algeria’s December election to replace Bouteflika. Protesters called for a boycott of the vote, and even the official turnout was low at just 40 percent.
Since his election, Tebboune has reached out to protesters, calling for dialogue, freeing some detainees and vowing to amend the constitution to give Parliament and the judiciary more power. After a period of focusing inwardly, Algeria is getting more involved in regional issues, including finding solutions to unrest in neighboring Libya and the Sahel region.
But authorities continue to crack down on largely peaceful demonstrations, along with some independent unions, analysts say.
Meanwhile, the protest movement remains unstructured, and some opposition parties refuse to engage in dialogue with the president.
“The Algerian government is functioning but its legitimacy suffers and the country remains at an impasse,” wrote expert Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research organization.
Another combustible mix?
To be sure, the current uprising is radically different from the bloody "Black Decade" of the 1990s, unleashed after the government canceled 1992 parliamentary elections that Islamists were poised to win. The conflict that followed — pitting Islamist militants against the military-backed government — that claimed roughly 150,000 lives was one key reason, analysts say, why Algerians failed to join the wider Arab Spring protests of the past decade.
Today, however, Algeria’s struggling, oil-reliant economy, high unemployment and unmet political grievances could prove another combustible mix. For now, the government has kept sensitive subsidies on basic foods and fuel and other key items to avoid more protests. But it might be squeezed to change that policy, analyst Oumansour said.
“If the economic situation leads to thousands of layoffs and inflation, it could perhaps drive the movement into violence,” he added, although not on the scale of two decades ago.
Lack of leadership
Complicating the way forward, the protest movement has yet to produce any clear leadership. Some believe that is unlikely to change.
“The Hirak is not a political party, and cannot be structured as such,” wrote Algeria’s leading independent newspaper, El Watan, in a recent editorial, since the movement “reflects all the currents of opinion of Algerian society.”
Nor, the newspaper wrote, do Algerian authorities want the protest to become structured, since it would present a potent threat in the next elections.
But Oumansour believes creating a credible opposition through the ballot box may be one key to ending the impasse. That would mean pushing up the next legislative and municipal votes, currently scheduled for 2022.
“That would allow the Hirak to have its own legally recognized political leaders,” he said. “And it gives the government representatives they can negotiate with on the country’s future.”