On February 15, 2019, ten days after Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his candidacy for a fifth term, the Revolution of Smiles or Hirak Movement began. These peaceful protests, fed up with Bouteflika’s rule and the corruption, led the military to assert Bouteflika’s immediate resignation on April 2, 2019. Following a month later, many powerbrokers close to the overthrown administration had been arrested. The protests were the largest Algeria has experienced since 2001.
The increasing tensions within the Algerian regime can be drawn back to the start of Bouteflika’s rule which has been characterized by the state’s monopoly on natural resources revenues used to finance the government’s clientelist system. Algeria is a crucial energy source for Europe, supplying one-third of its natural gas (and half of Spain’s).
Protests continue, and the anger is no longer rooted on the president himself, but the failure of the country’s governing system to provide for the basic needs. Findings suggest it is unlikely that Algeria will experience a smooth transition to democracy even if the regime were to allow free and fair elections. Algerians are less concerned about precise institutional arrangements that govern the country compared with a government that is responsive to the needs of its people.
Algerians were not quelled by the president’s departure and have moved since the start of this revolution, 7 months ago, to another level of requests and demands, that leave far behind the need to just have their basic needs met.
With three weeks to go before the December 12 vote for a new president, the protesters have started demonstrating more and more often and the authorities appear to be ramping up the number of arrests.
Powerful army chief Ahmed Gaed Salah has emerged as the dominant political player since Bouteflika’s departure. Salah has been a key proponent of holding next month’s vote. The army regards the election of a new president as the only way to end the protests, restore normality, and escape the constitutional limbo caused by Bouteflika’s departure.
After a vote marred by low turnout, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, an ex-premier under Bouteflika, was sworn in as Algeria’s new president on December 19th. Polling day itself was marred by protests and calls for people to boycott the election.
Tebboune took 58% of the vote – enough to avoid a second round. But he and the four other candidates were criticised for being closely linked with the rule of Mr Bouteflika.
At the same time, Tebboune has been dubbed “the chosen one” by social media users, who see him as close to army chief Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, the county’s de facto leader.
Many protesters were arrested ahead of the unpopular presidential election in December. Early January 2020, Algeria released 76 prominent anti-government protestors from detention, including well-known independence war veteran Lakhdar Bouregaa, 86, state television and a lawyer said.
Some were acquitted, often after months of pre-trial detention, while 30 were convicted of “attacking the integrity of the territory”, and released after serving six month sentences.
In February 2o20, to mark the one year anniversary of the protests beginning, Algerians crowded the streets of the capital to renew their demands to overhaul Algeria’s ruling elite. Despite a new government being in place, Algeria remains in economic distress due to corruption and mismanagement.
Unrest is still rife in Algeria, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in a lull in protest activity. The government banned all large gatherings in the face of the pandemic, and leaders of the protest movement have also called for a temporarily halt to prevent the mass spread of the coronavirus.