With the resignation of longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, demonstrators in Algeria have had a significant win. But the full political overhaul protesters had hoped for is by no means assured, says Rainer Sollich.
Algerians have been protesting against Abdelaziz Bouteflika for weeks on end, but only now they finally seem to have achieved their goal — on Tuesday, April 2, the 82-year-old president stood down. He had already promised not to run in future elections after massive pressure from Algeria's streets. The Algerian War of Independence veteran ruled for 20 years, but his recent serious illness rendered him incapable on the political stage, with little to no power at all. Now it is clear that the Bouteflika era is over.
A model protest culture
Above all, his resignation is a remarkable success for the many people who came out into the streets for weeks against the "puppet" Bouteflika and the political system behind him. Algerians have shown that a disciplined, peaceful and civic culture of protest can lead to positive change, even in authoritarian states — so long as the state does not resort to repression. Hopes are pinned on the situation staying this way in the coming days and weeks.
The recent role played by the military was decisive in Bouteflika's fall. Army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah gave Bouteflika an ultimatum to resign immediately, and the president reacted straight away. That says a lot about who is really in charge in at the moment.
General Salah has made a big deal of taking on the demands of the people and evermore political parties and organizations, even though the military itself — along with top businessmen and others from Bouteflika's circle — has always been part of the country's power apparatus. But while the army stays in the game, Bouteflika insiders and the businessmen accused of corruption now appear to be on the outer. This too looks to be driven by the military — when the generals position themselves as advocates of the people they secure their own future power.
A 'soft coup'?
But it's unclear what the army wants. Does it want to "capture" the popular uprising through a "soft coup" just to strangle it again in the end? Or is the military the only force that, given the current situation, can enforce a truly democratic and transparent model of society in Algeria? Opposition party members and protesters are debating both right now and which side they will come down on is far from clear. For the time being however, the military looks to have scored some points with many Algerians.
However, the situation isn't simple for Algeria's military either. It could quickly lose the sympathies it has recently won if it sticks to the letter of the Algerian constitution in overseeing the transition. Under the constitution, the chairman of the upper house is in charge until new elections are held within 90 days. The man in that position would be Abdelkader Bensaleh — a longtime Bouteflika advisor who is similarly unpopular with many Algerians.
One big issue stands out — nowhere in the Algerian constitution does it allow for the army to force a sitting president to resign. That's why Algerians have only achieved a partial victory with Bouteflika's resignation — demonstrators have succeeded in forcing the military to side with them, but the full system overhaul that many had hoped for is certainly not yet a reality. In principle, armies should be under the control of civilian politicians and by no means the other way around.