Bouteflika's half concessions unlikely to quell protests

This section is a sample of Le Beck’s On-the-Spot Analysis released on March 12, and which provides paid subscribers more timely, in-depth analysis on transformative events in the MENA region.

Following an unprecedented wave of protests that began on February 22, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he will not - after all - seek a fifth mandate. In a letter, the ailing Algerian leader further announced the postponement of the upcoming April elections, the drafting of a new constitution, a cabinet change, and the creation of a National Consensus Conference (NCC).

The NCC would, according to Bouteflika’s letter, represent all segments of the Algerian people and parties, and will draft reforms alongside a new constitution that will have to be approved by parliament. Several reports suggest that Lakhdar Brahmi, a former UN diplomat, could serve as its head. The conference would have until the end of 2019 to draft reforms and a new constitution. While the president didn’t mention a specific date to which the elections will be postponed, he stated that they will only take place once a new constitution has been drafted. 

In addition, in the wake of the announcement, PM Ahmed Ouyahia resigned and was replaced by Interior Minister Nourredine Bedoui. the position of Vice PM was also created and given to Ramtane Lamamra, a former foreign minister who was also appointed as the country’s new FM.

However, despite these announcements, mass protests have been called for Friday, March 15, while a student demonstration already began in front of the Grande Poste in Algiers today. Night protests were also seen in various areas of the country last night, with slogans denouncing the “4+” mandate, namely, the extended fourth mandate.

While Bouteflika’s announcement is a clear victory for protesters, the Algerian regime still appears to be trying to “buy time” and manage a possible transition out of the “Bouteflika era”. As initially assessed, this underscores the fact that the main goal of the “Presidential faction”, which stands behind the largely incapacitated president, is to be given enough time to manage that transition and find a replacement for Bouteflika that all the stakeholders in the Algerian “deep state” can agree upon. Indeed, the announcement does de facto implement a previous promise made by Bouteflika to organise early elections a year into his fifth mandate, in which he would not be a candidate, and which would be preceded by a similar conference. By postponing the elections, Bouteflika does exactly that, without the need for actual elections in April and in a manner that is largely unconstitutional.

In doing so, and offering half-measures that could easily be mistaken for a victory by protesters, the regime likely seeks to quell demonstrations and possibly move the debate out of the street and into the soon-to-be-created NCC. The conference will, indeed, be critical for “buying time” and testing the resolve of the protesters for several reasons. Firstly, demonstrators have yet to formally organise themselves and doing so may reveal deep divisions. Those claiming to speak in their name, including media-savvy figures such as Rachid Nekkaz, are not representative of the movement despite often being portrayed as such by foreign media. The conference will likely give ample space to existing opposition parties that also are unlikely to actually represent protesters, as most of them have worked with the regime in the past. Although some may be tempted to participate in the conference, several opposition leaders will also understand the risks of doing so and simply reject the idea of a conference without prior elections. This was highlighted by several statements from Ali Benflis, Bouteflika’s main challenger during the previous election. 

The division within the opposition also means that the conference will likely take an extended amount of time rather that coming to a swift conclusion, further fueling division within the opposition. Finally, the drafted constitution would have to go through parliament, which is currently controlled by the ruling coalition and, thus, would give the regime some room to manoeuvre and either delay the election or change the new constitution.

In this context, while some protesters may feel that they have had at least some of their concerns tackled, most won’t. This is underlined by today’s protests, as well as calls for continued mobilisation on Friday with a mass protest. As assessed in our previous Weekly Security Brief, although the regime is buying time, they also continue to be largely out of options: a crackdown on demonstrations would likely reveal further cracks within the security apparatus, while protests are unlikely to vanish on their own without - at the least - Bouteflika’s immediate departure.