Algerian riot police outside the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) party’s headquarters in Algiers on Jan. 22
The Algerian government’s official lifting of a long-standing state of emergency Feb. 24 is a concession to the demands of opposition protesters aimed at containing the unrest that began in mid-January. Opposition forces in the country have thus far been largely fractured and have failed to gain widespread popularity, a product of a mix of cautious concessions from President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika’s government and a strong security presence to contain demonstrations. Underlying this is a move by the Bouteflika government to transfer counterterrorism and counter-subversion authority from the Military Directorate of Intelligence and Security, run by a Bouteflika rival, to the loyal National People’s Army. This assertive move likely reflects the president’s growing confidence that the situation is in hand and may indicate that his faction is prevailing.
Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika’s government on Feb. 24 announced the lifting of the country’s 19-year-long state of emergency in response to protests in the country ongoing since mid-January. The same day, Bouteflika also promised reforms to reduce interest on student loans and to speed up the process for housing for the poor and said elements of the police found to be attacking protesters would be punished. A statement also was released saying sole responsibility for counterterrorism and countersubversionoperations, previously shared by the Military Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DRS) and the National People’s Army (ANP), would be fully transferred to the ANP.
These concessions to protesters’ demands, as well as a strong security response to the demonstrations, are the latest in a series of maneuvers by the government that, along with internal rifts among opposition organizers, have effectively contained the protest groups, preventing them from gaining widespread support. Underlying these events is the increase in the ANP’s power at the expense of that of the DRS, which is controlled by Gen. Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene, one of Bouteflika’s key rivals in an ongoing succession struggle in the country. This transfer may be an indicator that the Bouteflika faction is gaining the upper hand.
Algeria’s “Day of Rage” protests were Feb. 12, and while demonstrators defied a government order by marching in Algiers — in addition to a legal march in Oran — turnout was relatively low and was effectively contained. The approximately 3,000 protesters in Algiers were met by as many as 25,000 riot police, who were able to divide protesters into smaller groups and restrict their access to key areas of the city. Follow-up marches in the two cities Feb. 19 achieved even less traction, with fewer than 2,000 protesters turning out.
The protests currently are based on political allegiance and trade union membership. Health, justice, education, and most recently municipal workers have been striking for the past three days, and on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22, students marched and clashed with police outside the Ministry of Higher Education, with some injuries reported. The nature of these protests has seen opposition groups struggling for support — for example, the country’s largest trade union, the 1 million-member, pro-government General Union of Algerian Workers, has stayed away from demonstrations. As the protests have struggled for traction, internal fissures have appeared in the main opposition organization, the National Coordinating Council for Change and Democracy (CNCD). The CNCD was established Jan. 21, led by opposition political parties such as Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), the Democratic and Social Movement, and the Party for Secularism and Democracy. The CNCD then split in two Feb. 23, with the breakaway faction calling itself the Civil Society Coordinating Council, opposing the leading role assumed by the political parties and charging that their divisive leaders are responsible for the movement’s lack of popular support. The remaining CNCD members renounced the breakaway faction, voting to continue to hold marches every Saturday in Algiers.
Apparent in this infighting and general lack of interest is the Algerian people’s reluctance to agitate for genuine regime change. While there is undoubtedly dissatisfaction over high food prices, corruption and limited individual freedoms, there are still many Algerians for whom the brutal civil war of the 1990s is an all too recent memory, and these people value the stability provided by the Bouteflika regime. Now the crucial point will be whetherBouteflika’s concessions will be enough to disperse protests or only serve to embolden opposition groups. Thus far, opposition parties have generally voiced approval of the announcements while also speaking of the need for further progress, including some calls for early elections. Opposition groups may attempt to rally around these calls, but it remains doubtful that the critical mass needed to achieve substantial disruption will be achieved.
The transfer of counterterrorism duties is significant in the country’s succession struggle.Bouteflika’s legitimacy is based on the implicit backing of the ANP, and thus this transfer can be interpreted as a move by Bouteflika to ensure the support of the army while simultaneously weakening Mediene’s position. Notably, leaked cables had previously linked RCD chief and leader of the CNCD protests Said Sadi to Mediene, meaning Bouteflika is likely also attempting to ensure the active containment of further unrest. This assertive move likely reflects a growing confidence that the situation is in hand and indicates thatBouteflika’s faction is prevailing over Mediene’s.