Hot Issue – Algeria’s Future and The Return of the Civilian Hidjâb to Algerian Politics


Executive Summary 

On February 10, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika made a decision to run for a fifth mandate. This decision triggered nationwide protests, showing how the regime might have been formally stable but has grown increasingly unsustainable, particularly among the country’s younger population. After weeks of rising demonstrations, Bouteflika announced that he would not seek a fifth mandate, postponing the vote, and calling for a caretaker government to bring the country to new elections, apparently a decision made to bid for time to cope with the growing public discontent. This decision was obviously not well-received by protesters, and many will continue their mobilization. While recent events have accelerated the end of Bouteflika’s presidency, they do not necessarily mean that an abrupt, systemic shift is in sight. Significantly active in the social, cultural, and media spheres, Algerian youth are now turning into a political force. Their presence will affect the ongoing transition, which originally began in 2014 with the election of Bouteflika to a fourth mandate and the dismissal of the once-powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité–DRS). This transition saw the gradual return of the army’s centrality to Algerian politics, embodied by its leader, Ahmed Gaïd Salah.

For non-Algerian experts, perhaps the best way to view Salah is as the “referee” at the center of an opaque and informal political system, in what could be considered a gradual return of what was known in Algerian history as the Civilian Hidjâb, the civilian veil covering the army’s political centrality. Bouteflika’s campaign for a fifth mandate, despite his obvious health problems, was intended to keep this emerging system in place. Now a new dynamic is taking place. The groups behind the protests will become more and more central in the country’s changing political dynamics, but whether they represent an alternative and can spur systemic change remains uncertain. Generational cleavages, within the society and the army, will be the driving force in Algerian politics over the next years.


In February, the announcement of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to seek a fifth mandate in the forthcoming Algerian elections, despite the visible, precarious state of his health, triggered a wave of spontaneous protests that grew day by day. Soon, the protests forced the Algerian ruling class, also known as  le Pouvoir (the Power) to consider mounting public discontent and ultimately brought Bouteflika to renounce his campaign for a fifth mandate, postponing the elections.

While recent events have accelerated the end of Bouteflika’s presidency, whether they will bring a ground-breaking shift—changing the essential features of the Algerian political system—remains a much more complicated proposition. Nevertheless, the protests signal the emergence of a new political force in Algeria, its youth, who are increasingly visible in the social, cultural, and media spheres, but are not listened to by the elites who are still anchored to their old cultural and political codes, which are very different from those of the people who took to the street.

Recent events showed clearly that, while the Algerian regime was considered stable, it has become increasingly unsustainable. If there is one lesson from the revolutionary outbreak of what was known as the Arab Spring back in 2011, it is that regimes which appear stable, but in which many social groups are excluded, are often deeply unviable, particularly in the long-run. If change is not driven and guided smoothly and inclusiveness strengthened, unsustainability could turn quickly into instability. The protests, as such, are a wake-up call that shows how the political balance Algeria maintained over the past two decades since Bouteflika was first elected to the presidency is no longer viable.

The Catalyst: Bouteflika’s Decision to Run for a Fifth Mandate 

The catalyst for recent events was the announcement that President Bouteflika decided to run for a fifth mandate in the forthcoming presidential elections, which were scheduled for April (Algérie Press Service, February 10). The past few years have been ridden with speculation concerning the willingness of the president, and his entourage, to run for a fifth mandate. However, over the past year, the Algerian elites’ system was progressively converging towards more or less unitary support for his candidacy. (Algérie Focus, November 6, 2017; Le Point, September 7, 2018; Le Soir d’Algérie, September 19).

This decision demonstrated that the Algerian elites were not in tune with the sentiment of a growing number of people within the country. This dynamic is neither new, nor is it specific to the Algerian context. Although Algeria remains a very peculiar country for a number of reasons—from the importance of memory in its political life to the presence of an obscure network of elites that work in the shadows—it is not immune to the global trend of increasing populism. In the case of Algeria, however, this could not be expressed through the support of anti-system parties in the elections, given the amount of formal and informal limits existing on the expression of this dissatisfaction and because the legal opposition, in many cases, also represent the system itself.

The Outcome: Bouteflika’s Decision to not Seek a Fifth Mandate

Algerian social media began to boil over following Bouteflika’s February announcement that he would run for a fifth mandate. The anger grew progressively over the following two weeks and fueled a wave of mass demonstrations. By the end of February, this wave of protests was gaining momentum and soon became a nationwide movement. The Algerian elites needed a few days to calibrate their response. A few media outlets were quickly critical of the president and his camp, in line with their approach in the past (El Watan, February 27). Many others in the pro-Bouteflika camp initially remained silent.

The Bouteflika camp basically encompasses a political bloc represented by all the actors who were supportive of his candidacy to a fifth term and are interested in preserving the current political system. This broader camp should not be confused with the presidential clan, who are the immediate circle of political, military, and economic leaders close to the president. This clan includes Bouteflika’s brother—considered by many the éminence grise, or the one actually controlling  the regime—Saïd Bouteflika; Bachir Tartag, the current head of the Department of Surveillance and Security (Département de Surveillance et de Sécurité—DSS); Ali Haddad, the increasingly contested leader of the Forum of Business Leaders (Forum des chefs d’entreprises—FCE); a number of leaders of the National Liberation Front (Front du Liberation National—FLN); and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la culture et la démocratie—RCD), just to mention a few (see TM, January 25).

As was mentioned earlier in this report, this clan does not perfectly align with the broader camp of those who support a fifth mandate for Bouteflika. For instance, a crucial supporter of Bouteflika’s re-election, the Chief of Staff of the Army Ahmed Gaïd Salah, cannot be considered part of this clan anymore, as his relations with the group—particularly with the president’s brother—have become increasingly tense, which will be explained more in detail later in this analysis. The shifting relationship between the presidential clan and the chief of the army is a good example of the intrinsically fluid, fragmented, and multilayered nature of power in Algeria. Military leaders, political actors, and businesspeople considered to be friends of a faction can quickly become foes and vice versa. In many cases, allegiances are neither definitive nor particularly deep. The events of the past few weeks have also shown how, within those groups who support a fifth mandate for Bouteflika, many have shifted their preferences to become critical of the president, thus withdrawing their support for a fifth mandate. As an example, in July 2018, a senior FLN official, Hocine Khaldoun, accused the former secretary general of the party and one of the closest FLN leaders to Bouteflika, Djamel Ould Abbès, of plotting against the president. Khaldoun, has now said that the president is “history” (Algerie Patriotique, July 9, 2018; Asharq Al-Awsat, March 15). The major Algerian trade union, the General Forum of Algerian Workers (Forum des l’Union générale des travailleurs algériens—UGTA), who were initially supportive of the fifth mandate, became increasingly fragmented over support for the president. The same happened within the FCE, with crucial business leaders such as Laïd Benamor, Madjid Meddahi, Mohamed Arezki Aberkane, and Hassan Khelifati resigning from the organization in support of the protests (El Watan, March 11).

The Algerian elites were, however, obviously caught off guard by the protests, proof of which can be seen in the uncensored video that surfaced of Salah being angry at demonstrators (Liberté Algérie, February 27). As days passed, however, pro-government media outlets started addressing the issue more openly. Their new approach was to try to contain the dissent by showing the system’s ability to address some of the key concerns of the protesters (El Khabar, March 1).

Indeed, following several days of the protests, Bouteflika’s camp began to make a number of proposals. Notably, he proposed a national conference and a new election—to which he would not participate—to start a process of political transition (Alg24, March 3). He also praised the “maturity of protesters,” but nevertheless warned of external influences, which is a common, old-fashioned Algerian leitmotiv (Observe Algerie, March 8). However, as Algerians initiated a national strike, it became increasingly clear that maintaining the status quo presented risks that the Algerian elites considered to be too high. As a result, the president decided not to seek a fifth mandate. Instead, on March 11, he called for a postponement of the elections (beyond 2019); the launch of a National Conference as representative as possible of the different sections of Algerian society, which will oversee reforms needed to move ahead in the transformation of the state; and the establishment of a caretaker national government that will organize the new elections (Algérie Press Service, March 11). This decision also came with significant changes in the government, as Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigned on March 11, and was replaced by Minister of the Interior Noureddine Bedoui. Ramtane Lamamra was also appointed as deputy prime minister (Jeune Afrique, March 11).

However, Algeria was already going through a “transition” period when Bouteflika announced his decision not to seek another term. This transition began in 2014, when Bouteflika was elected to a fourth mandate (see TM, May 4, 2014). The protests of those days have affected and continue to affect this transition, and this is the context in which recent events must be understood. That said, whether this wave of protests will turn into a transition representing a real rupture with the past, is not guaranteed, and Bouteflika’s decision not to run for a fifth mandate must be understood in the contest of the elites working to avoid any major, systemic change.

The Immediate Context: The Youth say Barakat (Enough), Peacefully

“Twenty years are enough!” This was one of the most significant chants that people used during the protests. At the end of January, this analyst warned that a new force was entering the Algerian social and political scene—the first post-civil war generation. This generation is different from that of their parents and grandparents as they have not directly experienced the violence of the war of independence and the civil war of the 1990s. Far away from classic and obsessive autarchy of post-independence Algeria, the younger generations are much more open to the world, and their ambitions are different. While protests are nothing new in Algeria, in the past protests rarely questioned the legitimacy of the system and usually had a “local and material focus.” Normally, as soon as demands were met, the protests would fade, but for the younger generations, this logic might not be valid as they are “not socialized to these methods of protests and might express their dissatisfaction in more troublesome and violent ways” (see TM, January 25).

While the protests posed problems for the Algerian elites, luckily, they were anything but violent. Protesters across different cities worked actively to avoid a turn toward violence. Despite being mostly spontaneous, and despite the absence of clear and identifiable leadership, the protesters showed a significant capacity for self-control. It is likely that the recurring references to past troubles in the country or more recent foreign crises, like in Syria, by many members of the Algerian Pouvoir did not push people to quit protesting, but had another effect—the warnings pushed people to control themselves and sort out their own potential problems. Former Prime Minister Ouyahia said openly that there were risks of Algeria turning into a new Syria, while also making a chilling reference to the general strike launched in June 1991 by the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut—FIS) which is often considered a critical step in Algeria’s descent into civil war (HuffPost Maghreb, February 28). Ouyahia not only paid for these words politically—as his warnings of past protests in the region turning violent concurred to have him de facto fired—but the warnings had the opposite effect on people (Jeune Afrique, March 11). Instead of scaring protesters, they were persuaded to actively work to ensure that everything be run smoothly.

At the same time, it must also be noted that the security forces avoided cracking down on protesters, knowing well that an accident could become the catalyst for a further shift in the scale of protests. For instance, it could lead to the radicalization of the confrontation with some groups that see the clash with the state as their main raison d’être (for example, Salafist youngsters or football hooligans); it could also have created a stronger intergenerational bond between protesters and the older generations. While protests were inter-classist and nationally widespread, unlike other regional situations—for instance, the 2011 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia—the role of the older generations has been limited thus far. However, a security accident or a harsher crackdown on protesters might potentially ignite this connection. Furthermore, a harsh reaction from the authorities might have prompted those pro-Bouteflika factions of Algerian society to lose faith in the system.

Lastly, in the past, protests in Algeria were tentatively used by some local economic and political leaders—for example, the wave of protests at the beginning of 2017—to increase their bargaining power within the circle of the elites and with the leadership (Jamestown Hot Issue, January 24, 2017). As such, the leadership itself was aware that a harsh crackdown had the potential to significantly damage not only their image and legitimacy, both internally and externally, but also reduce the capacities of the elites currently under pressure to preserve their own influence. As such, while they did not expect this sudden wave, they had to quickly recalibrate their approach to avoid being swept up by the movement and make events impossible to control.

The Broader Context: The Elites, the Military and the Return of the Hidjâb

Looking at the ailing health of the Algerian president and the problems he has had in the past few years, the idea of Bouteflika running for a fifth mandate seemed particularly troublesome already in its inception. Speculation on whether he was fit enough not only to run for the elections, but also to carry out the most basic tasks of his job were widespread. His public appearances suggested that he was becoming physically weaker. That being said, he managed to win reelection in 2014 smoothly when he was already sick and without giving any public speeches. As such, it is clear that elections in Algeria remain a way to ratify decisions taken by someone else.

Against this backdrop, it is essential to understand why the elites were so keen on having Bouteflika run for a fifth mandate despite his visible problems. One possible explanation is that Bouteflika’s formal presence served the ambitions and aims of the personality that has emerged in recent years as the crucial actor within the Algerian system—Ahmed Gaïd Salah. Against this backdrop, although there were alleged tensions between Salah and Said Bouteflika, the president’s brother, both the Bouteflika’s clan and the other groups belonging to the so-called Pouvoir preferred to buy time and maintain the—stagnant—status quo, rather than using the moment to push a new leader ahead and explore new balances.

From this point of view, it is important to note that the Algerian transition is not just starting now, and the latest events suggest that it actually began in 2014, when Bouteflika won his fourth mandate. Recent events might trigger another transition, or change the course of the current one slightly, but a remarkable transformation has been ongoing since 2014.

Beginning in Bouteflika’s fourth mandate, Algeria experienced the re-emergence of what in the past Abdelkader Yefsah called the “Civilian Hidjâb”—the Civilian Veil—used by the military, throughout Algerian history, to dominate the political system. This is an important dynamic, which is paradoxical to Bouteflika’s central concern of his 20-year rule, which was to put the military back in the barracks and “civilianize” the presidency. Bouteflika’s mandates were clearly focused on ending this Civilian Hidjâb. The demilitarization process started in 2004 when Mohamed Lamari left his position as head of the army, allegedly for health reasons, but more likely as he fell out of favor with Bouteflika’s circle. The military actor that helped Bouteflika marginalize Lamari, Mohamed Mediène, was also the latest big military name to fall out of favor, as the leader of the once-powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité–DRS) was dismissed sometime between 2014 and 2015 (Jeune Afrique, September 25, 2015).

Against this backdrop, the role of Salah has been pivotal. Since he was appointed as head of the army in 2004, he has worked closely with Bouteflika and had an essential part in the dismissal of Mediène. Recent reports suggest that, historically, he was not included in the military circles which influenced politics in Algeria (Jeune Afrique, February 19). In public, he has often stressed that the army should not have a political role. However, it is indisputable that the centrality of Salah within the Algerian system has increased over the past few years sharply. Against this backdrop, whether he is an ally or an enemy of the presidential clan remains open to speculation. Some sources suggest that he is still very close to this clan, while some others say precisely the opposite, including some rumors in November 2018 that described Saïd Bouteflika, the powerful brother of the president and allegedly the actual leader of the elite group,  as ready to dismiss Salah (Monde Afrique, November 27, 2018; Jeune Afrique, February 19). It is likely that the latter view is correct. The events of the past few months—starting from the dismissal of Abdelghani Hamel and the ensuing broad reshuffle of the security services—indicated that Salah has become more central to the broader Algerian system, increasing his influence vis-à-vis the presidential clan. However, despite these problems, Bouteflika and his clan preferred avoiding a traumatic change leading to the unknown than starting a more open battle with Salah. As such, Bouteflika’s fifth mandate would have served both Salah’s aim to remain the informal center of the system and the presidential clan’s wish to preserve and sustain its clientelist networks.

No single actor dominates the political system. The Algerian government is, and will remain, centered around an “informal polyarchy.” At the same time, there are periods of history in which one specific leader or group manages to increase their influence at the expense of the others (see TM, January 25). This has been Salah’s case over the past few years, and the recent protests are the first serious challenge to his relative power within the Algerian system and to the broader group of elites who were supportive of a fifth mandate for Bouteflika. Despite their internal differences, they all wanted to preserve the status quo to save their short-term interests and avoid possible judicial and economic backlashes. Salah’s enemies within the military understood these dynamics. It is not by coincidence that one of the presidential candidates, the retired General Ali Ghediri, who is considered close to Mediène, publicly questioned Salah’s role and asked him to openly run in the elections. Salah answered by criticizing retired generals “who want to meddle” (Tout Sur L’Algerie, January 8; Monde Afrique, January 29).

It is likely that a fifth mandate for Bouteflika would have served this aim—to allow the new referee of the Algerian political system to have the ability to continue operating as the center of that system. Bouteflika’s clan and the clientelist groups linked to it would have remained in, which means they were reassured concerning the emergence of the potential judicial and economic problems for them, and Salah would have worked to have more time to influence and shape the system the way he wanted under the Civilian Hidjâb. This would have gone hand in hand with the progressive exit of Bouteflika over the coming years, or more likely months, if the President’s health allowed him. However, the protests have disrupted this emerging settlement.

Prospects: The Inevitable, but not (yet) Systemic Change

The domestic upheaval has accelerated the end of Bouteflika’s presidency and opened up a new phase for the country, but it does not necessarily open up the space for a systemic change. The protests and the groups behind them will represent a new element that the elites can no longer ignore. Their emergence, however, will not necessarily result in wide-ranging reform. While protesters are against the political system that has emerged over the past few years—and the focus that many protesters had on Salah is a clear example of this—the Algerian opposition remains highly fragmented. The formal opposition is, in many cases, too compromised by the system and many of its leaders do not have the capacity to handle this level of discontent. Some actors have emerged representing a rupture with the past.  One such actor is the very peculiar figure of Rachid Nekkaz (TelQuel.Ma, March 11). His homonymous cousin, a mechanic by trade, filed his candidacy to the presidency instead of Nekkaz, who could not officially run (Jeune Afrique, March 4). While Nekkaz also helped to build momentum for the protests, between fomenting discontent and building a real alternative, the gap towards enacting actual change is significant (HuffPost Maghreb, February 25).

While Algeria is, in any case, approaching the beginning of the post-Bouteflika era, the possibility of a complete, systemic, profound change occurring now is much more questionable. The Algerian elites will work—as usual—to buy time and co-opt or divide most of the groups behind the protests, rather than promoting systemic reform. Bouteflika’s decision not to run for a fifth mandate must be seen in this light, as a “change to preserve continuity.” That being said, generational cleavages—not only within the society but also within the army—will be the fundamental driving force shaping Algerian politics over the next years.