Algeria’s ailing, 81-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced his candidacy for a fifth term last month in the quietest manner possible, issuing a statement to the state news agency. Given his health problems, which have kept him largely out of the public eye in recent years, analysts speculated that Bouteflika was incapable of launching his re-election bid any other way.
The response by Algerians, however, has been anything but quiet. In recent days, they’ve taken to the streets in the biggest protests in Algeria since the Arab uprisings of 2011, and the government is bracing for more large-scale mobilizations. Radio France Internationale reported on Friday that police were deployed at major government buildings in the capital, Algiers, and were also patrolling the city’s main roads.
Writing for The Washington Post, M. Tahir Kilavuz, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, argues that the protests are not anti-regime so much as anti-Bouteflika. There is no real chance of another candidate winning the presidential election planned for April 18, and Algerians resent the prospect of being governed, at least officially, for another five years by a man who is visibly not up to the job. “If the regime decided on another consensus candidate who is not a contentious figure,” Kilavuz writes, “we probably would not see such protests.”
Others have taken issue with this interpretation, though. Journalist Hamdi Baala, reporting from Algiers, wrote on Twitter on Thursday that the slogans at protests he’s attended “were not just against Bouteflika but against the entire regime.” He said popular chants have included “A free and democratic Algeria” and “The people want to change the regime.”
There has already been speculation that the protests could morph into something larger, perhaps even a “next Arab uprising.” Whether that happens will largely be dictated by the government’s response. This week, security forces showed signs of wanting to curb the protests, arresting 40 journalists, including one who plans to run against Bouteflika. But repressive tactics could backfire by stoking public anger even further.
The country’s leaders, meanwhile, don’t seem inclined to deviate from their current course. According to Bouteflika’s campaign manager, the president formally submitted his re-election papers on Sunday.