Algeria’s military chief on Tuesday night declared President Abdelaziz Bouteflika unfit to rule, a concession to weeks of unprecedented protests in the streets of the oil and gas-rich nation.

General Ahmed Gaid Salah in a televised address called for the activation of Article 102 of the constitution, which requires the president of the republic to vacate his post.

The declaration has not convinced the protesters, who were planning a new round of nationwide demonstrations on Friday.

“This is a maneuver to go back to the constitutional path and enable the system to remain in command,” said Fares Kader Affak, a 48-year-old active in Algeria’s civil society and founder of the literary café, Le Sous Marin.

Two weeks earlier Bouteflika pledged he would not seek a fifth term in office. The announcement failed to quell the protest movement, however, which it called a diversion by the ruling political and military elites.

“The roadmap announced by Bouteflika was an impasse, since the people refused it,” said Affak, who said he would continue to protest.

Protests only grow

Algeria’s mass protests started on February 22 as an answer to an anonymous call on the internet to take to the streets against Bouteflika’s run for a fifth term. Protesters had already gained traction in smaller cities such as Kherrata, in Bejaia province, on February 16, and in Annaba in the northeast on February 21.

A decree issued in 2001 banned all gatherings in Algiers, the country’s capital, making it extremely complicated for activists to organize and build ties over the years. Police frequently made arrests prior to protests and broke up gatherings before they started.

On the first days of the latest movement, several people were arrested, and on February 28, journalists were detained for hours during a sit-in denouncing censorship and pressures from their superiors.

But since then, a major achievement has been made: Algerians have taken control of public space in cities and towns across the country. Hundreds of thousands – and now millions – of people have been taking to the streets each Friday, with the crowds visibly growing each time.

“The people don’t want Bouteflika or Saïd,” protesters have chanted, the latter referring to the president’s brother. “A free and democratic Algeria” others cry out. A constant refrain is a call for calm: “Silmiya (peaceful), silmiya.”

About 70% of Algeria’s 42 million strong population is under 30. They have known the same president, who came to power in 1999, for most of their lives. One sign early in the movement summed up the frustrations of the youth: “I am 30. I have lived 10 years of terror, and 20 years under Bouteflika.”

The current protest movement was a long time coming, according to William Lawrence, a former diplomat and North Africa specialist, now teaching at George Washington University.

“Algerian protests ebb and flow over time, with thousands of micro-protests every year, like Morocco, that occasionally spike into regional or national level protests. So in the case of these protests, it was never a case of if, but when,” he told Asia Times. “Given the state of health of Bouteflika, many analysts predicted that the prospect of the fifth mandate would provoke a reaction.”

While the current movement began in opposition to Bouteflika’s fifth term, more precise political demands are steadily being defined at nationwide sit-ins, student assemblies and public debates.

Those who attend these gatherings hold differing political opinions, though they agree that the current decision-makers – not only Bouteflika but his entire ruling clique – should step aside.

No official platform of demands has been published, however, and the movement remains leaderless.

Algerian students demonstrate in the capital Algiers on March 26, 2019, against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Photo: AFP

Arab Spring lessons

The protesters say they are eager to avoid the pitfalls experienced by neighboring countries during the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Several protesters told Asia Times in February that they were wary of Islamists reaping the benefits of the movement. Until now, the demonstrations have not featured Islamists as a political force.

Some protesters are also fed up with media figures taking the spotlight, such as the French-Algerian businessman Rachid Nekkaz, who – banned from running for president – organized a flashy press conference to announce his cousin of the same name would run in his place.

“The Algerian people have taught us, the elite, a lesson,” the civil society activist Affak told dozens of artists gathered outside the national theatre in Algiers earlier this month. In a fervent speech, he called for all Algerians to join the protest movement and rejected the “monopoly of intellectuals” over discussions in the ongoing struggle for democracy. Political awareness, he insisted, is accessible to everyone.

Regular Algerians have been struck by the civic attitude and the sense of humor displayed by the protesters, who clean up after they leave and distribute water and food. Incidents and clashes with police have been isolated thus far.

“The public space has long been locked by the authorities, preventing any popular contestation or space for activism. It was only accessible to the population when they organized their own activities,” said Affak. “Taking it back is the first symbolic act of this popular movement, and this is a way to say the people refuse to surrender to their will.”

‘Dirty trick’

Bouteflika in a public letter on March 11 promised that a national conference would be held to review the constitution and plan elections. The presidential poll slated for April 18 was to be indefinitely postponed. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigned and was replaced by Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui.

The steps were similar to those announced by King Mohamed VI of Morocco on March 9, 2011, also less than three weeks after the first national day of protests in his country, initiated by the February 20 Youth Movement. When the Moroccan protests persisted, the king unilaterally appointed a commission tasked with drafting a new constitution. The following July, it gained a 98% approval in a public vote.

Like Moroccan protesters in 2011, the Algerian crowds dismissed these steps. They described them as a “dirty trick” and vowed to continue to pressure the government.

On social networks, they joked they had to replace their banner “No to the fifth mandate” with “No to the extension of the fourth” or “No to 4-plus.”

“We wanted elections without Bouteflika, but we got Bouteflika and no elections,” read one banner.

Yanis Adjlia, a 30-year-old activist in the port city of Bejaia east of Algiers, says his goal all along was the fall of the system and the establishment of the rule of law.

“There is a whole generation that is fed up and there is a solidarity among all the Algerian people under one key slogan: ‘System, get out.’ It is out of the question to stop at these reforms,” he said.

“We had a grand march on February 22nd. The one on March 1st was bigger and the one on March 8th was even bigger, with the presence of women,” he said – an important indicator in a conservative country.

Adjlia proudly says he has never registered in any political party, but instead led an organization in defending consumers’ rights. What is happening now, he says, “is a spontaneous movement of the youth who aspire to a better future and have understood that change must be peaceful.”

The protesters received unexpected support from the country’s magistrates, who announced early that they would refuse to judge peaceful protesters who had been arrested, thus blocking authorities from resorting to a new wave of political detentions.

Omar Farouk Slimani, a 34-year-old lawyer, has been traveling from his base in the capital to lend support to demonstrations further afield, including in his home town of Laghouat, 400 km south of Algiers. On March 17, he joined fellow lawyers, magistrates and clerks in the port of Tipaza to protest on behalf of a judge summoned for supporting the protests.

Slimani, who took part in protests in 2011 and again in 2014 against Bouteflika’s fourth term, says he was not surprised by outspoken slogans against the regime, but rather the organizing skills of the youth.

Even the older generation has taken to the streets, erasing a longstanding gap between the wartime generation and the youth. “This time, the elders say the youth are the future, and it is the first time they’re getting out for them.”

The youth, Slimani says, actually consider themselves to be apolitical. “But being apolitical is already being in politics,” he cautions. “In Algeria, it means you have rejected the policies of the ruling elites, and even the established opposition.”