Why Algeria’s army abandoned Bouteflika

People carry a national flag during a protest to push for the removal of the current political structure, in Algiers, Algeria April 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina - RC11F4580FD0
Editor's note:

On April 2, Arab Spring protests claimed yet another longtime ruler when Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned. Sharan Grewal explores the military’s involvement in Bouteflika’s ouster and how, in the transitional period, this could make democratization difficult in the future. This piece was originally published by the Washington Post

On April 2, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned after 20 years in power, becoming the fifth Arab autocrat to fall to a popular uprising since 2011. As in Egypt and Tunisia, Bouteflika’s fall was precipitated by a defection from the military. Hours before his resignation, the army chief of staff, Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, announced that he was siding with the Algerian people and called for Bouteflika’s immediate removal from office.

At first glance, the Algerian military’s decision to abandon Bouteflika is surprising. The military had been a center of power under Bouteflika’s tenure, “ruling but not governing” day to day, to use Steven Cook’s phrase. Especially after Bouteflika’s 2013 stroke rendered him nearly incapacitated, the top brass wielded considerable political influence and profited from a swelling budget and (often illicitenrichment opportunities. Moreover, Gaid Salah himself had been a long-time loyalist of Bouteflika, serving as his army chief of staff since 2004 and as deputy defense minister since 2013. Why would a general with such strong institutional and personal interests in the Bouteflika regime abandon its leader? 

officers v. soldiers

The academic literature on military responses to mass uprisings provides us with several hypotheses. One of the most important takeaways from these studies is that no matter how invested the officers may be in the regime, defending an autocrat requires soldiers to be willing to fire upon their countrymen. A critical factor predicting military defection is thus the composition of the soldiers relative to the protesters. Militaries that are stacked with the dictator’s “in-group” — be it an ethnic, tribal, or even ideological group — often stay loyal in the face of protests emanating primarily from the out-group. Alawite soldiers in Syria were willing to fire upon Sunni protesters in 2011, and largely secular soldiers in Egypt fired upon Islamist protesters in 2013.

But when the protesters and the military share an identity or are both nationally representative, soldiers may be less willing to repress protesters they consider their brethren. Algeria’s military fits that mold. Nearly 70 percent of the army are conscripts, required to serve for 18 months. Conscription is universal, not just from one narrow ethnic or regional background. While ideologically the military is largely secular — a factor that contributed to a coup and subsequent war against Islamists in the 1990s — the protesters today are also largely secular. (Some observers have even wondered where the Islamists are.)

The protesters have also made sure to remind the military that they are brethren, literally chanting, “The army and the people are brothers, brothers (jaysh wa sha’ab, khawa, khawa).” Such fraternization similarly contributed to military defection in 2011 in Egypt, where protesters chanted, “The people and the army are one hand.” Moreover, Algeria’s protests have been remarkably peaceful, eschewing the violence that helped justify a military crackdown on riots in Algeria in 1988.

In short, the military’s composition and the characteristics of the protest movement may have rendered soldiers unwilling to fire. The top brass, therefore, no matter how much they may have wanted to defend Bouteflika, were unable to do so.

In addition, there wasn’t much left to defend. The ailing Bouteflika was only fielded for a fifth term because the ruling elites could not agree on a successor. During his resignation, he could not speak and could barely move to hand in his resignation letter. The regime would have had to move on from Bouteflika sooner or later; the protest movement simply accelerated that process.

playing the long game

Unfortunately for the regime, its earlier antics — trying to withdraw Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth term while in effect extending his fourth — have increased the protesters’ demands. While originally the primary target was Bouteflika, today it is the regime as a whole. Chants calling for the “fall of the system” (isqat nizam), while present at the outset, have since come to the fore. One of the protesters’ best-known catchphrases and Twitter hashtags today is “Yetna7aw Ga3” (Get rid of them all).

Simply jettisoning Bouteflika will not be enough to satisfy the protesters. Some of the regime will have to go as well. Knowing that, different elements of the regime have been jockeying to position themselves favorably in a post-Bouteflika environment. There have been several attempts by ruling elites, including both ruling parties, to endorse the protests in recent weeks in hopes that it may help them preserve their interests.

Army chief Gaid Salah’s public defection from Bouteflika should be seen in this same light: as an attempt to ingratiate the army and himself with the protesters in the hopes of surviving the revolution. Gaid Salah appears to have recognized that doing so will require not just removing Bouteflika, but many of those around him. In his speech, Gaid Salah endorsed the protesters’ claim that the Bouteflika regime had been run by a “gang” (‘asaba) of thieves.

This week, 12 businessmen associated with Bouteflika, including billionaire Ali Haddad, have been arrested in a move that will play well among protesters frustrated with corruption. Gaid Salah may next have to scapegoat other elements of the gang, including the “three B’s”: Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, soon-to-be interim president Abdelkader Bensalah, and the head of the Constitutional Council, Tayeb Belaiz.

It is unclear whether Gaid Salah’s scapegoating of businessmen and politicians will be enough to save his position. Many protesters have seen through his play, calling also for Gaid Salah’s removal. Political cartoonists have done the same. On the other hand, Gaid Salah’s defection from Bouteflika has won him popularity among some segments of society.

Moving forward, that status may be dangerous: A military popular enough to referee the upcoming transition will make democratization much more difficult.