Many people in Algeria believed that the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party should have known better than to field a wheelchair-bound and severely ill candidate for the country’s upcoming presidential election.
Despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 2013, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was reelected for a fourth term in office a year later.
The unravelling chaos in neighbouring Libya, as well as Syria, convinced a significant number of people that contesting the decision of the various clans that make up the Algerian state just wasn’t worth it.
But when the FLN announced on February 10 that the incapacitated and largely absent president who is 81 years old would seek another five-year term in the April 18 vote, Algerians didn’t stand for it.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities across the country took the streets on Friday to make their frustration known.
Chanting slogans protesting against the president and his brother Said, whom opponents suspect has been running the country from behind the scenes, they demanded Bouteflika withdraw his candidacy for the top job.
In his first statement since the protests broke out, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said Algerians would have the final say on who their next president would be.
“Everyone has the right to support their candidate and be against any other candidate, the ballot box will decide in a peaceful and civilised way,” he said in a televised address in parliament on Monday.
Amid the ongoing turmoil, Al Jazeera spoke to Soufiane Djilali, president of the opposition Jil Jadid party, about the protests and where things were headed.
Al Jazeera: Bouteflika’s been ill for more than five years. Why is that it is only now that we are seeing all these protests?
Sofiane Djilali: It’s clear that for many years when the economy was doing well, the government had managed to keep the peace by distributing a lot of money.
And Algerians who had just come out of a long period of civil war [1991 – 2002] did not want to go back to contestation.
That said, they knew that there were grave anomalies in the way the country was being run. Since 2014, the president’s health has only gotten worse and a drop in the price of oil led to a rupture in the social contract.
The contract was such that the government could do what it wished as long as it gave a bare minimum to Algerians.
With this contract now coming to an end, Algerians felt liberated and pressure began to mount on authorities.
The opposition’s work, our work, has sought to expose these anomalies. But the announcement of the fifth mandate was the spark that ignited the popular mobilisation that we are seeing today.
Many Algerians did not believe in the fifth term, and for good reason, they thought it was pure folly. The president cannot talk, can’t move, cannot run the country and everybody understood that hidden forces were using the president’s image.
Al Jazeera: Do Algerians want to get rid of Bouteflika or do they want a complete overhaul of the system?
Djilali: In the past, Algerians more or less tolerated Bouteflika but opposed the system. It is now clear that a crushing majority of Algerians want Bouteflika and the regime to go away.
Of course, they don’t want to get rid of the state and want to avoid a security vacuum. But there’s no doubt that they don’t want the current political system to stay in place.
Who is running the country is a question that is preoccupying the minds of Algerians. There is talk of the president’s family, hence the feeling among many that the republic is being turned into a monarchy.
This also explains the many slogans denouncing the president as Moroccan. That isn’t meant as an insult but is a way of saying to Bouteflika that Algeria is not a kingdom.
Beyond the president’s family, there are other circles of influence that includes businessmen like Ali Haddad and Mahieddine Tahkout.
Al Jazeera: Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said that the ballot would be the only way to bring about change. How do you feel about that?
Djilali: We would have been happy to take part in a free and fair election. The problem is that this is not the case in Algeria.
What we have are designations that are passed off as elections. This is why more than 80 percent of Algerians don’t vote in elections.
Elections are an elaborate accessory because the results are predetermined.
There’s a quota of representatives for each party at the popular assembly and the president is appointed.
Moreover, the 1996 constitution limits presidential terms to two. Bouteflika changed the constitution in 2008 to remove term limits without consulting the people.
In 2016, he reinstated term limits but what’s incredible is that he thinks that term limits do not apply to him. He wants a fifth term whereas the constitution clearly prohibits it.
Algeria’s electoral law additionally requires a medical certificate attesting that a candidate is fit for office.
We don’t understand how he passed the medical aptitude test in 2014 nor how he’s planning to do it in 2019, so it seems like the constitution doesn’t apply to Bouteflika. He is above the law and above the state.
Al Jazeera: Algeria’s stability for the region is very important. What makes you think the opposition will be up to the task of running the country?
Djilali: This discourse is typical of the Algerian regime and foreign countries that profit from the current system. Look no further than the protests that were held in cities across the country and abroad.
Look at the protest that was staged in Paris and that Mouwatana – an opposition movement made up of various political parties – had called for. This is proof that Algerians answered the opposition’s call.
How can we say the opposition is weak when people are so responsive to it. This election with Bouteflika is already biased and the opposition has threatened to withdraw from the vote.
If Bouteflika falls, it is his entire regime that must go with him, at which point we would have to go through a short transition period.
This is when the rules of the game will change to allow for real elections to take place.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.