Algerians on Friday will take part in what are expected to be the biggest protests in decades.
The demonstrations – dubbed the Million Man March – follow week-long protests in more than 30 cities against incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika‘s reelection bid for a fifth term in office.
Elected president in 1999, Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since suffering a serious stroke in 2013.
The 81-year-old’s last official trip abroad dates back to January 2012 when he travelled to neighbouring Tunisia to participate in the one-year anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings that overthrew long-standing ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali among others.
Authorities were taken aback by the scale of the protests that erupted on February 22 which called on the ailing president to withdraw his candidacy.
Protesters also chanted slogans against the president’s brother, Said, who opponents say is running the country from behind the scenes.
Hasni Abidi, a Geneva-based political analyst, said the demonstrations marked a turning point in the history of Africa’s biggest country.
“For the first time, we are witnessing protests in all of Algeria’s main cities concentrated on a single issue: the withdrawal of the president’s candidacy,” Abidi said.
“In my opinion, this fifth term has managed to unify and bring together Algerians from different walks of life.”
Mouwatana, an opposition group made out of several political parties and civil-society actors, also held a rally last Sunday in the capital Algiers, as well as in Paris.
On Wednesday, university students marched in campuses across the country, demanding the president’s resignation and an end to the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party’s hold on power.
Obscure centres of power
Algeria‘s political system is so opaque that analysts disagree on who really wields power.
The military, seen as one of the most powerful and well organised in Africa, has long played an important role in politics.
In 1991, the People’s National Army (ALN) staged a coup d’etat, depriving the Islamic Salvation Front party (FIS) of a near-certain electoral victory, resulting in a decade-long civil war.
Bouteflika was brought in to head a transition period in 1999.
Since assuming power, analysts say the octogenarian managed to bring the military under the presidency’s fold and restore a semblance of civilian control.
In 2015, for example, the country’s powerful intelligence chief, General Mohamed Mediene, or Toufik as he is better known, who ran the secretive DRS intelligence agency for more than 20 years, was controversially dismissed.
But the firing of about a dozen generals in 2018 reignited speculation about whether the army itself was divided in its support of the ailing president, suggesting that the country’s military was not entirely neutral.
A leaked audio recording of a conversation between Bouteflika’s campaign manager, former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, and business tycoon Ali Haddad surfaced on Thursday, during which the two men discussed the latest wave of protests.
Both Haddad – a Bouteflika loyalist who has seen his business empire expand dramatically under the latter’s leadership – and Sellal seemed surprised at how fast the protests had escalated.
Some analysts believe that the leak could have been made by elements within the military establishment that are against Bouteflika assuming the reins for another five years.
Algeria: the leaked recording of Bouteflika's campaign manager Sellal & Tycoon Ali Haddad is raising questions about whether part of the military & intel are signaling their displeasure with Bouteflika's candidacy & are trying to undermine it
— Weddady (@weddady) February 28, 2019
Soufiane Djilali, president of the opposition Jil Jadid party, told Al Jazeera that businessmen such as Haddad are some of the president’s fiercest supporters because they have benefitted from preferential access to lucrative state contracts in recent years.
Politicians such as Djilali participated in the protests and have called for the political system to be completely overhauled, and for free and fair elections.
“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,” Djilali said.
‘Also started peacefully in Syria’
Commenting on images of protesters offering flowers to policemen, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia on Thursday warned that demonstrations in Syria had started in a similar fashion.
The head of government added that his intention wasn’t to “scare people”, after a number of politicians stormed out of the assembly, where he was giving a speech.
On Monday, Ouyahia seemed to dismiss concerns over the president’s fitness for office, insisting Algerians would have the final say on who would run their country.
Presidential hopefuls are in effect required to pass a medical aptitude test, the failure of which would automatically render them ineligible for the vote.
Opponents fear that the president will be able to secure the medical clearance required as he had in 2014 and compete in polls whose result has already been pre-determined.