Thousands of Algerians have rallied in the capital, Algiers, to commemorate one year since the beginning of a protest movement demanding the departure of an ailing leader and sweeping reforms, including an overhaul of the ruling elite.
Protesters began staging weekly demonstrations in mid-February last year after the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) announced that former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a wheelchair-bound octogenarian rarely seen in public, would seek a fifth term in office.
In early April, the largely unexpected popular mobilisation – unlike anything seen in the country’s modern history – forced Bouteflika to tender his resignation under pressure from the powerful military. In the weeks that followed, two former prime ministers, several ex-ministers and prominent businessmen were arrested on corruption charges.
Even as the weekly protests continued, a contentious presidential election in December saw former prime minister and an erstwhile Bouteflika loyalist Abdelmadjid Tebboune elected head of state, with official figures showing only 40 percent of the 24 million eligible voters casting their ballot.
But demonstrators on Friday, as in previous weeks, denounced what they called a “military state”, demanding that all political prisoners be released and power be handed over to a civilian-led transitional administration to make way for real democracy.
“If we look back at the last 52 weeks, we will see that some change has been achieved,” said Youcef Bouandel, a political science professor at Qatar University.
“Obviously Bouteflika is no longer there; some of his top military officers and businessmen are in jail, so these are very important achievements,” he added.
That said, “the demands of the protesters and their slogan ‘they’ve all got to go’ is counterproductive and cannot necessarily be achieved. The Hirak [protest movement] set the bar very high.”
Even without the political unrest, the new government faces a difficult economic year, with state finances hit hard by rapidly sinking energy revenues.
Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad this week said corruption and mismanagement resulted in a “delicate” economic situation for Algeria, an OPEC member country that is also facing a negative effect from falling global crude oil prices.