Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has bowed to weeks of mass protests against his rule and resigned, abruptly putting an end to two decades in power.
The 82-year-old leader announced his resignation on Tuesday night via a brief message from the presidency saying he had “notified the president of the constitutional council of his decision to end his mandate”.
Jubilant, flag-waving Algerians celebrated on the streets of the capital, Algiers.
“This feels new. Personally, this will be the first new president I’ve experienced,” said Nourhane Atmani, a 20-year-old student from Algiers, who regularly took part in the protests calling for Bouteflika’s overthrow. “I’m happy, I’m excited and I’m scared,” she said. “But most importantly, I’m determined. This is just a first step. We’ll keep going until we have fair, transparent elections and a new government.”
Bouteflika’s 20-year reign had become a symbol of ageing regimes across the Middle East and north Africa and its sudden end marked a new victory for popular protest in the region.
But what happens next is unclear in a country that has rarely seen political changes at the top since gaining independence from France in 1962.
The departing president suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since. His brother Saïd was widely believed to have been running the country from behind the scenes, aided by a cabal of sympathisers known as Le Pouvoir.
Demonstrators peacefully took to the streets every Friday since 22 February, their numbers sometimes in the hundreds of thousands. In just under six weeks, they forced Bouteflika to cancel his bid for a fifth term in office and relinquish power.
Pressure had mounted on the ossifying leader from within his own regime, after the head of Algeria’s powerful military, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, called for Bouteflika’s immediate departure earlier on Tuesday. “There is no more room to waste time … We decided clearly … to stand with the people so all their demands get fulfilled,” declared Salah, demanding the application of an article in the constitution labelling the president unfit to rule.
Other powerful figures, including the former prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, had also joined in calls for Bouteflika to go.
Salah argued that the statement issued by Bouteflika’s office on Monday night declaring that he would step down before his mandate officially ended on 28 April was written by “unconstitutional and unauthorised parties”, pitting him against the opaque clique around Bouteflika believed to have been ruling in his place.
Bouteflika’s resignation triggered a caretaker presidency by the chairman of the upper house of parliament, Abdelkader Bensalah, for 90 days until elections are held.
But as the growing protests emboldened demonstrators, they began to demand more than just the overthrow of Bouteflika.
“It’s very clear that the ambitions of the protesters have grown over the past weeks,” said Chloe Teevan, Maghreb specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “While this is definitely a significant victory, it’s not going to be enough.”
Hamza Zait, a journalist and political scientist in Algiers, agreed that protesters would only be temporarily satisfied with Bouteflika’s departure. “At the start, people were just saying no to his fifth term, but then they demanded more,” he said. “There are people saying this is victory, but there are others saying it’s not sufficient. The system can’t change in a week, we need years for a real change.”
France’s foreign minister said he was confident Algerians would continue their democratic transition in a “calm and responsible” way. “This is an important page in the history of Algeria that turns,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement. “We are confident in the ability of all Algerians to continue this democratic transition in the same spirit of calm and responsibility.”
Demonstrators are expected to return to the streets on Friday. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Yasmine Bouchene of the collective Les Jeunes Engagés (Activist Youth). “The demands didn’t change. We want them all gone. People are in downtown Algiers, celebrating this miniature victory, while also chanting that it’s just the beginning.”