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What President Bouteflika's Departure Means For Algeria's Future


Algerians are getting used to life without the president who held office for a generation. Weeks of massive protests prompted a change last week. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down after 20 years in power. A caretaker government is now trying to assert its authority. What drove the uprising?

MURIAM DAVIS: You have 63 percent of the Algerian population who is under the age of 30 and a huge unemployment crisis. This sense that the national wealth has been squandered by the elite is certainly driving these protests.

MARTIN: That's according to Muriam Davis. She's associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Steve Inskeep talked with her about the protests that led the Algerian military to demand that Bouteflika step down.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What's it look and feel like if you're in Algeria?

DAVIS: Algeria feels and looks, from the coast, a lot like France because of the colonial legacy. When the French were there, they kept the Casbah - the kind of indigenous quarters - and that was where, you know, the native Algerians were to reside. And the main thruways of the city were constructed for the settler population. As a result, the kind of main roads and streets look very much like French streets and roads. They would be very familiar to somebody who'd walked around the streets of Paris or Marseilles, for example.

INSKEEP: But then also a very diverse population, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. The population in Algeria is incredibly diverse. Under colonial rule, there had been indigenous Jews. And then, of course, you have the Berbers, who speak a different language and are considered a kind of group apart from the Arab Muslims and then, of course, European immigration throughout the colonial period and, you know, increasing numbers of sub-Saharan African migrants who were trying to cross the Mediterranean.

INSKEEP: So has the military in Algeria seen itself, for many years, as the force that holds this very diverse country together?

DAVIS: Well, certainly, the military sees itself as the founder of the Algerian nation-state. No Algerian president has been elected or come to power without the kind of consent or support of groups of the army.

INSKEEP: So when we think of this ruler, who was in charge for a couple of decades until he was deposed by the military, he was, in a sense, installed and supported by the military as well.

DAVIS: I wouldn't go so far as to say he's been deposed right now by the military. I think that the army has tried to catch up with popular desire to see the regime go. So one of the things that's distinctive about Algeria is that the people do see the army as a popular force that has a lot of support among the population, not only because of the historical role it played under the War of Independence but also because Algeria has a system of conscription. So in a very literal sense, the army is made up of the people.

INSKEEP: Where did these protests come from in recent weeks?

DAVIS: There has been this notion in the press that these protests have come out of nowhere. But in fact, Algeria has a very long-standing and very active recent history of contestation. There have been anti-fracking movements, the movement of the unemployed, various sectorial protests. But the difference is that a lot of these struggles have been very specific. And they've asked for fairly specific demands, often economic in nature.

INSKEEP: Mmm hmm.

DAVIS: So what we're seeing now is really the crystallization of a very long-standing attempt to have a civil society that protests in a peaceful manner. This has been going on now for seven weeks. Every Friday and other days of the week, people are on the streets. And for years, political pundits were saying that the Algerian people were passive, if anything happened it would be violent, that this was not a people capable of self-expression. And I think what's a really beautiful part of this movement is seeing this sense of humor that Algeria has. And that has come out on protest banners, for example, saying that only Chanel can be number five. They're referring to the fifth mandate of Bouteflika and saying only Chanel can make it to five. You're done at four.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning the number of terms that he had in office. This is enough (laughter).

DAVIS: Exactly, exactly.

INSKEEP: OK. That's very good and very stylish as well.

DAVIS: Yeah (laughter).

INSKEEP: So has social media played a large role in fueling and promoting these protests?

DAVIS: Yeah, certainly in terms of allowing us on the outside to get a sense of what's happening on the ground. And I would like to take a moment and just kind of acknowledge the work of my Algerian colleagues and journalists who have allowed those of us who've had trouble getting access to follow this and have really shared their experiences with us. I don't think that social media has played the kind of role that it did in the early days in Egypt in that, in a lot of cities, people are just pouring on the streets almost spontaneously. I heard a great story from an Algerian colleague on Twitter that said that her hairdresser was shutting down on Fridays and was telling people, you need to stop getting married on Fridays. We have a country to run.

INSKEEP: Now that the president is gone, what do the protesters say they want?

DAVIS: They'll be back saying they want the whole gang to be wiped away from the political scene. Corruption is a huge issue. And they have stopped allowing private jets from leaving Algeria in an attempt, I think, to stop capital flight and stop these people from taking their wealth abroad now that the boat looks a bit shaky. I think that, also, the youth wants to feel part of this country in some way.

INSKEEP: What is the risk, do you think, that there will be conflicting visions of the country from now on among the protesters and what Algeria will get is chaos?

DAVIS: I'd be hesitant to make predictions. There is real work to be done among different visions of what it means to be Algerian as a national identity, of what the state should look like. So those are questions that will be on the table as opposition movements go forward and take the protesters' demands seriously.

INSKEEP: Muriam Davis, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Thanks so much.

DAVIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.