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Furious protesters would rather Abdelaziz Bouteflika retired

ABDELAZIZ BOUTEFLIKA started his campaign for a fifth term as Algeria’s president by promising not to finish it. The ailing ruler, who turned 82 this month, is not even in the country. An associate filed the papers for his candidacy while Mr Bouteflika lay in a hospital bed in Geneva. For two weeks Algerians have been protesting against his decision to run. The largest rally, on March 1st, drew tens of thousands of people. In a letter read on state television, Mr Bouteflika acknowledged their?cri de c?ur. If re-elected he vowed to call a new presidential vote—and not to contest it.

Such promises are by now something of a cliché in the Arab world. Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the deposed leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, offered in vain to stand down later if protesters went home. Algerians were similarly unimpressed by the offer. Protests have continued. Mr Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since a stroke in 2013. In rare videos from official events he appears hunched over in a wheelchair, seemingly unable to speak. That such an invalid could rule the country, even for another year, strikes many of his citizens as an insult. “Respect the dead. Bury him, don’t elect him,” quips one placard seen at the demonstrations.

But Algerians will have few other options at the polls on April 18th. The main opposition blocs refuse to field candidates, saying they do not wish to legitimise the process. Ali Benflis, a former prime minister who won 12% of the vote in the presidential election of 2014, is not running. Independents have been blocked. A former journalist who hoped to run bowed out after being detained by police at a protest in Algiers, the capital, last month.

In case this was not farcical enough, enter Rachid Nekkaz, a French-born businessman of Algerian descent who unsuccessfully vied for the French presidency in 2007. Though he has since renounced his French citizenship, he is ineligible to run in Algeria, which bars the office to anyone who has held another nationality. No matter: he enlisted his cousin, an auto mechanic also named Rachid Nekkaz, to run in his stead. If elected, the spanner-wielder would resign and cede power to his namesake. The electoral commission has until March 13th to decide whether to permit this creative scheme. It is likely that Ali Ghadiri, a retired army general, will be the only real opposition candidate.

Mr Bouteflika has ruled Algeria since 1999. He helped end the gruesome civil war against Islamists that killed some 200,000 Algerians in the 1990s. His party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), led the struggle for independence from France a half-century earlier. But appeals to the past offer little legitimacy in a country where the median age is 28. Most of Algeria’s 42m citizens have no real memory of the civil war, let alone the French occupation. All they have known is one president ruling over an opaque political system. With Mr Bouteflika ill, power rests in the hands of?le pouvoir?(the power), a cabal of army officers and businessmen who have grown rich off state-funded projects.

When he faced protests in 2011 Mr Bouteflika bought his way out of trouble with subsidies, pay rises for civil servants and other handouts. This strategy is no longer viable. A decade ago Algeria posted healthy surpluses; last year it ran a deficit equal to 9% of?GDP. Foreign reserves have shrunk by 55% since 2013 (see chart). Oil prices are projected to average just over $60 a barrel this year. The government says they must be above $99 to balance the budget. Unemployment stands at 11%, and more than twice that for young people.

These protests seem to have surprised the regime. Security forces have so far applied a light touch. Videos from the protest on March 1st showed demonstrators mingling with police. Powerful figures have hinted that the regime’s patience is limited, though. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army chief, accused the protesters of trying to drag Algeria back to the days of civil war. “In Syria, protests began with flowers and ended with blood,” warned Ahmed Ouyahia, the prime minister.

Eight years after Tunisians toppled Mr Ben Ali, the surviving Arab autocrats think they have weathered the revolutionary storm. Like Mr Ouyahia they invoke chaos in Libya, Syria and Yemen to deter their own frustrated citizens from protesting. The economic and social conditions that caused the Arab spring have only worsened, though. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator, has faced months of unrest. Since the beginning of 2018 Tunisia, Jordan and Iraq have all seen big demonstrations. This is not the Arab spring redux: the protesters have narrower demands and the sense of pan-Arab solidarity has faded. But the tension in Algeria is another sign that the region’s autocratic stability is illusory.

Even if Mr Bouteflika is re-elected, he cannot take office without swearing an oath “before the people”. It is unclear that he can manage that. Whether he can survive a full term is doubtful. Opposition parties want to delay the vote. There was talk earlier this year of?le pouvoir?dumping?le président, but they could not agree on a new candidate. After decades of autocracy, Algeria’s hollow political institutions offer few alternatives—though perhaps there is a mechanic named Abdelaziz Bouteflika open to an unexpected career change.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline "“Bury him, don’t elect him”"
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