In Algeria and Tunisia, Will the Old Guard Make Way for a New Generation?

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP photo: Ryad Kramdi

In the space of a few days, the presidents of two North African neighbors have decided to step aside and hand power on to a new generation. On April 3, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the man who has run Algeria for two decades, finally resigned the presidency. In Tunisia, the weekend after Bouteflika stepped aside, the 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi – a man who served not merely the toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but the presidency of Habib Bourghiba before him – announced he would not seek a second term as president at the end of this year. The old guard, it seems, were stepping aside.

And yet the departure of these two men in their eighties and nineties – both of whom were presiding over populations whose average age is many decades younger – is not the end of the story. In both Algeria and Tunisia, it is right that the old guard makes way for a new generation. But the change needs to be real, significant and lasting, one that benefits the underlying political structure, not merely changes the face on political posters.

In some ways, Algeria and Tunisia sit at opposite ends of the Arab Spring spectrum. Tunisia, eight years ago now, was the country that ignited the revolutions, the most seismic change in the Middle East for decades, and remains the most politically successful of the Arab Spring countries. Until two months ago, Algeria appeared to have escaped similar protests, but thousands gathering weekly finally pushed Bouteflika from power.

The central dilemma, in both countries, is that while the faces have changed, the old guard do not appear to have any intention of relinquishing the old way of doing politics.

In Algeria, the new president, Abdelkader Bensalah, in politics for several decades and in his seventies, is hardly a fresh face. His job is to prepare the groundwork for elections in a few months. What the protestors want, however, is more widespread reform, and it is not at all clear that the interconnected group of politicians, businessmen and army generals who supported Bouteflika for decades are willing to allow a real transition.

But what is needed now – and what the protestors are demanding – is genuine change, with the departure of Bouteflika merely the first step of widespread reforms to how Algeria is run. That discrepancy between what it being demanded and what is being offered will only grow if Algeria’s ruling class believe cosmetic change will be sufficient. The protestors are growing bolder: the end of one president has been achieved and they are setting their sights on the end of one-party rule.

In Tunisia, similarly, the old way of doing politics continues.

Parliamentary and presidential elections at the end of this year will be the most consequential since the revolution. For the four years from 2014, Ennahda, the largest party in the assembly, has been in alliance with Nidaa Tounes, the second-largest. That came to an end in September last year, meaning this winter’s parliamentary and presidential elections will offer a real test of popularity.

The stakes in Algeria are higher still. The country is at a serious and dangerous inflection point.

Protestors have become so emboldened that any transition that was not widely accepted could easily lead to vast protests that the government might use force to control. It is not an exaggeration to say the shadow of Algeria’s brutal civil war stretches across the protests.

It is true that the protests in neighboring Tunisia created a new democracy; but Algeria’s other Arab Spring neighbor was Libya, and eight years on, the country is still split down the middle. For the good of the country, the old guard need to step aside, or a brief interregnum could become merely the calm before the storm.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.