President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation on Wednesday, after weeks of immense pressure from protesters and the military, is considered a huge victory to Algerians as they march into a new political era. However, the move also thrusts the country into an uncertain political transition with no clear successor to the ailing president.
The office of the President had earlier announced that the embattled leader would resign before the end of his tenure after being renounced by several of his aides in recent days. But according to state media, Bouteflika has stepped down with immediate effect, ceding power in the face of massive street protests against his 20-year rule.
In a letter published by APS news agency on Tuesday, just hours after the army chief demanded immediate action to remove him from office, the 82-year-old leader announced he was stepping down.
“My intention … is to contribute to calming down the souls and minds of the citizens so that they can collectively take Algeria to the better future they aspire to. I have made this decision to avoid and prevent the arguments which distort, unfortunately, the current situation, and avoid its turning into serious skirmishes, to ensure the protection of persons and property,” Bouteflika said in the letter to the president of the Constitutional Council.
As reported by Al Jazeera, the announcement prompted celebrations in Algeria’s capital, Algiers, with hundreds of people singing songs and waving flags in front of the city’s central post office.
As stated in the constitution, the president’s resignation will put the speaker of Algeria’s upper house of parliament (in this case Abdelkader Bensalah), as interim leader for up to 90 days during which a presidential election must be conducted.
A transitional council may be necessary to pave the way for a free and fair election, Nazim Taleb of the opposition Rachab movement told Al Jazeera from Algiers. This is because Bensalah and the army may not be able to facilitate a free election. Also, Bouteflika’s most trusted people are still part of the system, many of whom do not want a free election because they might end up in jail.
In addition, there are no named candidates yet and even the country’s ruling elite cannot agree on who should replace the elderly president. However, there is a belief that Bouteflika’s successor will be chosen from “a pool of men who are all pure products of a system in which alternation and political renewal are almost nonexistent.”
According to BBC Monitoring, Algeria’s top centres of power and possible successors to Bouteflika include the following:
Algeria’s military has always been actively involved and an important piece in the country’s political scene. Arguably the strongest in the continent, its place was strengthened in the 1990s when the army cancelled elections and engaged in a deadly civil war with Islamists.
However, Bouteflika has managed to displace some of the generals. After cancelling the January 1991 polls, the president was the last of the “Janviéristes” who steered Algerian politics for over 20 years.
Ahmed Gaid Salah
Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah’s call for the declaration of Bouteflika as unfit to rule has raised suspicions he could have presidential ambitions.
Salah “sees himself as a likely successor”, according to a French parliamentary report released in January 2017. But he constantly reaffirms that he would not betray his “liberation war brother-in-arms”.
The army’s chief of staff has often helped Bouteflika undermine the position of other generals. For that, he was rewarded with the title of “deputy defence minister” ahead of Bouteflika’s last re-election.
The president is mostly surrounded by family members and childhood acquaintances.
A notable member of this close-knit circle is Chakib Khelil, who grew up with Bouteflika in Morocco and later became the minister of energy, president of state oil giant Sonatrach and chairman of OPEC.
Then there is Said Bouteflika, the president’s younger brother many Algerians believe is already the de facto ruler of the country. His leadership intentions have long been the subject of speculation.
He is often described as being the president’s gatekeeper, leading the presidential clan and protecting its interests from behind the scenes.
Similar candidates to the generals displaced by Bouteflika include Mouloud Hamrouche and Ali Benflis, two former prime ministers who had also previously run for the presidency. One of these two insider reformists could be called upon if the ruling elites come under pressure to modernise the state.
Also, Ahmed Ouyahia who was prime minister three times and now leads the ruling coalition Democratic National Rally (RND) is known to be close to the president and is seen as a potential successor.
One of Algeria’s most respected veteran diplomats, Lakhdar Brahimi held key posts in the foreign ministry, which resulted in his two-year term as minister of foreign affairs at the beginning of Algeria’s civil war.
Brahimi went on to serve at the highest level in the UN General Secretariat. His mission as a joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria brought him back to the fore in 2012, and his resignation after the failure of the Geneva talks in 2014 earned him respect from Algerian pundits.
In June 2015, the U.S. geopolitical analysis firm, Stratfor, indicated that he was viewed positively by international partners. Several North African media outlets interpreted this as Western backing for his eventual candidacy. However, Brahimi’s chances of becoming president might be impeded somewhat by his age. He was born in 1934 and is older than the ailing president.
Algeria’s opposition is segmented and has been unable to present a single candidate for the presidential elections, which were cancelled after protests broke out across the country.
The historic opposition parties are the secular Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and Rally for Culture and Democracy (RND). They can regularly mobilise voters in key cities and had been calling for a boycott of the presidential election before the protest movement started.
They were also the first to denounce Gaid Salah’s call for declaring the presidency vacant, saying it amounted to “a coup d’etat” and that it sought to “revive the regime”. Other opposition parties were intending to compete in the elections and were meeting over electoral alliances when the protests took them by surprise.
Former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, who ran against Bouteflika in 2014, had a more measured response and asked for more guarantees for the transition of power. The Islamist leaders Abdalla Jaballah and Abderrazak Makri made similar comments, with Makri seeking to guarantee a role for his Muslim Brotherhood-linked party in a transitional administration before elections.