Students in forefront as Algerians force president to back down on fifth term

Algeria's 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Large crowds of mostly young people have braved police teargas and arrests to flood the streets.

Algerian students are the latest example of how today’s youth, often accused of a self-absorbed lack of awareness of the world around them, are increasingly stepping up to have a say in their political destiny.

Thousands of students have played a prominent role in protests that forced 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to back down from seeking a fifth term.

Despite a 2013 stroke that left him wheelchair-bound and largely out of the public eye, Bouteflika had wanted to extend his 20-year rule, the latest African leader to overstay their welcome.

But large crowds of mostly young people, undeterred by Bouteflika’s warning that protests could destabilise the country, have braved police teargas and arrests to flood the streets of the capital Algiers and some 30 other cities to the rallying cry of: “Hey Bouteflika, there won’t be a fifth term!”

One university professor told news agency Agence France-Presse that she had never seen anything like the massive strike by students since the 1980 Berber Spring, a reference to a weeks-long uprising demanding cultural rights for Algeria’s Berber community.

The latest protests appear to have at least partly succeeded, with Bouteflika agreeing not to run for election, although he did not step down and has postponed the April 18 vote, meaning he will stay in power for an undetermined length of time.

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigned, and his replacement, Noureddine Bedoui, has pledged to form a temporary government of technocrats and others to work toward political change, media reports said.

Bouteflika is widely credited with helping end a ravaging civil war between the army and Islamist insurgents that killed about 200,000 people in the 1990s.

But he and other stalwarts of Algeria’s 1954-62 war of liberation from France have long lost favour in the face of steep unemployment, corruption, and a lack of basic services.

An International Monetary Fund report last year said the oil-rich country continued to face serious challenges after a sharp drop in global prices four years earlier. It said economic growth had slowed sharply, unemployment was on the rise, and reserves had fallen by US$17 billion to US$96 billion.

As in many other countries in Africa, the lack of jobs has hit youth the hardest, with more than 25% of those under 30 unemployed.

History has offered Algerian students many instances of politically apathetic young people.

In Zimbabwe, a lack of interest among eligible young voters was largely blamed for former President Robert Mugabe’s nearly four decades of rule until November 2017, despite a crumbling economy, with support from older, largely rural voters who clung to memories of decades of discrimination under white minority rule before independence from Britain in 1980.

In Britain, young people are ruing not showing up in larger numbers to vote in a 2016 referendum that narrowly decided in favour of leaving the European Union.

Statistics show that more than 90% of those aged over 65 voted, many of them in favour of “Brexit”, while just over 60% of 18-24 year-olds – a demographic largely keen to stay within the EU – participated in the referendum.

But there are plenty of recent examples of young people making themselves heard if they put their minds to it, albeit with varying degrees of success.

In South Africa, the #FeesMustFall university movement that began in 2015 and grabbed headlines for months culminated in former President Jacob Zuma announcing that the government would offer free tertiary education to students from poor households, although the decision would place a heavy strain on national coffers.

In the United States, the teenage survivors of the country’s deadliest school shooting, which killed 17 people in Florida last year, gained national prominence for their advocacy for stricter gun laws, although they have run into stiff resistance from pro-gun lobbies.

Thousands of school children in Australia and New Zealand, worried about climate change, plan to skip school and protest this week as part of similar action by students worldwide inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

The Algerian protests have inevitably drawn comparisons to the 2010–12 Arab spring protests that swept across the Middle East and North Africa, although their aftermath should probably be a cautionary tale to manage expectations for positive change.

Those uprisings led to the ouster of neighbouring Tunisia’s unpopular leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but it has not been smooth sailing since for the two countries.

The three-party coalition ruling Tunisia has been mired in internal fighting, undermining efforts to implement crucial economic reforms.

And critics say Egypt is edging further towards authoritarianism, with parliament pushing plans that could see current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi remain in power until 2034.

– African News Agency

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