EVEN HIS critics found Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s last moments as president difficult to watch. After two decades in power, the Algerian leader stepped down on April 2nd. Slumped in a wheelchair, dressed in a baggy djellaba robe instead of his usual three-piece suit, he looked like a doddering old man roused from bed in the middle of the night. He struggled even to hand his letter of resignation to the head of the constitutional committee (a stroke in 2013 left him an invalid). Mr Bouteflika styled himself a partisan and a politician who fought for Algeria’s independence and led the country out of civil war. There was no glimpse of that man in his final public appearance as president, only a frail shell.
Algerians flooded into the streets to celebrate a moment that was unthinkable two months earlier. Mr Bouteflika was tipped to win a fifth term as president, the only viable candidate in a stage-managed election. But in near-daily protests since February 16th, hundreds of thousands of Algerians demanded his resignation. Years of corruption and mismanagement had left the oil- and gas-rich country with a big deficit and 1.4m unemployed. Mr Bouteflika’s subjects were unwilling to endure five more years under a president barely able to speak.
Le pouvoir (the power), as the officers and oligarchs who really call the shots are known, stalled for time. In March Mr Bouteflika, or whoever drafted the letter for him, promised not to stand for re-election and to oversee a transitional period. Then he offered to quit before the end of his term on April 28th. None of this appeased the street. Nor did it pass muster with the army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, who asked the government to declare Mr Bouteflika unfit and remove him. In the end it was General Salah’s threats that drove the president out of power: though described as a resignation, it looks more like a sacking.
Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of parliament’s upper house, becomes interim president and must organise elections within 90 days. Mr Bensalah, a Bouteflika loyalist, is familiar with the duties, for he often stepped in when the ailing president was too ill to welcome foreign dignitaries and suchlike. He backed the president’s plan to seek a fifth term and did not endorse the protests. His elevation may give succour to Mr Bouteflika’s allies—except that many of them seem to be in custody.
It is hard to separate fact from rumour right now: Algeria’s politics are opaque and it lets in few foreign journalists. But there are credible reports that Said Bouteflika, the president’s powerful brother, is under house arrest. Ali Haddad, a construction magnate who grew rich off state contracts, was detained last month while trying to cross the Tunisian border, supposedly with a large sum of cash in his car. He served for years as the head of Algeria’s main business federation and was a Bouteflika ally.
The regime is justifiably worried about capital flight. Within nine months of the revolutions in Egypt and Libya in 2011, residents had withdrawn $8.6bn, says the Bank for International Settlements, a Basel-based financial institution. Many of Mr Bouteflika’s allies made a fortune through corrupt contracts and want to protect their gains. Ahmed Ouyahia, a four-time prime minister, was barred from leaving the country (allegedly while trying to drive his Mercedes onto a ferry bound for Spain). He denies reports that he sold his home in Hydra, a wealthy district of Algiers. The villa is rumoured to be worth some $4m, a princely sum on a civil-servant’s salary.
But the list of detainees looks rather like a purge orchestrated by General Salah. A former president, Liamine Zéroual—himself pushed out by the army in 1999—recently wove a tale of intrigue in a letter to an Algerian newspaper. He claimed that Mohamed Mediène, a retired spy chief who was the longtime éminence grise of Algerian politics, asked him to oversee a transitional period. Said Bouteflika reportedly blessed the scheme. If this story is true, or even if General Salah believed it to be, the army chief may have seen himself frozen out of Algeria’s future and therefore made a pre-emptive strike.
After eight years of turmoil in the Arab world, it is tempting to search for parallels. Egyptians see a repeat of what happened to them in 2011. The army shunted Hosni Mubarak out of power, the opposition fractured, and the regime later returned with a vengeance. These are imperfect analogies. After the revolution Egypt’s politics became a negotiation between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. There is certainly an Islamist current in Algerian politics, but there is no equivalent to the Brotherhood, a monolithic group with deep popular support and a vast network of cadres.
What is clear, though, is that the demonstrators will not be satisfied with Mr Bouteflika’s departure. After he quit, the private Ennahar channel aired footage of a middle-aged man wading into a crowd of protesters to shout praise for General Salah. “The army of liberation…freed the people,” he said, likening it to when Algeria won independence from France. His audience was unmoved: “Down with the gang!” one man replied. From the start, the protesters have demanded the removal of not just the president, but the entire ruling clique. Activists are planning another rally for April 5th, as they have every Friday for nearly two months.
But Algeria’s opposition is disorganised and leaderless; and, with an election now looming, it has precious little time to organise and field candidates. Last month activists announced an umbrella group called the National Co-ordination for Change and called for free elections, social justice and civilian control of the army. Some members of the group immediately disavowed the platform. Liberal-minded members are uncomfortable sharing a stage with Islamists. Thankfully for them, le pouvoir looks increasingly disorganised as well. The clans who wielded power during Mr Bouteflika’s long rule are now locked in a battle to survive.
Intrigue and uncertainty do not detract from the enormity of what Algerians achieved. In less than two months their peaceful, popular protests dislodged a president who ruled almost unopposed for two decades. And they note, darkly, that the Arab spring gave them guidance on how not to proceed. Whether they can chart a happier course remains to be seen.