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Algeria’s Moment of Truth

After more than six decades of presiding over an authoritarian rentier state, Algeria's shadowy regime made a fatal mistake this year when it tried to reinstall an infirm president for a fifth term. Now that an overwhelmingly young population has taken to the streets, Algeria's future is up for grabs.

ALGIERS – To understand what is behind the mass protests in Algeria, it helps to remember that the country’s outgoing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, held that office for two decades, and served as foreign minister as far back as 1963, the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The current Army chief of staff is nearly 80, and the current acting president is 77. It is a geriatric regime, presiding over one of the world’s youngest populations.

Algeria has not fared well under gerontocracy. In Freedom House’s latest report, it is categorized as “Not Free,” whereas neighboring Morocco, Mali, and Niger are all “Partly Free,” and Tunisia is now considered “Free.” The Algerian regime’s mistake was to think that it could re-install Bouteflika, an invalid since suffering a stroke six years ago, for a fifth term without anyone noticing or caring.

Driving today’s protests is a deep-seated sense of humiliation among Algerians. Since independence in 1962, its rulers have tended to regard the country’s people as their servants, rather than the other way around. But the regime’s disdain was especially obvious earlier this year, when its leading figures publicly endorsed Bouteflika’s candidacy by bowing down to his picture, because the man himself could neither appear on stage nor speak. This kind of sham may work in North Korea, but in Algeria, people have access to the Internet and international television channels; they can spot a farce when they see it.

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