The Barakat ("Enough") movement has drawn some notice in Algeria. Photographer: Farouk Batiche/AFP/Getty Images
The Barakat ("Enough") movement has drawn some notice in Algeria. Photographer: Farouk Batiche/AFP/Getty Images

In Morocco during the Arab Spring, a political scientist told me why he thought the events of Tunisia and Egypt hadn’t touched Algeria: “They’re both military coups,” he explained. “And the military never makes a coup against itself.”

Certainly President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, with close military support for his authoritarian regime, weathered the events of spring 2011 better than any other Arab dictator. That may be about to change. Although the 77-year-old will probably be “elected” this week to a fourth presidential term, age is catching up with him -- and with it comes the specter of transition.

We may never know precisely what combination of economic, moral and political frustration brought crowds of Tunisians, Egyptians and eventually citizens in other Arabic-speaking countries into the streets in protest at the start of 2011. But from a distance of three years, we can derive a rule for assessing which regimes went down and which survived.

It's simple: When the leader was old and no obvious successor existed, the government fell. In Tunisia and Egypt, protests were followed by military intervention to bring down old dictators with no plausible succession plan. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen fell, too. In Libya, the push for regime change after protests came not from within the country, but from the outside, in the form of bombings -- nevertheless Muammar Qaddafi, another old dictator, bit the dust.

Only two Arab dictators survived the Arab Spring: Bashar al-Assad, young and healthy and in control of his military, has been fighting a civil war, and endures despite repeated insistence by the U.S. that he “must go.” The other, the exception proving the rule, is Bouteflika of Algeria.

The best explanation for the pattern is that in each case, the power structure undergirding the regime -- generally the military -- knew that it would have to manage a transition when the old dictator died. Public protests required a response from the military, either backing a dictator who was obviously unpopular or removing him while trying to maintain its own authority. Considering that the military could gain legitimacy by removal, and that it would have to manage a transition sooner rather than later anyway, the choice was obvious.

Seen in these terms, the Arab Spring was not, unfortunately, a regional housecleaning. It was an occasion for trading old dictators for younger ones. Egypt is perhaps the saddest and most obvious example. General Abdel-Fattah al-Seesi, who is about to be elected president, is a younger, slightly more up-to-date iteration of Hosni Mubarak. Al-Seesi follows Anwar Sadat, a general, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, a colonel, in a line of military rule going back to the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952.

Tunisia, an incipient constitutional democracy, has so far done better, having replaced dictatorship with a slow, consensus-based, two steps forward and one step back effort at something utterly new for the Arabic-speaking world. The Tunisian leadership -- on all political sides -- deserves the world’s admiration and support. At the moment, however, Tunisia is alone among the Arab Spring countries to have both a functioning state and a functional, democratic political process. The Egyptian model is more likely to prevail elsewhere, as it has in Yemen, where Saleh’s former vice president was elected in 2012 with 99.8 percent of the vote. (No, that's not a typo.)

In Algeria today, however, the problem of succession can no longer be ignored. Bouteflika had a “mini-stroke” a year ago, and spent last summer in a hospital in France. He appeared in public most recently on April 3 to greet Secretary of State John Kerry. In the video, Bouteflika looked bug-eyed and seemed to be gasping for breath. (Kerry, for his part looked great, speaking French with facility.)

Over the last six weeks, a small movement called Barakat (“Enough” in Algerian dialect) has staged protests against a fourth term for the president. On its own, this movement cannot create the kind of unrest that brought down dictators in Tunisia or Egypt. Its existence, though, is telling -- and the military will have to take notice. Some military figures, including a retired general, have spoken against a fourth term for Bouteflika.

There are some potential successors within the regime, and all this will probably end in power going to one of them. But the Algerian military will be paying attention to the protests and trying to figure out the best way to leverage them to maintain both power and some modicum of de facto legitimacy. It would be a mistake for the army to allow the protests to become too extensive. At the same time, an absolute crackdown would deny Bouteflika the signal that it really is time to go.

The Arab Spring hasn't fundamentally transformed Arab politics. But generational change is coming, and it's good to know that at least some Algerians would like to be its agents.

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman at noah_feldman@harvard.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net.