Abdelaziz Bouteflika had been president of the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria since 1999. Two amnesties (via referendum) for former combatants in the Algerian Civil War had taken place during his presidency (1999 and 2005). A complex "dirty war" between Islamic guerrillas and the government had claimed a contested number of approximately 200,000 lives between 1991–2002. Nearly half of the Algerian population was born after the end of the conflict, amidst the din of repeated corruption scandals.
With Bouteflika's accession to power in 1999, he began a diplomatic mission to rehabilitate Algeria's image abroad. He set about consolidating power, especially after his re-election in 2003.  During tenure as president, the power center in Algerian politics shifted from the east to west, most particularly to Tlemcen, where some became highly placed figures in the media, administration, and police. Roughly $10 billion of public funding flowed to the city for construction projects, including a university, hotels, museums and airports. €155m was spent on a state residence, which remains incomplete. Many of the public works contracts were given to Chinese companies, by whom local contractors were allegedly not always paid.
Oil-rich during the Arab Spring, the government was able to quiet dissent during the 2010–2012 protests with increased spending.
The constitutional revision of 2016 limited the number of presidential terms that could be served to two, but nevertheless allowed Bouteflika to seek a fifth term, because the law was not retroactive.
Since 2005, and especially after his stroke in 2013, Bouteflika's ability to govern the country was called into question: rumors of his death were frequent as he was often hospitalized, no longer spoke and made very few written statements. In this context, some Algerians considered his announced candidacy for the presidential election, originally scheduled for 18 April 2019, 4 July 2019 or 2020, to be humiliating.
Members of Bouteflika's administration have been accused of engaging in corrupt practices in several instances. In 2010, Sonatrach, the state-owned oil and gas company, suspended all of its senior management after two of the company's vice-presidents were imprisoned for corruption. Algeria's Energy Minister Chakib Khelil announced that the president of the company and several executives have been placed under judicial supervision. In 2013, Khelil was also accused of receiving a bribe from a subsidiary of the Italian energy company Eni. According to El Watan, overbilling for public works and misleading descriptions of imported goods are two common corrupt practices, facilitated by cronyism at the highest levels.
On 26 June 2018, Bouteflika dismissed Abdelghani Hamel as head of the national police (DGSN), despite the latter being part of his inner circle. This news came after one of Hamel's drivers had become a suspect in Cocainegate, which led a general of the gendarmerie, four judges and two public prosecutors to be tried for bribery.
Djamaa el Djazaïr, a large mosque under construction in Algiers, is nicknamed the Great Mosque of Bouteflika. Its minaret is 55m higher than the Hassan II Mosque in Morocco. Though its construction was touted as an Algerian job-creater, immigrant workers did most of the work for China State Construction Engineering while living in prefab shantytowns around the construction site. The project still came in 2.5 times over-budget. The cost of the mosque's construction has been estimated to be between $1.4 and $2 billion. A doctor quoted in Le Monde complained that "with $4 billion [sic], 200 hospitals could have been built." Converting the mosque into a hospital has been suggested. For the Algerian press, it became a symbol of the mismanagement of public funds and of the "capricious megalomania" of the former President.
Broadly, cumulative grievances and aspirations were at the heart of the protest movement. Decade-long economic stagnation, unemployment, labour market segmentation, and chronic corruption fueled discontent. Plummeting oil and gas prices weakened the regime's capacity to continue buying off some sections of the lower classes and youth, and to contain discontent.