The following article was commissioned by an online media and written on Monday, March 11 2019, a few hours before the date for the upcoming presidential election was postponed and president Bouteflika announced he would not be running again. It was heavily edited with a title that doesn’t befit the text. Here is the original version.
On Friday March 8 2019,1 Algeria experienced one of the largest waves of demonstrations in the country’s history. Algerians took to the streets in protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika running for a 5th term in the presidential elections scheduled for 18 April. The protests have grown steadily since February 22, including not only the major cities of Algiers, Oran and Constantine, but also smaller cities and towns across the largest country in Africa. Students (and women make up the majority of Algerian students today) joined the protest on the February 22. The presence of women became even more spectacular as last Friday was also International Women’s Day.
Bouteflika, who is now 82 years old, suffered a stroke in 2013. In 2014, he ran for a fourth presidential term without ever appearing in public. Instead, a team of wing-men acted as his spokesmen. Since then, he has appeared only rarely, driven in his wheelchair, obviously unable to speak or move, with a blank stare on his face. To say the least, this has left serious doubts about his ability to act as president. Reactions in Algeria range from pity, to a sense of humiliation, to sarcasm aimed at the presidential entourage who have staged such appearances. The President’s younger brother Saïd was a particular target of demonstrators’ slogans. Bouteflika was nevertheless designated as the official candidate of the party of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has governed the country since independence, either in a clear misreading of public opinion and the risk of popular opposition or as result of internal conflict which failed to produce an alternative candidate.
The comparison between the massive demonstrations in Algeria and the protests that led to the fall of Moubarak in Egypt and Benali in Tunisia is inescapable, and the upraising in Syria, Libya, Yemen or Bahrein. Observers have been wondering since 2011 why Algeria appeared impervious to the wave of protests that swept across the Arab world. Are the current protests a sign that Algeria finally catching up with history?
In a presidential message read on March 3, Bouteflika (or his handlers) appeared to be making concessions, much as Mubarak had done: if elected again, the president would call for a further, anticipated presidential election in which he would not run, and a national conference to create a second republic with a new constitution. As in Egypt in 2011, protesters did not back down but protested further. Based on such comparisons, many foreign journalists have expressed concern that the country may descend into violence. In France, some were quick to mention the apocalyptic vision of a wave of Algerian emigrants fleeing towards Europe.
Yet the contexts of Syria or Egypt; or even Tunisian in 2010, where authoritarian regimes left no space for opposition, are different to that of Algeria in 2019. Whilst not entirely democratic, Algeria is not entirely autocratic either. While some social and political movements have been repressed in the past years – for example the campaigns of the unemployed in the south of the country – you can sit in a café and criticize the intelligence services, the FLN, the army, or even write about it in a newspaper. Not only that but the demonstrators know their history, including how the protests of 2011 played out. They have mostly avoided the slogans of 2011 such as “The people want the fall of the regime”.
The protests open up the question of a possible post-Bouteflika transition. While it is unlikely that Bouteflika will run as planned, there is always the possibility that his entourage will push the confrontation further. And if they back down, how and by whom a transition could be engineered is a question that is still up in the air, as is the question of the reaction of the army, led by chief of staff Gaïd Salah. Another question that remains difficult is the capacity of political parties as well as opposition leaders to play a constructive role in this process. None of them at this stage seem to have the charisma or the political program to gain large popular support. As to civil society, while there are a number of courageous associations fighting for democracy, women’s rights, workers’ and unemployed people’s rights, they are unable to mobilize widely. The future direction of a process opened up by an upsurge of the people on the political scene is still full of uncertainties.
But the present demonstrations are not only the beginning of a process. There is something more specifically Algerian to them. In the sheer happiness and the excitement of marching together, there is a joy of being at one once again. After all, Algeria has already known violence: after the youth protests of 1988, Algeria was the first of all the Arab countries to experience a political transition. The rapid raise of an Islamist party, the FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front), lead to the interruption of the electoral process in 1992 through military intervention, and an Islamist insurrection that led the country to a decade of violence. The Islamist terrorists perpetrated targeted assassinations, car bombings, and later massacres of entire villages. While Algeria was the only state that managed to repress such an insurrection, the amount of violence necessary to do so is still the object of heated arguments. More than ten years after the end of the “Black Decade”, the wounds of those years still weighed heavily.
The current marches and demonstrations have been described by some of the protesters as a collective rebirth, and a milestone in the healing process of a country. Many older people marched on March 8. Some of those who were old enough compared them to the magnificent festivities of independence in 1962. One elderly man broke down in tears: “I was 14 then. This is like the day of independence”. The self-discipline of the protesters who bring garbage bags to the marches to pick up the trash, who sweep the squares to leave them clean, who sing “silmiyya, silmiyya” (“peaceful, peaceful”) is a testimony to their knowledge of history: the recent history of Algeria as well of that of the Arab world.
No matter what takes place tomorrow or in the weeks to come, something has already happened in Algeria.