Algeria joins the Arab Spring

For years, Algeria appeared impervious to the protests sweeping across the Arab world. No longer.

The country is experiencing one of largest waves of demonstrations in its history. Protests started last month, when Algerians took to the streets to express in their dismay over President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement he would run for a fifth term in elections scheduled for April 18.

Yesterday, Bouteflika, who is 82, seemingly acquiesced to the protesters’ demands and announced that the elections would be postponed and that he would not stand for another term.

In retrospect, what’s surprising is that it took so long. Bouteflika seemed to be on his last legs already in 2014, when he ran for a fourth term after suffering a stroke. Since then, he’s appeared in public only rarely, most often in a wheelchair. When he does, he is unable to speak or move, and has a blank expression on his face.

Reactions in Algeria range from pity to a sense of humiliation, with sarcastic jokes directed at the presidential entourage that stages the president’s appearances. But most of all, Bouteflika’s health has raised serious concerns, to say the least, about his ability to perform his duties as president.

Protesters have described the demonstrations as a collective rebirth — a milestone in the healing process of a country that has already experienced so much violence.

That he was designated as the official candidate of the National Liberation Front — which has governed the country since it gained independence in 1962 — is either evidence of a misreading of public opinion, or the result of internal conflict that failed to produce an alternative candidate.

The massive scale and anger of people’s response to Bouteflika’s nomination prompted comparisons to the protests that led to the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in 2011.

Like Mubarak, the Algerian president — or rather, his handlers — appeared to make concessions to appease protesters. Initially, Bouteflika said that if he was elected again, he would call for another presidential election in which he would not run and establish a national conference to create a second republic with a new constitution.

More than 10 years after the end of the “Black Decade,” the wounds of those years still weigh heavily.

But much like in Egypt in 2011, protesters did not back down. They doubled down.

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 toward Europe. This is not likely to happen.

While not entirely democratic, Algeria is not fully autocratic either. Unlike in Syria, Egypt and even Tunisia in 2010, there is some space for opposition in Algerian society. While the government has indeed squashed some social and political movements in the past years, you can sit in a café and criticize the intelligence services, the ruling party and the army. You can express anti-government positions in the country’s newspapers.

Demonstrators have also learned the lessons of the Arab Spring protests and avoided the type of slogans people used in 2011, such as “The people want the fall of the regime.” Instead, they simply called for “no fifth mandate.”

For now, despite the announcement that he will not run again, Bouteflika remains in power. How the people will react is still unclear: Student demonstrations have already been scheduled. The question of how to manage a political transition therefore remains, as does the uncertainty about what roles the army, led by chief of staff Gaïd Salah, and the political opposition parties will play.

No opposition leader so far appears to have the charisma or political agenda to gain widespread popular support. A number of civil society organizations are fighting for democracy, women’s rights, workers and the unemployed, but they haven’t been successful in mobilizing support either.

The only thing that seems clear is that these protests are the beginning of a much longer process.

Protesters have described the demonstrations as a collective rebirth — a milestone in the healing process of a country that has already experienced so much violence.

Algeria was, after all, the first Arab country to experience a political transition after the youth protests in 1988, when the rapid rise of an Islamist party — the Islamic Salvation Front — prompted the military to intervene in the electoral process in 1992, ushering in a decade of violence.

Algerian students demonstrate in the center of the capital Algiers on March 12, 2019 | Ryad Kramdi/AFP via Getty Images

The subsequent Islamist insurrection carried out a campaign of targeted assassinations and car bombings, and massacred entire villages. The state eventually repressed it, but at great human cost.

More than 10 years after the end of the “Black Decade,” the wounds of those years still weigh heavily.

For many of the people marching through the streets of Algiers, Oran and Constantine, and even much smaller localities, there is a joy in simply being together. Those who are old enough to remember celebrations of Algerian independence compare the mood to the one that swept over the country in 1962. “I was 14 then,” one man told me, breaking down in tears. “This is like the day of independence.”

The tone and historical self-awareness of the protests is significant. Protesters are bringing garbage bags to the marches to pick up after themselves, sweeping the squares to leave them clean. They are signing “silmiyya, silmiyya” (“peaceful, peaceful”).

No matter what takes place tomorrow or in the weeks to come, something has already happened in Algeria.

Malika Rahal is a historian of contemporary Algeria, based in France.

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