Editorial: Algeria in the gale


Last April, the New York Times published a satirical cartoon about Algeria; one of the few regimes that survived the Arab Spring. Carrying the title: “popular power is contagious” in her images of demonstrations against Bouteflika, president of Algeria since 1999, with protesters shouting: “Spring is Coming”. Similarly, several analysts believe that after eight years marked by war and authoritarian restoration, the Arab world is back on the boil and Algeria (along with Sudan) has taken over from the struggle for freedom than before led Tunisia or Egypt.

The facts seem to confirm this. Since last February 16, Algeria has experienced a popular uprising, Hirak in Arabic, strictly nonviolent. Six months later, protests and mass demonstrations held every Friday and have already forced the resignation of the President of the country, remain despite the heat in Algiers and aspire to become a real democratic revolution.


Reasons for the revolution

It all started 10 days after Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term in presidential elections scheduled for April. The first major demonstration took place on February 16, 2019, in Kherrata, in the north of the country. Three days later, in Khenchela, protesters showed their objectives: got down a huge poster of Bouteflika, hanging from the town hall, and were trampling for hours. Two days later, another poster suffered a similar fate in Annaba. Protesters shouted that the President was now just “a sign” and that this situation must end.

It is a strange fate that of Bouteflika. With only 19 years, he joined the armed wing of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which led the “sacred” struggle for independence. He was a minister in the first government of Algeria. He fell into ostracism and saw how far a civil war began in the nineties, known as the black decade period, causing more than 150,000 deaths. In 1999, during the war, he took power leading a national reconciliation program that knew how to knit the country back and stop the killings. Then came 20 years of government, the Bulgarian electoral victories, persecution of dissidents, the construction of a clientelist and corrupt system and eventually a stroke in 2013.

All started here. Given the disease head of state, hospitalized in France, the Algerian government forced closure news. Algerian newspapers who dared to report that Bouteflika was in a coma were seized in the press. It took 80 days to return to Algeria and did so in a wheelchair, with her paralyzed and willing to settle in a state medical residency where he has resided since left. Despite this, he won the 2014 elections, without making a single election. And since then, almost total disappearance. A photo of 2016, released on twitter by the then French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, showed a haggard, severely diminished and staring Bouteflika. In 2017, a journalist described it as ”

And with these precedents, he announced in 2019 that was presented to his 5th term. Difficult to understand, it is true, but it is key to understand that, despite his poor health, Bouteflika was still a puppet balance generated a huge and corrupt patronage network that ruled the country.

Unlike most based on the exploitation of hydrocarbons economies, in which a small circle is enriched with natural resources, oil wealth of Algeria is divided between an oligarchy that runs the military, bureaucrats public sector, business class and leading politicians. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the deal is the Army. The military received more than 10 per cent of the country’s budget. It is a huge percentage. The Algerian army is three times more expensive than the Egyptian, already famous for its enormous power, cost and influence.

The real dynamics of power in Algeria and its commitment Bouteflika explained by a network of crossed interests of bureaucrats and “friends” 400 managers of state monopolies, the army, the FLN and the business class. Bouteflika was necessary to create a balance between these powers and ensure the show from going ahead.

A corrupt dynamic to persist needs to be protected. Persecution of dissidents is one of the key policies of the Algerian regime. The government refuses to allow registration of NGOs working on the rights of women, cultural minorities and human rights. The Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH), probably the most influential association of human rights in Algeria, asked to be registered following a change in the law in 2012 and has not yet received a receipt certifying their legal existence. Similarly, the performance of international human rights NGOs in its territory is not allowed.

In the same vein, the Criminal Code prohibits organizing or participating in unauthorized demonstrations and condemned to one year in prison. Since 2001 it is forbidden manifest in the capital. Until the recent demonstrations that began in February, all protests in Algeria ended with police charges and people arrested and prosecuted.

This is the situation that had to deal with those heading to the first demonstrations of February 2019.


Revolution: the first act

In this context, no one could foresee that concentrations spontaneously started by some students earlier this year, was rapidly transformed into an immense nonviolently, capable of uniting all social strata Algerian revolt. In six months of strictly peaceful actions, the protest movement has achieved two huge achievements: getting the resignation of Bouteflika and have kept the mobilization after the fall of presidential power, insisting that they want the fall of the regime, not just the President.

During this period, the performance of Algerian leaders groups have followed a predictable pattern: temporize stoke fear and waiting for the demonstrators committed a mistake. The surprising thing has been the strength of the popular protest movement.

Algeria and lived like a popular uprising in October 1988 was something of a precursor of what is happening now. That uprising achieved some temporary changes (a new constitution, the end of a one-party system, a relatively free press) but after the intervention of the army led to a period of terrible violence, the black decade. Algerian citizenship is now aware that a violent movement against a regime does not lead to achievement leads to a civil war. Examples of Syria and neighbouring Libya are very recent. For this reason, the organizers of the movement had no doubt: the movement should be peaceful. A good example is the success of the Decalogue “The 18 Commandments of peaceful and civilized protester” written by the poet Lazhari Labter. Isolate those who commit violence, not to respond to provocations, walking peacefully … are some of its recommendations. This environment, this ethical and nonviolent discipline, have generated sufficient to generate a co-led movement for women, open to the presence of children, open a multitude of social sensitivities confidence. These slogans have been one of the keys to its success.

The second key to success is its youth movement, which explains the absence of fear. In Algeria, under 30 account for nearly 70% of the population and are not traumatized by the ravages of civil war in the nineties. There is a huge generation gap between the ruling groups, who assumed the political and economic power after independence in 1962 and the age of the protesters on the street. The politics of fear with them does not work.


Horizons: the second act

Impacted by the enormous capacity of convening the popular response, the ruling groups, during the first act of revolt, acted with some tolerance. Enforcement services did not seek to paralyze the rebellion, rather took the opportunity to settle accounts with each other and change the balance of power within the regime. They thought that the fall of the president could calm the waters and keep power, now with more weight in the army and its chief of staff, Gaid Salah. But the protesters have not fallen on the hook to be content with falling Bouteflika and have chosen to maintain their push for the disappearance of the regime and a democracy based on pluralism.

This is the pulse that determines the first act of the revolution and takes us to the current situation. On one side the group with weapons, the army command, which is committed to not shoot at protesters and so hopes to stay in power. In the other group without weapons, protesters, who are committed to remaining mobilized and out into the street stubborn twice a week under the scorching sun of Algiers demanding the end of the “pouvoir”.

The key to this situation will occur in the second act. Where do you see Algeria? Most analysts agree two possibilities: either the revolution against the regime becomes a democratic revolution, like Tunisia, or Bouteflikismo without Bouteflika led by the army, as Egypt is imposed.

In favour of the Egyptian choice, it is an important asymmetry of power. With the single drop Bouteflika clan, the “pouvoir” is armed and controls all social, economic and media mechanisms in the country. It also has in its favour to geopolitics. After the events of 2011, China, the US or the European Union have shown themselves willing to sacrifice democratic movements for ensuring stability, curb immigration and fight against terrorism, as its sole objective. That’s exactly what provides the Algerian regime: imposed with minimal real concessions and ensuring stability.

In favour of the Tunisian way, there is little choice. Perhaps a little more than nonviolent discipline that has kept the protests so far. The movement seems to be aware that the military is desperate to find (or build) an excuse that allows them to intervene. Beyond the control of the army, the movement works on agreeing a roadmap to transition to generate social consensus. They want to impose maintaining pressure.


Written by: Luca Gervasoni and Laia Vila, co-director and coordinator of the Maghreb area of Novact.
Photo: Said Salhi