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The “Hirak” Movement in Algeria Against Bouteflika’s “Mandate of Shame”

Announced as a candidate for a fifth term, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who celebrated his 82nd birthday on Saturday, 2nd March has been hospitalised in a clinic in Switzerland since Sunday, 24th February. The Algerian head of state, who could not have been quieter since he fell victim to a serious stroke in April 2013, had already been re-elected without public intervention during the campaign in 2014. Since then, as the Algériepart online media journalist Abdou Semmar explained in an interview conducted by Le Media, Bouteflika’s decision to stay in power in Algeria since 1999 has brought the regime’s institutions to a collapse through inter-clan fighting for his estate.

In the meantime, the exasperation of the Algerian people seems to have reached its peak in the face of yet another electoral joke, which is scheduled for the 18th of April. Following a text posted on the internet where he displays a sign on which is written “No to a fifth term”, Hadj Ghermoul, member of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) and the National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of Unemployed (CNDDC), was arrested on 29th January, and then sentenced on 7th February to 6 months in prison in Mascara (west of the country), officially for “contempt of a constituent body”. The attempt to stifle a protest against Bouteflika’s new term, which since then has been growing, seems to have failed.

On 2nd February, the President of the National Assembly, Moad Bouchareb, announced what everyone had suspected: the National Liberation Front (FLN – Front de libération nationale) had chosen Abdelaziz Bouteflika as its candidate. The statement issued after a meeting of leaders of the four political parties of the government coalition [1] announced: “The parties of the presidential alliance present Abdelaziz Bouteflika as a candidate for the next presidential election. In such a context, the official announcement of Bouteflika’s candidacy to remain in power raised indignation, but no one expected the incredible popular irruption that would ensue. First elected head of state in 1999, then re-elected in the first round in 2004 (85% of votes), in 2009 (90%) and in 2014 (81%), after the removal of the constitutional limitation of two presidential terms, Bouteflika has done everything possible to pave the way for a life-long presidency. He has become an object of greed to the ruling mafia and his own family, who hold the reins of Algeria, the largest country in Africa.

Friday, 22nd February, a multitude of demonstrations took place everywhere. This was the first major demonstration in the capital, Algiers, where demonstrations have been strictly forbidden since the 14th June 2001 march when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from Kabylie converged on the capital. The wall of fear has now been overcome. “Neither Bouteflika, nor Saïd [brother of the Algerian president]! “, “Get rid of the System! ” “The people want the fall of the regime,” “Murderous power”, we could hear in the streets. Slogans that do not appear in the public media where the protests of Friday, 22nd February went unnoticed, transmitted with a delay and stripped of their content. However, a page of history is being written and there will be a before and after for 22nd February, 2019 in Algeria. A few days later, on Tuesday, 26th February, the student world protested in great numbers against the announced re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika to the chagrin of those in charge of most student organisations, close to power. Journalists denounced the collusion of the big media with the regime that prevented them from informing about the current uprising, internet connections that had been slowed down or even cut off by the authorities as well as visa refusals to foreign journalists wishing to cover the uprising.

The next Friday, 1st March, two days before the deadline for the candidacy of the presidential elections, a tidal wave flooded the streets throughout the country. It is now hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who have marched against President Bouteflika’s “mandate of shame”. Never since the Algerian War of Independence have the Algerians risen in this way to unite all the people around a common goal. In Oran, the second largest city in Algeria, some 10,000 people took part in the march for “dignity”. “If we are marching, it’s not against Bouteflika as an individual, but against the clan surrounding him, against a system,” said 22-year-old Youssef. In Tlemcen, which is supposed to be Bouteflika’s stronghold, the march was dense. The media could no longer ignore the uprising and Canal Algérie opened its 7 pm news with the marches without, however, mentioning the protestor’s main slogan “No to the 5th mandate”.

Bouteflika’s response stirs up anger

The next day, Sunday, 3rd March, the protests continued, including in Algiers where the metro was closed and the main streets blocked off. This day, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a sick man who had not made a single speech since 2013, addressed the issue for the first time since the beginning of the popular protest stirring the Algerian people. In a letter on the subject, he says he “listened and heard the heartfelt cries of the demonstrators”, but reaffirms his status as “candidate for the next presidential election”. In the event of an election, the Algerian head of state agreed not to complete his term and to withdraw after an early presidential election, the date of which had not yet been set. It would thus be necessary to elect Bouteflika in order to get rid of him via an anticipated presidential election, one in which he would not be a candidate…

At the same time, Bouteflika’s candidacy file was submitted on the same day with the Constitutional Council, the last legal deadline to apply for presidential elections on 18th April, 2019, by his new campaign director, the current Minister of Transport Abdelghani Zaâlane. The latter replaced at a moment’s notice former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, sacked on Saturday after having lead the three previous campaigns of President Bouteflika in 2004, 2009 and 2014.

This response given to the Algerian people, who since 22nd February had been demonstrating loudly and clearly against a fifth term run by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was enough to revive the protest. The same evening, spontaneous demonstrations broke out in several cities. The joke that circulated “We have two plans: plan A, for Abdelaziz. And plan B, for Bouteflika!” sums up well the intransigence of power and in the face of this intransigence, Algeria was preparing for a new explosion of anger. The same evening, thousands of young people who had been out since the beginning of the night in the streets of Algiers marched towards the presidential palace of El-Mouradia before being blocked by a police presence. On Monday, 4th March, students deserted classes at Bab Ezzouar, the largest university in the country. Several other campuses of the faculties of the capital were also deserted. In other cities marches were organised, Algeria held its breath, the responsibility of the power in place was enormous.

Translation by Jenny Bright.

This article was originally published in French on the blog Un monde sans dette from the journal Politis.

Notes.

[1] These four parties are the National Liberation Front (FLN), the presidential party represented by the President of the Assembly, Mouad Bouchareb, the Democratic National Rally (RND -Rassemblement national démocratique) represented by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, the Rally of Algerian Hope (Tadjamoue Amel El-Djazair, TAJ) of Amar Ghoul and the Algerian Popular Movement (MPA – Mouvement populaire algérien) whose president is Amara Benyounes.

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