Algerians Patiently Protest

Photograph Source: Y-Drid – CC BY-SA 4.0

On February 22, thousands took to the streets in Algeria to protest the ruling regime, triggered by the infirmed President Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth mandate. The April resignation of the long-time president did not stop the demonstrations. Au contraire: the demonstrations have continued. August 16, 2019, marked the twenty-six consecutive Friday of protests in Algiers and elsewhere in the country. For the moment, there has been no violence similar to clashes in France between the police and Gilets Jaunes and no obvious external interference. But no resolution of the crisis is in sight.

Six months is a long time. In the summer of 1968, Joan Baez rocked the Newport Folk Festival with “We Want Our Freedom Now.” The immediacy of the demand was an imperative. “Freedom Now” was a rallying cry for the civil rights protesters and anti-Vietnam War generation of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964; the Vietnam War ended for the United States when the final troops left in 1973. Some of the protesters’ demands were met.

The initial Algerian rallying cry was “Throw them all out!” After six months of peaceful protests, almost all the protesters’ demands have not been met.

Following Bouteflika’s forced resignation in April, a presidential election was scheduled for July 4. The constitutional council ruled there were no valid candidates and extended the power of interim President Abdelkader Bensalah, speaker of Parliament’s upper house. The demonstrators who had demanded the end of the 20-year rule of Bouteflika then demanded Bensalah’s resignation. Their overall demand was an end to the dominance of the ruling oligarchs, “le pouvoir” (“the power”). Bensalah is still in power, the ruling elite continues to dominate.

Why have Algerians been so patient? Twenty-six weeks of demonstrations with little violence. Twenty-six weeks of negotiations over the holding of presidential elections. Corruption investigations have been launched. Two former prime ministers have been arrested. In July, Bensalah created a “dialogue and mediation” body to help prepare for the presidential election. Yet for six months, in a world of accelerated time and rapid social media, there has been no end to the transition.

Why not? Why has the transition lasted so long? The army has been the spinal cord of Algerian politics, the most powerful institution in the country. It has been a successful stabilizing force. The army played a crucial role in the fight for independence from France in 1962 as well the civil war against Islamist rebel groups from 1991-2002 which left up to 200,000 dead. Fear of a return of the fundamentalists has allowed the army to continue to be the guarantor of domestic peace and stability and to show the resilience of the people despite injustice and limited freedom.

Army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah has played an important role in the transition, although publicly denying a desire to run for president. “I remain entirely convinced that adopting constructive dialogue with the institutions of the state, is the only way to exit from the crisis,” Salah said in a statement published by the defence ministry. This is “the wisest way to present constructive proposals, bring points of view closer and reach a consensus around the available solutions,” he added.

For the moment, the army has been restrained. While it was respected for maintaining order during the civil war, there are those who now see the army as part of the problem. “The army isn’t the solution” protesters have chanted. And they have called for Gaid Salah to “get out.”

For the protesters, Salah is part of the ruling elite, just like the army. Their demands are not for incremental change, they are for radical change, the total reform of the state. For the protesters, a simple presidential election will not be enough. As a University of Algiers professor of political science said: Algerians would “reject an election that leads to the reproduction of the system.” The demand from the street is clear: “Throw them all out.”

How much longer will the peaceful protests last? While a country like Belgium can function without a government – it claims the world record for a democracy without an elected government, 589 days in 2010-2011 – Algeria has no history of a democratic culture. And while there has been no known foreign interference, it is worth noting that Algeria has the 16th largest oil reserves in the world and the 9th largest reserves of natural gas. The current impasse cannot go on.

The demand for freedom in Algeria, much like the Hong Kong protesters, began with simple requests. Hong Kong protesters were against the extradition bill, Algerian protesters were for a free and fair election and the end of Bouteflika’s reign. Both have increased their demands. The Hong Kong protests, and their repression have turned violent, with Chinese troops exercising on the border. In Algeria, the demands have multiplied while the protests have remained peaceful.

Demanding “freedom now” has become a global slogan. Joan Baez is still singing 60s protest songs, even at age 78, on her farewell tour. Algerians have lived through the horrific civil war and the pitiful end of Bouteflika’s presidency. While Algeria’s peaceful transition remains tenuous, freedom now is clearly long overdue. “They” have not yet been all thrown out.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.