Since February 22, Algeria has been rocked by huge and overwhelmingly peaceful protests against the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The epicentre of this movement has been the city of Algiers. There have been large protests every Friday, to which the police have had to take a conciliatory attitude because of their sheer size, despite street protests being illegal in the capital.
The Arab Spring of 2011–12 spread to Algeria, producing the largest protest movement for many years. However, through a combination of repression and concessions, such as reducing prices on foodstuffs, the Bouteflika government was able to withstand the challenge.
However, its time may now be up.
The spark for the current upsurge was the announcement that the 82-year-old Bouteflika, president since 1999, would stand for a fifth term in the presidential election scheduled for April. This is despite him suffering a debilitating stroke in 2013 and not having made any significant public appearances since early 2016.
This absurd proposal underlined the fact that the clan around Bouteflika has not succeeded in coming up with a succession plan and thought that they could impose this charade on the population for another five years.
Bouteflika’s government has its origins in the brutal civil war that ravaged the country between 1992 and 2002.
In late 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) looked set to win the country’s first multi-party election and unseat the National Liberation Front, which had ruled since independence from France in 1962, although the army was the real centre of power.
The authorities cancelled the election and banned the FIS which, in turn, sparked a war in which more than 100,000 people died. Backed by the military, Bouteflika became president in 1999.
Bouteflika has delivered both repression and stability. But now, frustration with the lack of economic opportunity, restrictions on political expression and rampant corruption have reached boiling point.
The initial call of the movement was “No fifth term”.
One demonstrator summed up the mood to the left-wing French news service Le Média at the March 1 protest: “There will not be a fifth term! It’s not right. It’s unbelievable what’s been happening in Algeria. We don’t want a monarchy, we want an Algerian republic. The rule of law, that’s all.”
When asked if he thought the authorities were listening, he replied: “We don’t give a damn. It’s a movement that will continue all the way.”
The circus surrounding Bouteflika’s nomination became even more surreal on March 3, the closing date for nominations.
First was the much anticipated nomination of Rachid Nekkaz, a flamboyant Franco-Algerian multi-millionaire with 2 million Facebook followers, hoping to cash in on the mood for change.
Stunned journalists attended a press conference at which an entirely different man, also called Rachid Nekkaz, explained that he was standing on behalf of his millionaire cousin who was ineligible on account of not having lived in the country continuously for the last 20 years.
Only minutes later, with Bouteflika in hospital in Switzerland, his representatives announced that in response to the mood for change he would not stand again and would instead defer the elections to allow further consultation about a new constitution, a move which has no basis in the current constitution.
Protesters took to the streets on March 5 with a new slogan — “No 4+” — in response to the indefinite extension of Bouteflika’s term. Demonstrations have been organised every Friday since and are spreading to other centres, including a big strike and protest in the port town of Bejaia on March 13.
This was followed by a huge protest on March 17 called by students, magistrates and journalists, and another two days later, the day Algeria celebrates its victory in the bloody war of independence from France.
The opposition street marches have included Islamists, people with a democratic secular outlook, the Kabylie independence movement (a Berber-speaking part of the country) and the Algerian Socialist Workers Party (PST).
The government’s support base is an opaque network of business owners that have privileged relations with the state, especially in Algeria’s significant oil and gas industry, in which the army plays the role of arbiter.
A placard at a huge Paris demonstration on March 3 in solidarity with the Algerian uprising captured the frustration at this system of government: “Every country has a mafia … In Algeria it’s the mafia that has a country.”
While the Bouteflika clan scrambles to engineer a transition in which it can hang on to its power and privileges, the opposition is throwing off the fractures and weakness that have characterised it over previous decades.
In an interview broadcast on the Diffusion NPA YouTube channel on March 2, Kamel Boubker, an activist in the independent school teacher’s council explained: “The people have come to understand the importance of directly involving themselves in political life”.
As if to underscore this realisation, the movement has picked up an important slogan from the days of the independence struggle: “Only one hero, the people”.
It has come too far to go back, but where it goes will depend on the Algerian people’s determination to force change.