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Q&A on the 2019 Protest Movement in Algeria

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Dr. Lakhdar Ghettas
Author of Algeria and the Cold War: International Relations and the Struggle for Autonomy (London & NY: IB Tauris, 2018)

Q1: How would you describe what is currently happening in Algeria? Are we witnessing something similar to what happened in other Arab countries in 2011?

The protest movement that has shaken the Algerian regime for almost a month now is a revolutionary effort in progress. One might call it an Algerian awakening, a peaceful uprising to reclaim the public space; or a revolution in the making. It is similar to the 2011 uprisings in the MENA region in terms of the social media means used (especially Facebook) and non-violence as its strategy to bring about political change. It is however, different from the Arab Spring in terms of inspiration. The massive display by protestors of the Algerian flag and other symbols of the country’s independence struggle (1954-1962) against French colonialism is reminiscent of the December 1960 protests when Algerians poured in the streets of Algiers waving the Algerian flag in support of the Algerian liberation cause.

Q2: Why now? What are the reasons that the Algerian people protested against the 5th term? Why did they not protest before?

Most Algerians did not accept the violation of the constitution which allowed the third and fourth terms either. The fourth term of 2014 was already an insult to the history of the country and its people, but the civil war mongering propaganda and large-scale psychological warfare undertaken by the regime at the time, when the political changes in neighbouring Libya and Syria were taking a bloody and destructive turn, meant that Algerians stayed put and swallowed their pride. The total absence of Mr. Abdelaziz Bouteflika from the public space during his fourth term, a 50% decline in oil revenues, conspicuous corruption by a new rich class of oligarchs in the Russian style, flare-ups of ethnic/sectarian tensions, and an aging regime that has become disconnected from the aspirations of the youth eroded the little patience Algerians had left. The 700 kg cocaine-smuggling scandal, following which the quasi-totality of the top brass leadership of the armed and security forces was removed in the space of three months, all contributed to a sense that the Bouteflika regime has become a security danger for the existence of Algeria as a sovereign united country. The fifth term was a humiliation to most Algerians who have had enough, especially the insulting statements of the now former PM Ahmed Ouyahia who excelled in making press statements which belittled and disdained Algerians who rejected the fifth term. There is a banner that went viral after the 22 February massive protest. It read: “We stayed put because we feared for the country to be lost, when we have become sure that the country is at imminent danger we rushed to its rescue.” In Arabic it rhymes well and sums it all.

Q3: Do you think that what is happening in Algeria today could be triggered by someone from inside “the system” that wants Bouteflika out in order to grab the power for himself?

No. The decision by the regime to go for a fifth term was the trigger. Either by flawed reading of the pulse of the street and mood of Algerians, or by believing in their own Arab Spring war-mongering propaganda, or both, the regime crossed the Rubicon the very moment it announced the fifth term despite the warnings from different stakeholders including some inside the regime. There is an ongoing debate about the trigger factor of the October 1988 revolt which won Algerians the February 1989 constitution that introduced political party pluralism and freedom of expression before even the fall of the Berlin Wall. But all serious observers agree this time around that it was popular anger at the insult of the fifth term that triggered the protests, and this anger was compounded by the statement from Bouteflika on 11 March that he “never had the intention” to run for president. In one Friday protest after another the protesters have been putting the bar higher. From a rejection of the fifth term and call for better governance and the rule of law, the slogans have grown revolutionary and are now calling for regime change. Anyone associated with the regime, whether inside or outside it, is concerned by whether this non-violent radical movement succeeds.

Q4: What about the army? Until now, it is still backing the system, do you think it could change its position? What could be its role in this protest movement?

As I have mentioned earlier, the top brass of the army and other security forces has been replaced in the wake of the Cocaine scandal last summer. As the Algerian regime is an opaque one in the style of the Kremlin, a number of hypotheses circulated at that time. One hypothesis considered that the change of the army’s leadership was a ploy to get rid of army generals who cautioned against or opposed the intention of the regime to run for a fifth term, and that the cocaine scandal was merely a pretext that may or may not be related. Since then the Chief of Staff Gaid Salah has become omnipresent in the public space. The 8 pm main news hour of the state TV opens with extensive coverage of his daily activities, as do the state newspapers and the private papers that depend on state advertisement. The tone of the speeches of the army became even harsher when a retired general announced his intention to run for president and when spontaneous peaceful protests broke out in two or three towns when Bouteflika’s candidacy was officially put in motion on 10 February. It took Algerians a week to absorb the shock before Bouteflika’s giant poster was torn down from the townhall of Khenchla. Annaba (the Chief of Staff’s town) followed a day later, paving the way for the massive Friday protest of 22 February. It was then that the army started to reconsider its rhetoric and try to reposition itself as a guarantor of national stability and security rather than the protector of the regime’s survival.

Now the army has decided to shelve or bury the fifth term and draw a line under Bouteflika’s era. The army has brought in two of Algeria’s best known career diplomats internationally in order to facilitate a sort of transition period, apparently on the army’s terms. There is risk that the army’s role become contested and divisive if it imposes its vision of the second republic in Algeria regardless of the aspirations and demands of the protest movement.

Q5: What do you think about Bouteflika’s “suggestion” of holding the power for one more year and then organizing a new election? What did it mean? Would you understand that as meaning that the inside succession is not ready yet and that they need one more year to be organized?

The concession made by the regime on 11 March, postponing the presidential elections indefinitely, with the promise of a reshuffle of the government and national dialogue conference to be led apparently by Lakhdar Brahimi struggles to convince most of the protestors. Both Brahimi and Ramtan Lamamra have gone on a charm offensive to gain the trust of the Algerian street, but all signs give reason to believe that the youth have moved on and radical regime change is gradually asserting itself as the main demand of the protest movement. Despite the fact that Brahimi spent Thursday in different TV studios explaining that Bouteflika is sincere in handing over the power but in an orderly and gradual fashion, the comments of the youth indicate there is little faith in the promises of the regime, especially in the absence of guarantees. The fact that as soon as the concession letter was released French president Macron tweeted in support of the move, even before Algerians had had the opportunity to digest the content of what the regime had conceded has contributed to the suspicion of the protestors. The Friday 15 March protest might be even greater than the historic one on 8 March, which police estimates had put at 15 million protestors nation-wide. The dilemma the regime finds itself in now is that for over two decades it has closed the public space for political parties and civil society, removing thereby any channels of credible representation and communication between state and society. Now the regime finds itself before an ever-radicalising movement that façade parties, civil society and a rubber-stamp parliament cannot contain, let alone speak on its behalf. The other challenge is that the movement is so far a horizontal, decentralized grass-roots movement that does not have a clear leadership. A leader or group of leaders to represent the movement has not emerged yet, which does not mean they do not exist. There are however initiatives to give a structure and a political manifesto to the protest movement.

But years of oppression and closure of the public space and denial of the exercise of citizenship means the regime will struggle to find whom to negotiate with. The three weeks of the protest movement have seen a renewal of citizenship acts and civil society activity in different forms of expression, from slogans and graffiti, to open debates in universities, new web radios, and renewed interest in politics and public affairs. The society has gradually started to mend its cracks but it takes time, as post-authoritarian rule experiences have shown in Latin America and Spain. The national dialogue conference might not satisfy the protestors, and the army might find itself compelled to decree a state of emergency.

Q6: Who is the opposition in Algeria? Is the opposition organized enough? Do you think they are ready to govern and fulfill the people’s needs and demands?

As explained earlier, decades of authoritarian rule thinly masked by nominal democracy has eventually worn out not only the opposition but the regime itself. The regime decides which political parties and civil society organisations will be granted legal license to set up, or which newspapers to print. It filters and vetoes party lists of candidates for local and general elections and rigs the results. Political parties and NGOs have to obtain permission to hire a meeting room or publish. Most Algerians stopped turning out for elections long time ago. The façade opposition in the parliament reflects the distribution the regime imposes on the society in terms of ideology and size. You have nationalists, Islamists, Leftists and liberals but they are all united by accepting the rule of the rigged game imposed by the regime. On the other hand, you have a variety of opposition parties and civil society initiatives that are present in society but not granted legal license by the regime. These hold different worldviews but are united in their struggle for real democratisation in Algeria. Some political parties in the parliament have joined efforts, during Bouteflika’s fourth term, with the non-recognised political forces in order to work together for peaceful regime change but those efforts have achieved little due in part to the regime’s monopoly of the public sphere. The protest movement has encouraged a rapprochement among political parties of different worldviews that are convinced of the need for a radical change that starts with the formation of a presidential collegial council, a care-taking government and the election of a new constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. If they manage to win the trust of the protest movement and join efforts with it, a transition period could be negotiated with the regime.

Q7: How would you explain the “cold” comments or the “no-comments” policy from France and Western countries?

The no-or cold comments policy of Western countries have been welcome by both the regime and the Algerians for different reasons. All Algerians cherish their independence and regard this episode as an internal matter. We saw slogans in this sense following the comments from France, the EU and the White House. But it is also one of the lessons of the 2011 uprisings to resist any temptation to recourse to foreign support against an authoritarian regime. As for why the West has treated the Algerian case differently from, for example, the Venezuela crisis, then one may point to the fact that Algeria is closer to Europe and the repercussions of instability in Algeria would be immediate and damaging to Europe’s economic export interests, energy security, and the stability of North Africa.

by Lakhdar Ghettas

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