Anti-government protests spearheaded by Algerian youths — calling for democracy, an end to corruption and job opportunities — elicit feelings of deja vu. We’ve seen it all before. The misnamed Arab Spring in 2011 that toppled long-serving leaders Tunisia’s Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, plunged Libya, Syria and Yemen into bloody civil wars.
The sad fact is that despite the initial euphoria in those countries there were no positive outcomes. It took years for Egypt and Tunisia to recover their social and economic equilibrium. Libya remains a debt-ridden basket case without a functioning government. Yemen was hijacked by Iran-backed Al Houthis while Syria became a proxy battlefield attracting foreign military intervention as well as terrorists of all stripes.
The exact same slogans that rang throughout much of the region eight years ago are being chanted on the streets of Algeria’s major cities today. Considering their octogenarian wheelchair-bound President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika is seriously ailing and hasn’t given a public address since 2014, their angst concerning his fifth electoral bid is understandable. Firstly, they fear vote-rigging on April 18 and, secondly, as many as 70 parties are bent on fielding far too many candidates thus splintering the opposition vote.
A hero of the revolution against the French occupying power, Bouteflika is celebrated as the man who delivered stability and reconciliation to his traumatised nation that had lost up to 200,000 of its sons and daughters during a decade-long civil war rooted in a 1988 youth uprising against the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party. Just as it occurred in Egypt years later, Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood capitalised on dissent to gain power. They were ousted by the military and promptly morphed into a killing machine terrorising the population.
Until now, protests have been peaceful. Demonstrators supported by unions, lawyers and veterans chant the words “peaceful, peaceful” and hand out flowers. A prominent lawyer I met many moons ago when I lived in Algiers, messaged me his take on the unfolding scenario in response to my concerns.
“This is in no way an Islamist uprising but rather a spontaneous revolt by a people who have woken up to peacefully reject a mafia system of governance which is attempting to keep Bouteflika who has reigned for 20 years,” he wrote. “The country is marching against him along with the unknown faces orchestrating violations of laws and breaching the basic rules of democracy. We don’t know how this will end and in the case of a military intervention it will be catastrophic.”
Softly, softly approach
Aside from riot police using teargas on a crowd approaching the presidential palace, the government has taken a softly, softly approach although there have been closures of train services and the scheduled spring break for college students has been brought forward by two weeks.
In a move mirroring Mubarak’s last card, Bouteflika who retains the support of the army and the wealthy elite has pledged that once he is reinstated he will form a new government, supervise an orderly transition and will not stand in any new election. But as history tells us such nth-minute grand pledges are usually rejected by disillusioned populations.
In an open letter he has expressed his appreciation that demonstrators are “peacefully expressing their opinions” while warning of potential “chaos” and the hijacking of protests by “domestic and foreign forces”. His message will no doubt be viewed as scaremongering, but if the future can be predicated on the past, he may have a point. That said, in light of his state of health and great age he could re-establish calm by simply retiring gracefully. He is undoubtedly a patriot and that would be the patriotic thing to do.
On a personal note, I pray that Algeria will be the exception that proves the rule and isn’t gripped with violence. I lived in Algiers and Annaba during the mid-70s and the country still holds a special place in my heart. Algerians are a proud, dignified people but also some of the kindest and most hospitable I’ve ever met.
From the perspective of natural beauty and diversity — forests, beaches, mountains, desert — Algeria puts many of its neighbours in the shade. Sadly, its insular serial governments have eschewed facilitating tourism and placed red tape in the way of foreign investment.
The country is in dire need of a fresh path unfettered by complexes related to France’s 132-years-long brutal occupation which ended in 1962. The people long for a new direction. My hope is that it will be one that takes them a step forward rather than ten steps back.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.