Algeria popular movement remains ‘strong’ – but fears ‘business as usual’

Protesters took to the streets in Algeria for the 21st consecutive week on Friday. Activists and experts say the popular movement is still determined to press its demands but the government is hardening its stance.

During the latest day of demonstrations on July 12, they cried forth their perennial “free Algeria!” and called for “a civilian state – not a military state!” One protester attempted to set himself on fire.

Friday demonstrations have continued unabated in Algeria ever since the February 10 announcement that then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika would seek a fifth term sent protesters flooding onto the streets.

None of the subsequent concessions to their demands – including Bouteflika’s resignation on April 2, the arrest of his brother Saïd (widely regarded as the power behind the throne since a stroke incapacitated Abdelaziz in 2012) along with two feared and loathed former intelligence chiefs on May 4, and the detention of numerous ultra-wealthy businessmen – have been enough to appease the protesters’ indignation.

This anger is hard to placate because it is focused on the entirety of what protesters call le pouvoir (the power) or le système (the system) – a murky nexus of politicians, government officials, businessmen and military figures which has long ruled Algeria to its own advantage, according to members of the popular movement.

‘Uninhibited’ Gaïd Salah

Recent events have further vexed the protesters. Ahmed Gaïd Salah – the head of Algeria’s army, widely seen as the most powerful figure in the country since the Bouteflikas left power – denounced on July 10 the call for civilian rule as a “false slogan” produced by people who are “repugnant to the smooth running of the constitutional process”. The same day, Gaïd Salah expressed his support for interim President Abdelkader Bensalah extending his term despite the end of his mandate on July 9.

By causing the downfall of the incapacitated president and his brother, “the popular movement strongly shifted the balance of power within le système, so the army command has taken the lead to play a paternalistic role,” explained Amina Afaf Chaieb, a committee member of the Algerian civil society movement Ibtykar, in an interview with FRANCE 24. It is in this context that Gaïd Salah has “been addressing political and judicial matters in an increasingly uninhibited way”.

Indeed, Gaïd Salah’s expression of support for Bensalah staying in office was not the first time that the army chief has outraged the popular movement by endorsing a violation of the rule of law.

Thirty-four protesters have been arrested since June 21 for bearing the flag of the Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. “The fact that Berber culture and the Berber language are enshrined in the constitution means that people just can’t be thrown in prison for bearing the flag; besides, Article 1 of the Algerian penal code stipulates that there is no crime and punishment outside of the law,” pointed out Zoubida Assoul, leader of the opposition Union for Change and Progress party and part of a group of around 30 lawyers representing the detainees, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

A ‘soft coup’

Gaïd Salah lambasted the flag-bearers and expressed disregard for the law as it actually stands: “We have one flag – a flag for which millions of people have fallen to their deaths as martyrs, [and] firm orders and instructions have been given to the security forces to strictly enforce our laws and to deal with any individuals who try to stir up Algerians’ feelings about this sensitive and delicate subject.” he said on June 19.

In light of such actions by the country’s rulers as the Bensalah’s unconstitutional mandate extension and the arrests over the Berber flag, “activists are very concerned that the regime is going back to business as usual; that there was a partial purge of the elite but now they are starting to crack down on civil society”, said William Lawrence, a North Africa specialist at George Washington University, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“What we’ve seen is effectively a soft coup – like in Sudan; they’ve kicked out the leader and the military have taken over, but they’re not giving power to the protesters,” he continued. That said, “at least in Sudan they have a plan, whereas there’s nothing like that in Algeria”.

But despite the government contravening the rule of law – and the trenchant language with which Gaïd Salah has justified these breaches – protesters and analysts argue that the popular movement remains determined to press its demands.

“Nothing can stop the Algerian people, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain; people who hope that the protesters will exhaust themselves are mistaken – they even demonstrated during Ramadan; they will never stop,” Madjid Messaoudene, an Algerian protester and a councillor in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, told FRANCE 24.

“This movement is not merely a series of demonstrations; it is an organic dynamic of citizens and civil society that has matured and transformed within the last four months and will continue transforming, a factor which I believe will contribute to the emergence of new political figures and formations in the medium run,” Afaf Chaieb added.

‘It’s risky business, we feel anxiety’

Indubitably, protesters’ success in getting Bouteflika to renounce his desire for a fifth mandate, followed by a fruitful ramping up of demands – for Bouteflika to resign, then for various members of his inner circle to be held accountable for corruption – shows the popular movement’s ability to gather momentum.

“The way in which protesters are still shifting their claims so that they’re demanding more and more – to the point where they’re now asking for free and fair elections – shows that the movement remains strong,” said Emmanuel Dupuy, the head of the IPSE think-tank in Paris, whose area of expertise includes Algeria, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Indeed, a group of opposition politicians and civil society figures convened on in the “National Forum for Dialogue” on July 6. It concluded with calls for “free and pluralistic” elections “in a period of six months” and the formation of a body to organise such a vote, consisting of people chosen by “the parties of dialogue with the exclusion of symbols of the former political regime”.

However, it remains to be seen whether demonstrators could get the regime to accede to their demands for Bensalah’s resignation followed by elections along liberal democratic lines.

The government had initially scheduled presidential elections for July 4, but they were rejected by the popular movement. Only two little-known figures put themselves forward shortly before the deadline, and Algeria’s constitutional council invalidated their candidacies and consequently called off the poll on June 2.

“All we want is negotiations, elections and democracy,” Jamal Berber, a prominent member of the civil society group Stand Up Algeria, told FRANCE 24. However, as things stand, “we wouldn’t engage in elections when there is really no freedom of the press”, he said. In the meantime:“We carry on demonstrating, doing everything to make it possible for the movement to carry on for a long time – but it’s risky business; we feel anxiety.”

“For a protest movement to stay big, it needs catalysing events,” said Lawrence. “Except for blocking protests, which is pretty routine, the regime has played its cards right by not killing people – by not creating martyrs. It’s been a very careful operation.”

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