18 June 2019

Dictatorship and Democracy

Algeria awakes

Traumatised by war and silenced by dictatorship, Africa’s sleeping giant is stirring. A returning exile writes…

By Nourredine Bessadi

February 22 I wake up in Tunis, turn on the TV and stare in disbelief. Millions of Algerians have hit the streets to say no to a humiliating fifth term for Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Algerians haven’t heard from their president for years. He has been ill, absent, supposedly abroad most of the time after a stroke six years ago. There have been strict laws against public gatherings in Algiers for as long as I can remember. Suddenly no one seems to care.

Policemen try to contain a protest against Abdelaziz Bouteflika's rule, which came to an end in April

Even in my most hopeful moments, I couldn’t see this happening, but a collective awakening this big doesn’t just fall from the sky. Algerians are now connected to the world and to each other by social media. They’ve said enough is enough. The wall of fear is broken and the whole country is outside. It’s a moment of great pride.

March 3 Bouteflika promises fresh elections within a year if he is allowed to start a fifth term.

March 11 He gives up on another term but wants to extend his fourth.

Campaigners fear that Bouteflika's departure won't result in lasting change. They still took to the streets the day after he announced his resignation

April 2 Bouteflika is dropped by the military. National television broadcasts footage of a man in his pyjamas, staring into the abyss, handing in his resignation letter after 20 years in power. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army chief, takes over. At 79, he’s three years younger than the old dictator.

April 9 Arriving in Algiers in the evening, I find the city fearful. Police vans seem to outnumber cars. They have orders to suppress a demonstration planned by the trade unions.

April 10 This time, water cannons and tear gas grenades keep most protesters off the streets. The authorities’ new strategy is to try to prevent any public gatherings after Friday prayers.

April 12 A Friday. Police add rubber bullets to their arsenal and use them on a peaceful crowd that includes children and old people. I get my first taste of tear gas and retreat to the Red Cross’s headquarters, close to the heart of the protest on Place Audin. The noise of sirens becomes more frequent and I see one ambulance after another bringing injured demonstrators to the building. The regime is using rubber bullets on teenagers demanding their most basic rights – but at least they’re only rubber. I prepare a story for the NGO I co-founded, the Algiers Herald, an English language media outlet focused on human rights abuses and corruption.

Tear gas canisters pockmark the ground around the protesters

The choice of English isn’t obvious in a place dominated by Arabic, French and Amazigh, the language of the Berber people. But a growing number of young Algerians feel connected to English language international media.

And, of course, to football.

It turns out this revolution started among football fans. Two thirds of Algeria’s 41 million people are under 30 and at least a quarter are unemployed. Football stadiums are where they come together and where the first anti-regime songs were sung.

For people who don’t know the history of my country, a few dates:

1962 A more or less dictatorial system is set up in Algeria with one party, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), resting on its victors’ laurels after the country’s war of independence from France.

Decades later, Algerians still celebrate their country gaining its independence from France

1986 Falling oil prices trigger an economic crisis and political revolt in October 1988. A brief era of multi-party politics and freedom of expression follows, ending in 1992 when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) wins at the polls but is denied power by the army.

1992-2002 The Black Decade. Islamists take up arms and the civil war spares no one. Poets, writers and doctors are assassinated or forced to flee the country. More than 200,000 are killed and thousands more go missing.

1999 A rise in oil prices coincides with the fall of the Islamic ideology. Islamists have been decimated by the army to the point where many started voluntarily turning themselves in. Bouteflika wins election with a Soviet-like 90 per cent vote share, following the withdrawal of all other candidates. Taking part in an election assumed to have been rigged in advance by the army was not something they wanted to be remembered for.

Bouteflika casts his ballot in the 1999 presidential election. Some of his victories were by suspiciously large margins

2001 Anti-Bouteflika protests in the Berber region east of Algiers are violently suppressed: 129 people die.

For nearly two decades since then, petrodollars and the numbing memory of war help to keep the population quiet. The government pays for social peace with cheap housing and long-term loans for virtually anyone with a business plan. Many of these pseudo-entrepreneurs take the loans and leave the country, never to be seen again, but their thieving pales in comparison to that of Bouteflika and his circle. Corruption, Algerians say, is a national sport.

With the arrival of 4G, internet penetration jumps from 20 to 40 per cent, nurturing debate and a “prise de conscience” among Algeria’s youth. The demonstrations of 22 February are prompted by anonymous appeals on the net.

April 23 I join a crowd of students on a march to the centre of Algiers. I’m stopped by a man who asks if I’m a journalist and I say “yes”, unsure if it’s wise among so many plainclothes police officers (you can hear the sound of their walkie-talkies as you walk past). He walks with me for a few metres and says: “You know, if it weren’t for the journalists covering these marches this regime would have used live ammunition on us. They would have eaten us alive.”

The protestors keep on protesting, hoping to see true reform in Algeria

I stay a month. I march in Bejaia and Tizi-Ouzou – in beautiful Kabylia, my native region in the foothills of the Djurdjura mountains – and also in Djanet in the far south east, in the heart of the Sahara. The marches all feel friendly and by the end the people seem determined to continue the struggle until there is a real change in the system; until the old men of the old regime disappear with their liberticidal laws. In cafés and bars and on the streets, people talk only about the movement and what steps to take.

Unfortunately, the same goes for the generals. They’re making plans. When you have more than 15 million people in the streets all coming out at once, there isn’t much you can do but watch. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya learnt that the hard way and our generals learn from them. They wait till Ramadan, when everyone’s too tired and hungry to go out in the heat.

This wasn't a protest of thousands but of millions

Elections are promised, but a system as corrupt as the one in Algeria can’t be changed in a few months. It is deeply rooted. The regime is fighting back with troll factories, disinformation and arbitrary arrests.

June 2 The elections scheduled for 4 July are cancelled. This may be a prelude to reaction and the return of fear. Or it could play to the protesters’ advantage: the timetable for elections set out in the constitution has been torn up, so there is no roadmap to whatever happens next. The battle the Algerian people face could last for years, but at least it has begun.

Further reading

The essential English-language work of history on what brought Algeria to its bleak accommodation with dictatorship (and France to its Fifth Republic) is Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace (New York Review Books Classics).

The Algiers Herald is unique in the Maghreb: a young, independent online news source on a francophone and Arabic-speaking country.

The FT’s latest coverage (£) of post-Bouteflika manoeuvres by the army and Algeria’s pro-democracy movement shows there is everything still to play for – by both sides.