The Arab Revolution Spreads to Algeria

AP Photo/Anis Belghoul
By Farah Mendjour-Ounissi

After months of intense protests across the Arab world that have led to the fall of Presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, one question remains on everyone’s mind: who is next? In Tahrir Square last Saturday, Egyptian protestors chanted "Today Egypt, tomorrow Algeria", positioning Tunisia’s neighbour Algeria as the next domino to fall in this remarkable Arab revolution. 

On the same day, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD), bringing together members of the opposition and Algerian civil society, defied President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ban on demonstrations by walking the streets of Algiers to 1st of May Square, their own Tahrir Square, carrying banners with the message  “Bouteflika dégage!” (Bouteflika, get out!).

It is evident that the success of the Egyptian uprising has breathed new hope into the minds of Algerians by illustrating that Tunisia was not an exceptional case in the region. Geographic proximity and popular chants aside, how far can the revolutionary fervour spread in Algeria and can we really expect a similar outcome?

The answers to these questions are, unsurprisingly, far from clear. As Algerian Foreign Minister, Mourad Medelci, declared on 14 February to the French radio station Europe 1, “Algeria is not Tunisia, Algeria is not Egypt”. Whilst the popular aspirations in Algeria are essentially the same as in Tunisia and Egypt, the context is very different, and the protests appear certain to carry on much longer.

Most importantly, assessing the potential of a popular uprising in Algeria requires consideration of the explosive events of the past thirty years. Algeria is a country with its feet in the past and its eyes gazing into the future. The 1990s, officially called the “Algerian Tragedy”, were characterized by a civil war of intense violence with the Islamists of the Armed Islamic Group, suspension of elections, and the slaughter of many families. These events remain vivid memories in the minds of Algerian citizens. This barbarous civil war left 250,000 "martyrs" whose pictures cover the walls of the local SOS Disparus’s offices. Some of them were casualties of the Islamists, but a significant proportion were victims of the repression enacted by official security forces. These latter victims are excluded from the official narrative of the Algerian state. However, their families retain strong memories of their loved ones and still pursue justice for them.

Similarly, the Berber protests of 2001 against police brutality and poverty, which began in April and lasted almost four months, seriously shook the country once more. Fearful of further protest, the Bouteflika regime banned demonstrations in the capital city, Algiers.

Although there is a recent history of resistance to state rule, as there was in Egypt, it is unclear whether the Algerian people have sufficient confidence to break the existing veil of fear. How many of them would once again be willing to endure weeks of clashes with the authorities, knowing from experience that it could eventually lead to another civil war? Another civil war at a time when memories of wounds of the former have yet to heal.

This leads to another key question: if the current protests escalate, whose side will the army take? The army has been a key factor in other Arab countries; in Tunisia by turning against its government, and in Egypt by paving the way for Hosni Mubarak to stand down. The Algerian Army is a very difficult organization to measure and predict. There is the significant possibility that they might fire live rounds as in 1988, when President Chadli Bendjedid responded to the popular uprising by eliminating prominent opposition figures. Moreover, there is the possibility of a repeat of the systematic repression of 2001, which left 126 young people dead. The young protesters had been demanding justice for the family of student Guermah Massinissa, who had been assassinated by a gendarme in the Berber Wilaya of Tizi Ouzou.

Certainly, going back to the streets to tame the population will be very difficult for the military apparatus; they know that repressive actions have traditionally led to severe political and security crises in the country and unwelcome periods of establishment instability. This is perhaps the crux of the issue, the point of pivot for the Algerian uprising. Should they face the population once more, the military elite will have the dilemma of deciding whether or not Bouteflika is worth the loyalty and price of another period of systemic repression and national instability.

The situation is of serious concern for the government, which fears what the possible outcome of this dilemma could be - fears that were realised in Egypt’s case. Tellingly, Bouteflika has attempted to provide immediate political responses in order to stifle the popular movement. In January, following the demonstrations about the rising costs of living, he opted for a populist approach by rapidly reducing prices of oil and sugar. The prices of these commodities had triggered the initial waves of unrest. More recently, after the protest which followed the fall of Mubarak, he assured the people that in the next few days the state of emergency, which has been in place for the past 19 years, would be lifted. This is reminiscent of the pre-emptive measures taken by other wary leaders, such as in Yemen and Jordan.

Nevertheless, these “Band-Aid” policies do not appear to be sufficient to appease CNCD, which has called for demonstrations every Saturday until the regime collapses. Additionally, the government’s statements appear to have had a very small impact on the disenchanted Algerian youth, particularly young graduates, 21,5 per cent of whom are facing unemployment and great uncertainty about their future. They denounce the incoherence and disparity of an economically prosperous country, which makes US$50 billion profit each year from its gas and oil resources, but whose corrupt elite is a major obstacle to social mobility and job creation for the masses. For them, the ultimate goal is nothing less than the rebirth of their country. 


Farah Mendjour-Ounissi was born and raised in Paris by Algerian parents. She is currently based in London where she studies War Studies and Philosophy at King’s College.


22 February 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Anis Belghoul


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