There is a dramatic scene towards the end of “The Battle of Algiers”, the 1966 feature film that tells the true story of the uprising against French colonial rule in Algerian capital in the late 1950s. The French army has fought the guerrilla forces of the pro-independence National Liberation Front (FLN) in the narrow streets of the city’s Casbah and after atrocities on both sides the uprising has been crushed. The French thought they had stamped out the Algerian movement for independence, only to find ordinary people coming onto the streets to demand that very thing. A French officer stands before one such crowd and after a vain appeal for the protesters to disperse, calls out in confusion and desperation: “What to you want?” Through the drifting smoke comes the gradually strengthening cry: “Isitiqlal!” (Independence).
The scene dramatically illustrates the inability or unwillingness of the French colonial authorities to grasp the aspirations of ordinary Algerians. How ironic then that, over half a century later, one of the leaders of the FLN in the long and bitter fight for the independence of Algeria appears equally unable to appreciate the demands and aspirations of the overwhelmingly young population of Algeria today.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, one of the stalwarts of the FLN from it earliest days, has been president of Algeria now for twenty years. Even in 2014 when he last stood for election there were widespread popular protests against him being a candidate for a fourth term. Wheelchair-bound after a stroke in 2013, Bouteflika hardly ever appears in public and has not given a speech for five years. There are few people who doubt that the ailing president is simply the face of the opaque clique that exercises real power in the shadows. “Le pouvoir” (the power), as it is popularly known, is thought to be an amalgam of powerful army and intelligence figures, business leaders and the president’s entourage, particularly his brother Said.
So when it was announced that Bouteflika was literally being wheeled out to stand again in the presidential elections in April this year, popular anger boiled over into protests in towns and cities across Algeria. The regime was clearly taken aback by the protests and Bouteflika responded with a letter – widely assumed to have been issued by the regime, since the president was undergoing treatment in a Swiss hospital – that promised political reform and a new constitution if he was re-elected, and that a second election would be held in a year in which he would not stand. Since similar promises were made and broken five years ago, the letter only led to more protests, joined now by doctors, lawyers and other professionals.
Some observers outside the country see the sight of tens of thousands of people on the streets protesting at an ageing and out of touch president and a regime that has lost legitimacy and conclude that Algeria is finally facing its Arab Spring moment, after largely escaping the uprisings of 2011. While some of the same factors that led to the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere – economic malaise, corruption and autocratic governance – apply equally to Algeria, the protests are more understandable in the context of the recent history of the country.
When he came to power in 1999, Bouteflika was widely credited with bringing to an end the “dark decade” in Algeria when radical Islamist militias fought the army in a brutal civil war in which up to 200,000 civilians are thought to have been killed. Bouteflika instituted a necessary programme of national reconciliation, but he failed to revive the move towards democracy that his predecessor Chadli Bendjedid had instituted in the late 1980s. This programme had been begun in response to earlier protests against economic and political problems exacerbated, then as now, by declining oil prices. These protests were suppressed by the army with the death of hundreds.
Bendjedid’s ideas of genuine political parties to challenge the all-powerful FLN in the parliamentary elections in 1991 came to a juddering halt when the Islamist party the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round. The army stepped in, cancelled the second round of the election, arrested FIS members and deposed Bendjedid. Not only did this lead to the emergence of the murderous Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and other militias and a decade of bloodletting, but the experiment in democracy was quietly shelved.
Thankfully the army has refrained so far from responding violently to the latest popular demands for an end to one-party rule by an unaccountable clique. Instead they have relied on fear. The prime minister warns that peaceful protests could lead the country into a Syrian-style downward spiral, while the army chief warns he will not allow Algeria to return to the “dark decade.” The demonstrators themselves have kept their protests strictly non-violent, well aware themselves of the failure of the Syrian revolution once it became militarised and the risk of violent groups exploiting the unrest to create chaos. But they have not been intimidated by regime attempts to paint such chaos as the only alternative to one-party dictatorship.
The hope is now that the regime will continue to refrain from suppressing the popular protests, which will clearly grow if the April elections go ahead with Bouteflika as the official candidate. But beyond that “le pouvoir” needs to realise the urgent need to revive the democratisation process begun by President Bendjedid three decades ago. Failure to do so will show that the current rulers of Algeria, no less than France in the last century, fail to appreciate the aspirations of young Algerians and risk bringing about the very social upheavals they seek to avoid.
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