Algeria: A revolution without illusions

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For decades, Algeria was the staid, stolid giant of north Africa. With powerful and well-equipped armed forces, it has been a reliable security partner for the United States in fighting against Islamic extremist groups.

Blessed with oil and gas reserves, it is a steady supplier of gas and petroleum to Europe, giving it enough cash to buy off as well as suppress discontent.

Though it had famously broken with its colonial overlord France following a 1962 war of independence, in some ways it came to resemble “Francafrique,” the term used to describe the corrupt deal-making between European companies and repressive African states.

But over the last seven extraordinary weeks, all presumptions about the nation of forty-two million people were swept away by an unprecedented and unexpected wave of demonstrations that surprised analysts and diplomats, as well as Algerians themselves.

The movement has been compared to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, as well as Algeria’s own late 1980’s political opening that ended with a tragic civil war pitting the armed forces against Islamists.

Now the question is how much change can a leaderless movement that cuts across all walks of life in Algeria and incorporates various political stances bring about, before it splinters, or becomes such a threat to the core of the regime that it invites reprisal.

The protests began in February after longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (or the wheelchair-bound eighty-two-year-old’s handlers) announced his intention to run for a fifth term. The numbers of protesters pouring into the streets week after week waving Algerian flags and that of the country’s Amazigh or Berber ethno-linguistic group rose week after week. Protests drew in laborers, farmers, students, physicians, lawyers, and housewives. Even police officers sometimes joined the joyous demonstrations.

At first, they demanded that Bouteflika not run for a fifth mandate in presidential elections that for years were seen as rigged and pre-ordained. Beyond that, the demands were inchoate. The protest movement is leaderless, organized via calls through social media, especially Facebook, and through informal word-of-mouth networks. The smattering of well-organized, but small opposition parties readily admit they were not behind the protests, and have merely scrambled to catch up with the people.

But as the weeks have gone on, the protesters’ goals came into sharper focus. Manifestos have begun to emerge, and even a transition plan that is endorsed by leftist, liberal, and Islamist parties. It also seems to have won the approval of many of the protesters.

They protesters say they want an end to the domination of the Bouteflika clique. They want gone the corrupt oligarchs getting rich by controlling import monopolies in sectors from sugar to oil to baby formula. They went better accounting of the ways in which the country’s hydrocarbon wealth, diminished since the fall of oil prices, is earned and distributed, especially after several Algerian scandals uncovered mostly by European law enforcement.

They want to shut down le pouvoir; the opaque overlapping networks of businesspeople and military officials that have run the country from behind the scenes for decades.

They want to reclaim public spaces throughout the nation that have been dominated by the security forces.

“Algiers center was a ghost town on Fridays for two decades, and now people got it back,” one Algerian journalist told me. “Without this public space, it wouldn’t have been possible to have these protests.”

The movement has already claimed several heads, including Bouteflika, former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia, and the head of the Algerian business lobby, Ali Haddad. Next on their to-do list is Abdelkader Bensalah, a regime apparatchik who as head of the upper house of parliament is set to become interim head state under Article 102 of the constitution.

But the protesters are now beginning to aim for the heart of the regime, with some demanding an end to the power of the military. They are even openly targeting the army chief of staff, Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, the man who orchestrated Bouteflika’s departure and appears to be attempting to push out Bouteflika without seriously revamping the regime, or leaving even a path to do so.

“Hey Gaid Salah,” they chanted at protests on Friday. “The country is ours, and we will do whatever we want.”

Worries about a violent crackdown may be overstated, but can’t be discounted. More realistically, the movement could sputter out and factionalize into units that are easily crushed or co-opted by the regime.

But Algeria is not Egypt. It’s not Syria. It’s not Libya. It’s not Iraq. The country has its own history, struggles, movements, and dynamics.

It is a nation shaped by 132 years of French occupation and annexation, punctuated by long revolutionary war of independence that produced slogans that are even now used by the protesters. It is a people who suffered through sixty years of economic and political disappointments that included a traumatic, horrific civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead.

That 1990’s conflict, initiated by the army to prevent Islamists from being voted into power, excised some of the more extremist Islamists from Libya’s political scene. But the abuses, outright lies, and subterfuge of the security forces also soured many Algerians on the army and the intelligence services.

There’s very little of the “army and people are one hand” attitude that led Egyptians revolutionaries to falsely believe their aspirations were shared by the military that was the real force behind former president Hosni Mubarak. The Algerian army likely won’t be able to get away with a Rabaa al-Adawiya style massacre of protesters the way Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi did. Its troops and officers may split before they open fire.

Algeria’s intelligence services are recruited from among the elite. They are more likely to invite a dissident to a hotel lobby to describe disappointment about an article rather than pull their fingernails out in some basement.

Algerians may have borrowed slogans from the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, but more importantly they also have the benefit of learning from the mistakes of those who stood up in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. They have refused to romanticize the army. They continue to protest week after week, even as every demand is met. They have for now avoided thorny ideological issues that drove the protest movement in Egypt apart.

“People are not dreamy,” said the journalist. “They are aware that the toughest part is yet to come. And they’d be delusional if they think that getting rid of them is a matter of weeks.”

Two months ago, no one could imagine that Algeria could change so dramatically. The protests in Algeria sprang to life like a raging fire rising from smoldering embers. The quick turn of events in Algeria serves as warning to all the corrupt, brutal Arab autocrats who think because they have the guns and money, they are safe. They are not.

Borzou Daragahi
 is an international correspondent for The Independent. He has covered the Middle East and North Africa since 2002. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @borzou.