“We want justice”: what are the demands of Algeria’s protest movement?

Thursday 7 March 201910:22 am
"There are people who sleep without dinner because of the elite. How can a person who earns $200 a month support a family?” This anguished cry is of 30 year-old Abdul Jalil, one of the participants in the demonstrations in the town of Beleida against ailing Algerian president Bouteflika’s fifth presidential term. "The problem is big and the demand is simple," he said. "If the authorities cared a little about the people this wouldn’t have happened. We know the country and know its resources are enough to provide for everyone. We want justice, is that such a difficult demand?" Abdel Jalil is a single young man who does not own a home and lives with his family in a working class neighborhood. He is like millions of young Algerians in a country with a population of 42 million, 54 percent of whom are under the age of 30. "I swear by God, now that I am talking, tears are filling my eyes,” he said. “We want to meet the demands of the movement and I do not care if this happens at the expense of my life." Abdul Jalil's voice is one of the voices of the young Algerians who launched a movement on February 22,  which is against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s (who has ruled Algeria since 1999) presidential bid for a fifth term. Demonstrations spread across Algerian cities culminated in a million man march on Friday, March 1. Bouteflika did not respond to the protesters' demands and submitted his candidacy papers to the Constitutional Council on March 3, pledging to hold early presidential elections in which he would not participate, one year before his victory in the April 18, 2019 presidential elections and to hold a referendum to amend the constitution. Bouteflika's pledges, or those of the ones using him as a  political frontman (the president suffered a stroke in 2013 and seems incapable of talking) did not satisfy the protesters who believe the pledges are a weak attempt to stem the demonstrations.

"Bouteflika means the regime"

Though it may seem that the rejection of Bouteflika's candidacy dominates the conversation about the demonstrations, it is only the first in a long list of demands that aim to “change the regime.” "The ship is has one captain, but it can not sail without a crew,” said Abdul Jalil. “The problem does not lie in one person, but in an entire system. The movement started spontaneously and is due to the deterioration of the situation in Algeria politically, economically, socially and culturally in the last 20 years under this regime." "The rejection of Bouteflika's candidacy is the rejection of the whole system and its agents," said Anwar Sulaimani, an Algerian political activist and doctoral student at the University of Leeds. "We believe that the structure of this corrupt and corrupting system is indivisible and we can not reject the form without rejecting its content, and therefore the issue in essence is to oppose the reality that we live in."   A protestor in Bleida, Hamza Abdel Rahman, 28, said that "the people want to pump new blood in the presidency of the Republic," but added that "the Algerian people also went out to overthrow the entire system of corruption, and do not forget the Algerian demand for political openness without exclusion of any Algerian citizen, as well as economic and social reforms. " Islam Taboush, 29, an activist from the city of Setif, said the protests aimed at ”changing the regime and overthrowing the ruling criminal gang." "We are not only against the fifth term, but against the ruling criminal gang,” he said. “We will not stop until this regime changes and all sovereignty returns to the free Algerian people and without a guardian from either the military or the mafia.” He added: "The people went out to the street because the existing authority marginalized us and deprived us of the rights of citizenship and seized the wealth of the country and squandered it. We  are ruled by a corrupt mafia and Bouteflika is just part of it government and so him standing down is not enough The people want a radical change of the system, new faces and a new constitution that will restore real sovereignty."

The army, the strong player

The system of government in Algeria is shrouded in mystery. However, the army has played a key role in the management of the government since 1991, when it abolished the results of the legislative elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front, an action that inaugurated the period of civil war known as the "black decade,” which ended in 2002, after tremendous losses which led Algerians away from demands for political change due to fear of reprisals. This is no secret to the demonstrators. Soleimani said the regime to him included the military, corrupt businessmen and cronies of the president. “Our miserable reality is the result of the actions of the army, the intelligence agency and Bouteflika over decades,” he said. “Algeria needs real democracy, the goal of which is building a humane state bound by law, a state for citizens.” After decades of political oppression in Algeria, only 17% of citizens are now interested in politics, according to a poll published last week by the Arab Barometer, an independent research network that has been conducting opinion polls in the Middle East and North Africa since 2006. One of the problems faced by the Algerian movement is the lack of leaders or organizations capable of speaking in its name and negotiating the fulfillment of its demands. Algerians do not trust their political parties, which no longer have the confidence of 14% of the people, according to the Arab Barometer poll, and  they do not trust the political institutions such as government and parliament, as well as the judiciary. This lack of confidence is exemplified by the chants that rose against political figures who came to the streets to join the protests, such as the head of the Algerian National Front Moussa Touati, the head of the Workers' Party and previously a candidate in the 2014 presidential elections. However, according to the same survey, 74% of Algerians trust the army and 60% trust the police. This means that the military is better able to control the course of events in the next phase. When Algerian citizens talk about the army, they speak in a rather idealistic way, distinguishing between "the army as an institution" and "those who control the army, which draws from the people," said Islam Tabboush. Abdel Rahman, the activist from Bleida, said he was optimistic that the army, which "has a big say in appointing the presidents of Algeria," will stand with the people and the demonstrators. "I hope the army will stand by the people, or at least  be neutral because at the end of the day all the security services will represent a percentage of the people," said Abdul Jalil the other activists who took part in the Bleida protests. Sulaimani, the doctoral student, said: “Anyone sane knows that the army represents the people and enmity can’t arise between the two parties nor can the military institution be sacrificed in order to benefit the sick president and his corrupt cronies.” But he said the army’s leaders were not in tune with the masses, and said he hoped future generations would create a professional military.

Future scenarios

Not long ago Algerian analysts posited that  former Foreign Minister Ramtan Lamamra and former National People's Assembly Speaker Said Bouhja could be Bouteflika’s successors. But their names were absent from the list of candidates presented to the  Constitutional Council, which makes it impossible to conceive of what will happen next. Among the names of the candidates is Ali Ghadiri, a former general who has risen in prominence in the last three years after resigning from the army after 42 years of service and working as Secretary General and Director of the Ministry of Defense, meaning he has a great deal of insider information about the army. Ghadiri resigned in 2015, in conjunction with dismissal of one of the most powerful men in Algeria - the former commander of military intelligence, General Mohamed Mediene, which has led many to hypothesize that retired generals will play an important role in the next phase as they may be the only force capable of confronting the army and its leader General Ahmed Kayed Saleh. "Until now, we can not predict future scenarios," said Anwar Sulaimani. "Demonstrators do not know how the regime will deal with their movement as a result of the lack of information." Sulaymani believes that “the conflict between decision-makers may increase over time as the pressure of the street increases.” “Perhaps some of them will push for political openness that  will protect the country and its people because Algeria cannot tolerate more internal conflicts, especially since the region is currently ablaze,” he said. “But regime figures may push to suppress the protest which will push the country into a situation that we as Algerian youths are warning against.” There is no clarity on the future so far. What can be expected is that the army needs time to rearrange the political scene in Algeria. This opportunity could be provided by Bouteflika's new presidential term but it seems that the demonstrators will not accept it. Many demonstrators are demanding that elections be postponed and a road map be drawn that will lead to the departure of Bouteflika and his government and the formation of a transitional government led by a credible council of national figures, followed by the election of a constitutional council to draft a new charter and submit it to a referendum. This would be followed by general elections and a debate defining the role of the military. Some analysts are predicting that there will be a postponement of the election under pressure from the army with the pretext of maintaining security. And even if the protesters insist on the peacefulness of their demonstrations it would be to provoke armed clashes that prompt the “trusted” army to intervene to "preserve the homeland." But some Algerians reject this because they consider postponement of the elections as a means to allow the army to come up with an exit strategy that would prolong their sway over Algerian political life. Among them is Mohamed Elias Rahmani, a former Algerian intelligence officer based in Paris and the founder of the Party of Living Forces, which calls for "elections and not a transitional period,“ voicing his belief that this the only chance to pull the rug from under the feet of the military establishment.
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