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Unrest simmers in Algeria

Algerians protesters carry placards and shout slogans during a demonstration for the departure of the Algerian regime in Algiers, Algeria, 14 June 2019.According to media reports, former Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal has jailed in an anti-corruption crackdown - the second former head of government in two days to be sent to prison while his case is investigated with Algeria's Supreme Court. Photo: Billal Bensalem/NurPhoto via Getty Images - Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

As unrest in the African giant simmers, Paul Knott explains what is behind the protests and the bloody history the country has yet to leave behind.

Algeria has always been different. It largely avoided the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East in 2010-12. But the struggle its people are now waging against their oppressive government is one of the most significant events in the world today.

The ongoing peaceful mass protests began, appropriately enough, in the spring, when the autocratic government in Algiers nominated long-standing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika for another term in power.

The 82-year-old Bouteflika had clearly been seriously ill for several years, being immobile, unable to speak and rarely seen in public. He was widely believed to be a puppet for the ruling clique known in Algeria as ‘le pouvoir’ (‘the power’).

Many Algerians saw le pouvoir’s attempt to use the incapacitated Bouteflika as cover for their continued grip on the country and its wealth as an intolerable insult to their dignity.

Millions of people poured onto the streets to protest. After several weeks, their efforts forced Bouteflika’s resignation at the beginning of April.

This success was unique in the recent history of the region, in that a president was deposed without being forced into exile, as in Tunisia, jailed, as in Egypt or killed, as in Libya.

Nor, thankfully, has there yet been a Syrian-style violent backlash by the authorities. Instead, the situation remains delicately poised.

After Bouteflika’s fall, another old regime figure, General Ahmed Gaid Saleh, took over the de facto leadership of Algeria, where the army has long been a significant part of le pouvoir. Saleh has made several aggressive speeches against the protestors and their quest for civilian rule. But he alternates these outbursts with attempts to appease the public.

Assorted members of the old business and political elite have been imprisoned and Saleh has twice proposed a form of elections.

These steps have been rejected by large swathes of the population, who see them as cosmetic manoeuvres by the establishment, particularly the military, designed to ensure their continued hold on power.

Some regime opponents point out that the term of Saleh’s placeman as interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, expired in July and that the government no longer has any constitutional authority to do anything anyway.

Mass protest marches are continuing to take place twice a week. Numerous citizens groups have sprung up, although the freedom and democracy movement has yet to produce any obvious leaders.

The people’s demands, however, are clear. They want a fully democratic civilian government, stripped of any involvement by the military and officials associated with the old regime.

Popular chants at the protests include “No to a military state” and, even more provocatively to the authorities, “Remember, we got rid of Bouteflika” and “It’s us or you, and we are not going to stop”.

While there have been some arrests, no protestors have died directly at the hands of the regime. In a state noted for its brutal ruthlessness, it seems remarkable that such marches are being permitted to take place through streets lined with non-intervening security forces.

The reasons for this uneasy calm are various. Some observers suggest one straightforward explanation is that the regime cannot rely on its rank-and-file soldiers to use force against the people of whom they feel a part.

Another explanation is that, despite having all the weaponry, those in power know their arms cannot cow so many people and fear the personal consequences of the vengeance that could result should they attack the protestors.

Other more complex reasons for the uprising’s peacefulness so far can, conversely, be found in Algeria’s violent modern history.

The previous attempt at instituting greater democracy in 1991 resulted in disaster. An election win by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) prompted a military coup against the reformist president Chadli Bendjedid and the annulment of the elections. The vicious civil conflict that followed between the Islamists and the armed forces cost more than 100,000 lives.

Known as the ‘dirty war’, it raged on until 2001 and was infamous for its appalling massacres of civilians. These abuses were mostly conducted by the extremist bands that split off from the FIS, such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). But the military were also implicated in some shameful incidents.

Perhaps the only saving grace of this awful period is the extent to which it has discredited the hardcore Islamists in the eyes of many Algerians.

Algeria’s bloody 1954-62 war of independence from France remains a pivotal part of the nation’s consciousness too. The struggle was a seminal event in the history of decolonisation.

Algeria was first occupied by France in 1830. Unusually, the French considered it an integral part of their nation, rather than a colony.

In addition to the usual small administrative elite from the metropolitan power, more than a million ordinary Europeans had settled in Algeria by the 1950s.

Many were at least third generation residents there. They lived in uneasy coexistence with nine million indigenous Arabs and Berbers.

Despite France’s protestations that Algeria was not a colony, the status and rights accorded to the Arabs and Berbers were far inferior to those enjoyed by the Europeans.

A campaign for equality quickly evolved into one for outright independence. Increasing French oppression, including mass imprisonment, torture and murder, was matched by ever more militant Arab and Berber resistance.

Moderate pro-equality and independence groups were usurped, sometimes violently, by the National Liberation Front (FLN).

The downward spiral of violence included acts of terrorism by the FLN against the European population and by French hardliners against Muslims, as both sides fought bitterly for control of what they saw as their home and territory.

Finally, president de Gaulle concluded that the toxic nature of the conflict was damaging France itself and agreed to Algerian independence in 1962.

The memories of these national traumas and fears of sparking bloodshed again partly explain why Algerians were reluctant to engage in the original wave of Arab Spring protests – until the attempt by le pouvoir to extend Bouteflika’s mandate finally snapped the strained relationship between the regime and the people.

In some respects, the claim to be the true inheritors of the independence struggle is central to the current contest.

Except – arguably – for the period of direct military rule during the civil war, the FLN has, in one form or another, governed Algeria ever since the French departed.

Its ageing remnants and their successors are still prominent in the regime and the armed forces.

Despite the FLN’s descent into autocracy and corruption, its role in the liberation struggle as the representative of the Algerian people remains the thread that supports its claim to legitimacy.

But this claim is now contested by the mass of people in whose name the independence struggle was fought and whose predecessor generations bore the bulk of the fighting’s consequences.

The outcome is not only of crucial importance to Algeria. The country became a beacon for many other peoples during the decolonisation era.

Equally, a successful transition there now could give renewed impetus to freedom-seekers across a North Africa and the Middle East region that has largely sunk back into suffocating autocracy.

Oil and gas-rich Algeria is Africa’s largest country. It is the gateway to the vast Sahara region and located a short distance across the Mediterranean from Europe.

This geopolitical prominence makes Algeria vital to those two continents too. Both would benefit hugely from having a democratic, stable and prosperous Algeria on their doorsteps. Whether that comes to pass remains in the balance.

The shadowy figures of le pouvoir have always fought ruthlessly to preserve their power and privileges. While refraining from risking full-scale repression, they are increasingly adopting lower-level forms of harassment such as temporary detentions and blocking access to opposition meeting places.

Even so, the sense is that the slight advantage lies with the people and protestors. They will probably need to coalesce around a clear group of leaders to succeed. But they have clearly overcome their history-induced fears and appear determined to continue demonstrating until their demands are met.

If they do indeed maintain their massive numbers and brave persistence, then it is hard to see what viable tools the regime has available with which to resist them.

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