A human tide flooded the streets of Algiers on Friday, and those of all the other major cities in the country, from east to west and from north to south, to protest the current president’s intentions (or, if not his directly, those of the powers-that-be) to run for a fifth term in the April 18 elections. The country has never seen such massive crowds, numbering in the hundreds of thousands according to the El Watan daily.
In Algiers, the protesters started at different points of the city and converged onto the central Audin Square. The tear gas canisters used by the police in some parts of the city (May 1 Square, Rue Didouche Mourad) did not deter the demonstrators, who continued the march, unwilling to respond to provocations. Their objective was to protest before the headquarters of the president’s office—which was empty, as President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was still in Geneva on Friday, where he had been admitted for medical tests.
Moreover, the state of Bouteflika’s health, after the stroke he suffered in 2013, makes it impossible for him to have contact with the public, and also impossible for him to actually govern. The young people who started these protests—which, within a week, were taken up by students, lawyers and journalists—have never known any other president except Bouteflika, who has been in power for 20 years. His political career began as foreign minister during the rule of Boumediene.
“The Battle of Algiers, part II,” someone wrote on Twitter, likely referring to fact that Djamila Bouhired, one of those who fought in the Battle of Algiers in 1962, is taking part in the protests. This is a sign that the popular movement that started on Feb. 22 (a date that has historic importance for the Algerians) no longer includes just young people—even though 45% of Algeria’s population is under 25—but has managed to include and bring together the older generations who fought, and are still fighting, for a “free and democratic Algeria” (one of the slogans of Friday’s march). One can see this in the makeup of the crowds filling up the squares: many young people, but also many not so young, men and women, whole families.
Perhaps it was because of their age that the young people who started it could not be scared off by the fearful specter of the “black decade” of terrorism in the ‘90s, which left its mark on all who lived through it. Prime Minister Ahned Ouyahia tried to play that card last Thursday, in a speech before the National Assembly where he spoke about the protests for the first time.
“I remember 1991, it was like today. I am reading now that there is a call for a strike, and I recall the strike of 1991,” he said, trying to make a clear parallel with the beginning of that dark period in the country’s history. However, back then, the real culprits were the Islamists, who hijacked the protests that had been called by the unions and left-wing politicians after the latter were imprisoned, and called for a general strike as a pretext to seize power. Now, the protests are absolutely secular (they did not even wait for the end of the Friday prayers), and, above all, peaceful: “Silmya!” (“Peaceful!”) is the defining slogan for this particular “intifada.”
The government has to be careful, because a violent repression like those in the past would give an opportunity to the Islamists. In his speech, Ouyahia made another ominous parallel: “Citizens gave roses to the police. I remember that in Syria it began like that as well.” It is no coincidence that one of the slogans of the protesters on Friday was a direct response: “Algeria is not Syria.”
Even in Syria, however, the roses did not cause the war, but foreign interference did. The Algerian prime minister did not fail to invoke the specter of “foreign interference” as well, seizing on the fact that the calls to join the marches are “anonymous.”
The demonstrations, organized via social media, have not been called by political parties or groups, although several civil society organizations have added their support, and some opposition politicians were also in the streets yesterday. Women have been a massive presence, echoing their traditional battle cry from the time of the Algerian War of Independence: “youyou,” now a hopeful call for a victory that is yet to come.
There were many girls holding signs who were demonstrating for the first time, as well as women who remembered their 1994 demonstrations against terrorism, during a time when it took a lot of courage to go out into the streets. These demonstrations are not only peaceful, but also very happy, even joyous, perhaps because there hasn’t been any repression so far. The slogans and messages are also full of irony, to which cartoonists such as the famous Dilem have also brought their contribution.
The desire for change, and for putting an end to a system that has kept the country in a political impasse, is patently obvious, but it will be necessary to move on to a more proactive stage. Meanwhile, Sunday is the last day when the candidatures for the presidential elections can be submitted. It’s hard to imagine that Bouteflika’s supporters would give up on running their candidate, but they will have to do so in the face of the marchers’ opposition.
Is it possible that the elections on April 18 will be suspended? This too seems unlikely. Among the proposals that have been put forward, one calls for selecting a constituent assembly for drafting a new constitution. This process, however, cannot be left in the hands of those currently in power, otherwise nothing would change. After the test of strength now playing out between the two sides, the future remains fraught with unknowns.