The only answer the Algerian regime has been able to give to the two weeks of protests that led millions of people out into the streets was to close the universities 12 days early for spring break, which was set to start on March 22.
The Minister for Higher Education issued the directive that the universities should close from March 10 to April 4. The universities were the original source of the Feb. 22 protests against the candidacy for a fifth presidential term by the current president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. This decision was clearly meant to try to put out the flames of the protests where they were first lit, but it is unlikely to succeed in this regard. Teachers and students were still set to gather and protest today.
All the information is circulating on social media, and there is no shortage of fake news spread on purpose to discredit the protests. However, so far these attempts at discreditation have failed: the strong determination of the protesters, who want to keep the protest silmiya (peaceful) and hadhariya (civil)—as they have written on their signs and banners—has made all provocations unsuccessful.
However, according to the leader of the Workers’ Party, Louisa Hanoune, the provocateurs are still lurking, and some have already infiltrated the demonstrations, expressing extremist views against all political parties, and thus bolstering the narrative of the powers-that-be about the protests. Hanoune recalled how she herself was chased off by a gang of such infiltrators. “Activists and journalists have told us of young men wearing hoods who say they hate all the parties,” Hanoune said.
Even former general Ali Ghediri was threatened by such a group on one occasion because he was a candidate in the upcoming elections. Other politicians, however, seem to have escaped heckling, including the dissidents of the National Liberation Front (FLN).
Despite the massive deployment of riot police, the protests have maintained a joyful and ironic attitude, and the slogans themselves have nothing to do with violence, with many people coming together with the whole family. On the streets, someone joked that next time they should buy a ticket to reserve their spot.
Soccer fans were among the first to help organize the protests, so perhaps the government’s next reaction will be to close the stadiums instead of closing the universities. In that case, however, that might be a lot more trouble than it’s worth. Not to say soccer fans don’t have their priorities straight: during the first weeks of protests in Algiers, the home team’s game ended up postponed.
The demonstrations on March 8 were definitely the most colorful so far: flowers were everywhere, although the police refused to accept the roses the protesters were offering them—because of “orders from above,” they said. All the social categories were represented in the squares, including the artists: a photo of a ballet dancer, Melissa Ziad, dancing along Didouche Mourad Street went viral around the world, with the photographer, Rania G, gaining newfound fame.
The poet Abdenour Hachiche wrote a rebuke on Facebook against those who complained it was a cloudy day: “Don’t say that the weather isn’t great because the sun is not in the sky: today it will be everywhere in the streets.” The Algerian people are hopeful again, and they have taken back the public squares, which had been closed off for demonstrations ever since 2001.
After two weeks of protests, they are eager for positivity. Algerians are waiting with bated breath for the government’s reaction, but Bouteflika, who arrived home from Geneva for medical treatment, apparently has no intention of resigning. According to news sources, the Bouteflika clan was set to meet on Saturday or Sunday to assess the situation and put forward a proposal which could include a postponement of the elections by 10-12 months. In this way, they would hope to both mollify the protesters who are rejecting a fifth term for Bouteflika and push the date forward for a National Conference and the revision of the Constitution.
Such a transition should be managed by an apolitical government, but it doesn’t look like the president’s men are willing to let go of power, even as people in the streets are calling for them to go, together with some parties, such as the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), which is also calling for the dissolution of the Parliament.
On Friday, above the tunnel that connects Place Audin with the Central University, a banner could still be seen with the words: “Presidential elections, together for Algeria.” However, the possibility that the April 18 vote will take place as planned seems remote now. The regime must acknowledge what is happening, but will it be willing to give a response to the people in the streets without trotting out the old bogeyman of the fitna (“chaos”) that would supposedly follow if the current system collapses?
And how will the people in the streets respond if the government has no reasonable proposals to make? In the background of all this lies the “Arab Spring,” which put forward the same type of demands that the powers-that-be leave without supporting a clear alternative (a political attitude for which the term “degagism” was coined), and who generally managed to oust the dictator, but with very different subsequent developments and very different outcomes. Algeria now lies before the possibility of another turning point in its history, after the one in 1988 which led to the end of the single-party system—and one which Islamism managed to profit from.
After the “black decade” of the ‘90s, perhaps the danger of Islamism making a comeback seems to have been fully exorcised, if one judges by the kinds of voices that are rising up in the squares now. However, there are still many unknowns looking ahead.