Algeria's sleeping revolution is reignited

Algeria's sleeping revolution is reignited
Comment: Some said the Arab Spring would never reach Algeria, but as the people cheered on the regional protests, their own revolution was brewing, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
22 Dec, 2020
2019 protests were sparked by the decision to run Bouteflika for a fifth term [Getty]
As many around the world mark the 10-year anniversary since the Arab uprisings, Algerians are likely to reflect on the period quite differently. 

Algeria was often referred to as "the exception" as revolutions swept across the MENA region in 2011, sparked by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. Indeed, as protest movements spread like wildfire across the region - igniting mass uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria - they did not spill over into Algeria. It appeared to have missed the revolutionary wave. But for some Algerians, nothing couldn't be further from the truth.

"We were first", is a claim often made by older generations in Algeria, namely those who took part in the mass protests which erupted in Algeria in the late 1980s against the FLN's one-party rule. They reference the October Riots of '88 when young people, journalists, feminists, academics, students and workers took to the streets calling for a fair political system and an end of state repression.

Despite the violent response by the Algerian regime to demonstrators, the movement was victorious in forcing a more open electoral process.

However, the ruling elite responded to their defeat at the ballot box by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) with a coup d'état and the country soon descended into a decade-long civil war. This is the reason that Algeria's second revolution - the first one being the independence movement against French colonial rule - was overlooked around the world. The history of the revolt was drowned in the blood of the people. 

Many in Algeria would explain that the trauma of the civil war was too strong, and people were too afraid of more bloodshed to take to the streets

Other Algerians recognise with great disappointment their people's absence in the 2011 uprisings, despite the demands highlighted by movements across the region resonating strongly with the poor living conditions in Algeria. Alongside commentators and analysts who wrote about the "Arab Spring", many in Algeria would explain that the trauma of the civil war was too strong, and people were too afraid of more bloodshed to take to the streets.

What is often referred to as the Black Decade claimed the lives of over 250,000 people, and left Algerians terrorised by the violence and state repression that they lived through. By 2011, the majority therefore opted for bearable - and stable - dictatorship and inequality, over the unknown outcomes of civil disobedience.

There were some protests, however, over low wages and the high costs of food staples, but there was also a notable absence of more radical political demands, including the uprooting of the corrupt system in place. Furthermore, contrary to the pattern witnessed across the region, where sitting presidents were initially ousted before regimes unleashed violent counterrevolutions, the Algerian regime immediately responded to the demands with concessions.

From revising national budgets and increasing public sector workers' pay, to lifting the state of emergency, which had hung over the nation for almost 20 years, Bouteflika distributed crumbs in order to appease the discontent. And it largely worked.

I recall conversations with family, shop owners, students and intellectuals as I travelled across Algeria during this time. There was such a strong sense of solidarity for neighbouring populations, and celebrations over each ousted political leader, but the approach at home was that "this was not our time" or that "here, it's different".

Read more:  Algeria's cry: 'They've all got to go,' even the bots!

I could sense a mixture of fear - even among the more politically radical - and hopelessness that there could possibly be an uprising in Algeria. "The Algerian people will never rise up" a university student told me in Algiers, who explained that the protests that were briefly witnessed were also unpopular with broad sections of society who swallowed the propaganda suggesting they were whipped up by external agents from western powers, or self-interested hoodlums. 

In the summer of 2011, academic Hamoud Salhi rightly concluded in his observations of the revolution that wasn't in Algeria during this period: "[i]f the existing socio-economic problems continue, the population will have no choice but to turn to the inevitable: Revolution." 

And turn to revolution they did. 

The supposed changes brought about by the regime in order to stifle the popular desire for protest barely touched the surface in addressing the many problems plaguing the lives of so many Algerians. Poverty, unemployment, a crumbling welfare state, police violence, press censorship, and lots and lots of corruption continued to define the years that followed. 

By February 2019, the collective feeling that the situation was not, in fact, bearable - and that Algeria was not, in fact different - was finally expressed on the streets through mass protests that continued for over a year. Initially sparked by the regime's decision to run Bouteflika for a fifth term, despite him having suffered a debilitating stroke, the revolt rapidly grew into a mass movement calling on the overhauling of the entire political system.

The fact that an entire generation of young people who had not lived with the shadow of the civil war hanging over them were now old enough to express their anger over their desperate futures was key to the uprisings spreading across the country on such a large scale. To borrow from Algerian singer Raja Meziane, as she addressed the regime: "The flood is at your door, the crowd is coming".

The approach at home was that 'this was not our time' or that 'here, it's different'

Whether the Hirak movement in Algeria is the third wave of the Algerian revolution, or part of the second wave of the regional revolutions, matters little. What is important, is that the desire to break free, to restore the power to the people, redistribute wealth, end state violence and defend civil liberties are all demands that resurface time and time again across the region.

Algerians may not have taken part on such a considerable scale in 2011, but as they watched, cheered on and mourned the defeat of mass movements across the MENA region, they also learned many lessons. These included the need to demand that 'They all must go!', not just the head of the regime, as was the case in many countries during the first wave.

The Algerian revolution marched every week, at least twice a week, demanding more. It was not enough that Bouteflika's presidential bid was cancelled; not enough that key regime figures were arrested; not enough that new elections were organised; not enough that a new constitution was drafted.

The people want all the guilty to pay and the entire structure of the regimes to go

The people want all the guilty to pay and the entire structure of the regimes, its sham democratic pretences, and all the parties that supported it to go. This is not about the same with a human face. It is about building a new Algeria, from below, for all. 

The Algerian regime may feel relieved that the pandemic put an end to weekly Hirak demonstrations but it is too late for them to turn the tide. They should remember the words of the late revolutionary Hocine Ait-Ahmed: 

"One day, it will once more be the turn of the people to speak. Even if the night seems long, the day and sun will eventually rise." 

That day, despite the dark clouds and the dangerous storms, is closer now than it has been for 60 years. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.