Bouteflika can't afford to ignore Algeria's angry youth

Bouteflika can't afford to ignore Algeria's angry youth
Comment: 'Only one hero, the people.' Malia Bouattia notes it will be ordinary Algerians, not their rulers, who decide the country's future.
6 min read
01 Mar, 2019
Bouteflika has been Algeria's president since 1999, and plans to stand again in April [Anadolu]

"Not in my name" is the banner under which thousands of Algerian students are demonstrating across the country, in what has been a series of anti-government protests, strike action and sit-ins.

Following the announcement that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will indeed be seeking a fifth mandate in the general elections in April, thousands of people have taken to the streets in opposition.

The mobilisations have been described as unprecedented by some international media outlets, largely because Bouteflika had not faced such visible opposition when he presented himself for a fourth term back in 2014 - despite having suffered a stroke. There is also the claim that the destabilised reality of neighbouring Libya - and Syria - following the Arab Spring in 2011 has quashed any desire for an uprising.

Algerians had already partaken in similar uprisings back in the late 1980s, when thousands of people protested deteriorating living conditions, unemployment, political repression and decades of a single-party rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN). The decade-long civil war which followed had more of an impact on dissuading the masses to repeat any public acts of dissent.

There is also, of course, the fact that Algeria is a military state that hasn't shied away from exercising its force against the people when they show signs of being openly critical of the status quo, let alone attempt to organise others on that basis.

The Algerian state has also been running on the assumption that the collective trauma of the civil war, which took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Algerians during the 1990s, would remain a strong enough memory to stop the people from taking to the streets again. It not only underestimated just how much suffering, state violence and poverty the people have had to endure, but also that the country's young adults are an entire generation who were born after this period, or too young to be politically shaped by its experience.

The scars of their parents aren't as painful for them, and certainly weigh less than the injustices inflicted by the regime today. The youth of Algeria, the majority of the country in fact, is left living in dire conditions, with no jobs, no opportunities, and most of all, no hope.

This is why the actions led by students are so pivotal. It marks the awakening of a considerable section of Algerian society who have grown up surrounded by state corruption, the targeting of political opposition, the continued lack of investment or progress across education and welfare services.

This state of affairs is also made all the more shocking by the fact that Algeria is a key natural gas supplier for Europe. The youth are plagued with the reality that 30 percent of Algerians under the age of 30 are unemployed, and the pursuit of higher education seems to matter little in the improvement of job opportunities.

Algerian university students stage a protest against current president Bouteflika's
decision to run for a fifth term in offfice [Anadolu]

Another contributing factor to the anger of the demonstrators is the support that 11 students' unions have given to Bouteflika's candidacy. Many student protesters claimed this decision was not representative of what the majority of them wanted.

An important development is therefore taking place, and one which is now familiar across the region: the mass organisations of the past have become bureaucratised, detached from the people, as well as from reality. The once powerful pull they exercised across society has considerably weakened and their former base increasingly rejects their leadership.

In that sense the FLN and the Algerian unions are no different than their Syrian, Egyptian, or Libyan counterparts.

The government doesn't seem to have learned its lesson either. During the mass mobilisations, the 3G and 4G networks were shut down in order to disrupt the use of coordinated action via social media. Despite this, and again much like in the mass movements that have rocked the region in the recent past, videos of protests, chants and rallies were being shared across the country, as well as abroad where the diaspora also protested against Bouteflika's potential re-election, in countries such as the UK, France and Canada.

The demonstrations are also no longer limited to Algiers, where they originated. From the capital city, they have now spread to the east of the country in Constantine, to the south in Ourgla, as well as across Kabylia in the north. Similarly, the movement is not limited to students.

Education and textile unions have called for industrial action and several calls for a general strike have been made.

There is no reason to believe that this process is about to slow down. At the time of writing, commentators are expecting large demonstrations following Friday prayers.

The military regime in Algeria has constructed an image of itself as a fortress, cut off from the rest of the world, in an almost painfully disfigured mockery of the once-proud "Mecca of Revolutionaries". Yet, "no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main", as the poet would have it.

The Middle East and North Africa were rocked by the most important revolutionary wave in recent world history. Mighty leaders were brought tumbling down, even if - overall - the broader regimes they represented tended to survive. Eight years on, and despite the utter violence of the counter-revolutions across the region, the people of the region still demand the same three basic things: Social justice, freedom, and bread.

In the past year, mass uprisings have rocked regimes in Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Iraq. Important strike waves have returned to Tunisia and Egypt. The Kurdish people continue to resist against their multiple occupiers, and the Palestinian people launched the heroic marches of return despite the horrors of the ongoing siege on Gaza.

The people of Algeria are not alone in facing crippling poverty, a painful lack of freedom, and a total absence of a better future within the confines of the existing regime.

Their revolt and those of other peoples across the region are one and the same.

There is a famous picture from the Algerian war of independence against the French, in which a mother wearing the traditional white haik and her son walk past a gigantic graffito in the streets of Algiers. It reads: "Only one Hero, the People." These words sound just as true today as they did back then, and they describe the situation in Algeria (and the region) perfectly.

The regime, its institutions, and its representatives have long abandoned those they claim to represent. And it is only through struggle, mass democracy from below, and - unfortunately - still more sacrifice and pain, that Algerians will redraw the future of our beautiful land.

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

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.