Bouteflika has resigned. Now the real work must begin

Bouteflika has resigned. Now the real work must begin
Comment: The army helped toppled Bouteflika, but they are no ally of the people, writes Malia Bouattia.
7 min read
04 Apr, 2019
Bouteflika was in office for almost 20 years [Getty]
On Tuesday, 2 April 2019, after a little over a month of mass demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins carried out by millions of Algerian workers, students, unemployed, housewives, shop owners, and others, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his resignation. 

It had become clear, a few days earlier, that his time had finally come, after almost two decades in power - at least six of them in an unfit medical state to exercise his function as president of the republic - when the head of the Algerian army, Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, supported popular demands for his removal.

There should be no doubt however, that Salah did so under the immense pressure of the streets, universities, and workplaces of Algeria.

Indeed, the army should not be understood as an ally of the revolution. It was the army that ruled behind Bouteflika since the latter's debilitating stroke in 2013, and the army that stood by him until it was forced by popular anger to take a step sideways in an attempt to salvage its rule.

It is also the army that will stand in the way of the revolutionary desire for greater democratisation and social justice in the months and years to come. The army pushed Bouteflika to save itself, but in doing so it has left no fig leaf between its power and the people.

As soon as Bouteflika's resignation was made official, millions of Algerians streamed into the streets of the country's cities and towns. The joy was exhilarating. Young and old danced, chanted, sang, and cried at the sight of what their weeks of efforts had achieved. There are few sights more beautiful than that of a people mobilised and victorious.

However, the mood went well beyond celebration. The air was electric and filled also with the seriousness of what comes next. The calls for next Friday's demonstrations to be bigger still, started immediately.

It is also the army that will stand in the way of the revolutionary desire for greater democratisation and social justice in the months and years to come

In a sense, as well as celebrating, the millions in the street were, once again, demonstrating their power. They were showing the regime that they are still out there, still mobilised, and still going. They do not accept the narrative that it was the army solving the crisis. 

For the protesters, the feeling that the work has only just started was overwhelming, and is captured in the slogan, "Yatnahawga3" ('They've all got to go'), that by now represents the movement more than any other. The chant borrowed from the Tunisian revolution threatening both Ali Baba and his 40 thieves, also echoes through the streets.

Very few are under any illusion that Bouteflika's resignation is the end of the movement. It seems clear instead that it is but the beginning, in all walks of life.

Algerian workers from the civil service to the strategically vital natural gas and oil industries, have been striking repeatedly over the past month, and have not limited their demands to the removal of the president.

Abdelmadjid Sidi-Said, the general secretary of the General Union of Algerian Workers - the official and regime-controlled trade union federation - has been repeatedly associated with the regime and called on to step down.

This is important because workers are not only demanding the end of the regime, but also fighting to wrestle control over their own institutions of struggle and resistance. A similar logic has been at play in universities were students have organised mass assemblies to discuss where next, and put visions of the future forward.

Much has been written, since the demonstrations started in late February, on the parallels between the Algerian movement and the Arab spring, which rocked the Middle East and North Africa between 2011 and 2013.

These links are important. Not only because they erupted over similar issues - the main slogan of the time was 'Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice', which is entirely appropriate to describe the Algerian Revolution also - but because they carry important lessons for the Algerian people in the years ahead (as well as for the Sudanese people, whose own struggle to remove their repressive regime resurged 100 days ago).

The experience of the people of the region shows that while the removal of a figurehead is a critical achievement, it is also a sign the regime is adapting its survival mechanism and manoeuvring to remain in control.

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, strikes and demonstrations were also able to behead their oppressors, but not long after, the monster grew another head. Either the beast is taken out completely, or it will survive.

Similarly, the experience of the rest of the region shows that the root reasons for the uprisings - poverty, unemployment, political subjugation, and inequality - have not been resolved. The regimes long-term responses have universally been to strengthen their repressive apparatus, instead of addressing popular demands. The task of the Algerian people is therefore clear.

Very few are under any illusion that Bouteflika's resignation is the end of the movement

The frame of reference is not only external, however.

Many involved in the demonstrations have talked about finishing the revolution that wrested independence from France in 1962. Lest we forget the political processes for greater liberation launched in the 1980s, in what was then already called the Berber Spring, after the populations of the northern region, Kabylia, had protested.

Algerians take to the streets to celebrate President Bouteflika's resignation [Getty]

In 1988 there the were the October Riots that also saw demonstrators call for greater freedom and democracy, for better redistribution of the country's wealth, and for finishing the revolution that had kicked out the French, but still not put the people in power, despite the constitution's more inspiring rhetorical flourishes.

Placing the current uprising in a local as well as regional context is important, not only because it is crucial to understanding the current Algerian revolution as the synthesis of anticolonial, as well as Arab and Berber, struggles, but also because it represents an important lesson for both the people and the regimes across the region.

Indeed, during the 1990s and up to the early 2000s Algeria went through a bloody civil war. A brief experience with democratisation had brought the Islamic Salvation Front to power, and, fearing for its continued influence and control, the army organised a coup.

Middle Eastern and North African rulers should take note. They can buy time, but they cannot buy the people

What followed was a decade of massacres, assassinations, and repression - the Black Decade, as it became known in Algeria.

In its aftermath, both Algerian officials and international commentators explained confidently that the possibility of further Algerian uprisings had gone.

The trauma and the violence of the 1990s were too powerful. The people would not take the risk again.

The fact that the Arab Spring did not cross the border from neighbouring Libya and Tunisia was seen as further proof of this 'truth'.

Yet, here we are. All the violence, all the repression, all the destruction and the pain, bought the regime little more than a decade of peace and quiet. Now, the people are back once again, demanding what is theirs.

The Algerian revolution is demonstrating to the region, as much as it is to its rulers, that popular anger can be repressed but does not disappear.

That for all the grand Orientalist theories about the authoritarian nature of the local culture or religion, the desire for freedom and equality that led to the overthrow of colonialism, remains a burning fire within our people.

Middle Eastern and North African rulers should take note. They can buy time, but they cannot buy the people.

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.