Revolution and repression on the streets of Algeria

Revolution and repression on the streets of Algeria
Comment: The president's resignation also marked the start of the counter revolution, but so far, the Algerian people are still one step ahead, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
19 Apr, 2019
'The situation in Algeria remains on a knife edge' writes Bouattia [AFP]
Two weeks ago, after the intervention of the army and Lt General Gaid Salah, president Abdelaziz Bouteflika "announced" his resignation.

Mass demonstrations, strikes and an unprecedented outpouring of joy by the people of Algeria followed the decision. The revolution had achieved its first victory: the end of the Bouteflika era and the first important defeat of the regime since the late 1980s.

The land of the million and a half martyrs had erupted once more and shaken the iron grip of its masters.

Yet, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the president's resignation also marked the beginning of a new phase in the uprising: the start of the counter revolution.

Indeed, after the resignation of Bouteflika, things moved quickly. A number of the former president's family members were arrested and the local press was inundated with stories about the Bouteflika "clan" and their parasitic existence to the detriment of the Republic.

Regime officials and military personnel, often the same men who had supported the fifth mandate only a few weeks before, such as former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahah, appeared in the media to denounce their negative influence and distance themselves from their former associates.

While it is undoubtedly true that Bouteflika's family became very wealthy in the last two decades, the narrative that the problems at the top of Algerian society can be reduced to a handful of brothers and cousins is laughable.

The narrative that the problems at the top of Algerian society can be reduced to a handful of brothers and cousins is laughable

The leadership of the FLN and its offshoot, the Democratic National Rally (RND), as well as the army's top brass have all participated actively in plundering the country's resources, the privatisation of its industries, and the repression of its people.

At the same time, the regime, under the increasingly obvious leadership of Salah, has been preparing the ground for repression.

Repeated calls for a return to normal "now that the people's voice has been heard", alongside the now daily assertion that "foreign hands" are behind the demonstrations, are evidence of regime efforts to buid a legitimising narrative as it attempts to regain control. Officials have also repeatedly called for the army to be trusted with guiding the nation back towards a supposed salvation.

Yet, the mobilisation of the counter revolution has not been limited to rhetoric.

Protesters in central Algiers on April 19, staged their ninth weekly mass rally, vowing to keep up
their demands for sweeping reforms. [AFP]

Tuesday 9 April was marked by a visible shift towards physical repression. Police used water cannons, direct physical violence and tear gas against student protestors in Algiers, repeatedly using tear gas on demonstrators trapped in a tunnel.

Three days later, in an attempt to undermine the weekly Friday demonstrations, a wide "security" perimeter was established around the capital in order to stop identified protestors from joining marches and limiting numbers of participants.

Much like during the Arab Spring a few years ago, women are being targeted in an attempt to break up the demonstrations and force the crowds back to their homes. The regime provoked outrage last week for example when women demonstrators were stopped by the police and forced to endure virginity checks. This action was particularly disturbing, given growing criticism of the protests by the Islamist parties, due to the active participation of women.

The mobilisation of the counter-revolution has not been limited to rhetoric

As I write this, central Algiers is filled with police in riot gear and armoured vehicles in a powerful show of strength in the run up to the next weekly demonstrations and public sector strikes.

Yet the violence is not only official. Growing reports, including in the national media,  are also surfacing of "betalghia" - gangs of paid thugs who infiltrate the demonstrations and act as agents provocateurs - playing an increasingly active role in attempting to destabilise the mobilisations and invite police repression.

Yet the Algerian people have neither been fooled nor deterred.

In the words of one older man during the 9 April demonstration in Algiers, "This is the second half".

Strikes and demonstrations have continued, as well as the mass gatherings in the street and universities. When authorities have attempted to close university buildings, students and staff have simply met in the campus' parking lot.

The public sector is still shut down by industrial action, and workers continue to hold demonstrations demanding the resignation of Sidi Said - the regime stooge who runs the national trade union federation. Teachers in particular are on the forefront of the labour movement.

New demands have also emerged. Most importantly, the movement has stated that no national electoral process is to take place without the resignation of "the Three Bs": The constitutional counsel chairman, Tayeb Belaiz, Prime Minister Nourredine Bedoui, and interim president, Abdelkader Ben Salah. 

Salah was elected to fill the role until the next general election by a parliament from which any semi-credible opposition figures have resigned, making him the effective regime caretaker until Bouteflika's succession to the throne is appointed.

This is a key demand. Not only does it de-centre the movement's demands from around the person of Bouteflika, thereby also undermining the regime's narrative of isolated guilt, but it also puts down a clear roadmap towards a possible democratisation process.

Indeed, by acknowledging the complicity of the so-called elected officials of the republic, the movement demands a considerable weakening of the regime's control before returning to the ballot box.

An important victory was achieved earlier this week with the resignation of Belaiz, the chairman of the constitutional counsel, the body in charge of validating candidates and running elections.

The situation in Algeria remains on a knife edge.

The regime continues to play catch-up with the power of the people

On the one hand, the regime is now vying for blood and attempting to ramp up the repression. On the other, the scale and energy of the movement as well as its impressive levels of internal discipline have so far made any such attempts useless.

It does appear however, that the regime has managed to reunite its own side in preparation for a more active onslaught. Belaiz' resignation proves though, that the power of the popular mobilisation cannot be ruled out quite yet, and that the regime continues to play catch-up with the power of the people.

As long as this continues, more leading figureheads will roll, and more liberties achieved, fear will continue to shift to the other side, and new, popular voices and actors will receive the space they so desperately need in order to emerge, develop and organise.

It is a race against the clock, but one that so far the Algerian people are still winning.

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.