Over the years, Algeria has witnessed many protests. The number of protests in 2017 was nearly 12,000, which continued through 2018. However, there is consensus that the current wave of protests, which started on 22 February, is different in nature, effectiveness, goals and reach.
Although previous demand-based protests of labour and sectorial groups were well-defined by clear social and economic dimensions, they have, nevertheless, formed the basis for the current wave of protests, which tie economic and social dimensions to the structural form of the state and its political decisions.
Factor of stability
The announcement by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on 10 February that he will run for a new term in the next elections of 18 April did not come as a surprise to his supporters and close circle. A campaign to support his candidacy for a new term had been launched months earlier by the three parties that make up the Algerian presidential coalition, despite growing concerns over his health after a stroke he had in 2013 greatly reduced his appearance to the public. The shocking surprise, however, was in the level of the popular opposition and the protest movement, as well as the widespread participation of the traditional opposition in rejection of Bouteflika’s candidacy and expressions of concern over the insistence on a fifth term, which poses an existential threat to the Algerian state.
One of the paradoxes of the Algerian case is that the consensual man who brought civil peace and stability to the country has now become controversial and constitutes an “existential threat to the Algerian state,” according to the opposition.
It is important to understand the circumstances under which Bouteflika came to power in the first place, and how his decades-long presidency has since set the parameters of Algerian politics. According to Zine El Abidine Ghabouli, since taking office in 1999 amid severe political unrest and civil war, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has long been considered the man of political consensus. During his first term, he managed to maintain a balance between the various influential people in Algeria (the army, the presidency, the Islamists and the business community). This ability has also enabled him to gain relatively broad support from Algerian society, particularly that the civil war which claimed some 200,000 lives, ended under his rule. But attempting to insist on Bouteflika’s fifth mandate shows that the current Algerian political regime is unable to find an alternative, or even to renew its elite class. The fact that the presidential alliance has been seeking a fifth term for several months proves that Bouteflika is the only viable option for the regime in order to preserve the remaining political consensus that has in the first place allowed the president to take office.
The context of the current Algerian protests is not fundamentally different from the Arab protest movements, which are linked to the essence of the social order in the region, the patterns of capital accumulation, the structure of the class and the state, and the relationship with international capitalism. The common denominator of the Arab uprisings, according to Adam Haniya, is that popular movements embodied much more than the overthrow of unwanted tyrants. “The battle against political tyranny is inevitably linked to the dynamics of class struggle, therefore these uprisings reflected not only a crisis about the legitimacy of the regime and concerns for political freedom, but at the root of them, they were facing the consequences of capitalist development in and of itself.” The reasons that led the people to the streets were deeply linked to the forms of capitalism in the region: decades on neoliberals restructuring the economy, the impact of global crises, and how Arab states were governed by authoritarian security and military regimes with the support of Western powers.
Within this context, Algeria has undergone profound transformations since the early 1970s, foremost of which were free and compulsory education for all and free treatment in hospitals, clinics and government health centres everywhere. But since the early 1980s, according to Mourad Trabelsi, Algeria has adopted a different economic path while maintaining the same approach of social policy. This in turn resulted in a “schism in the collective character” which widely opened the door to the private sector, and imports dominated in a manner that stood in the way of developing domestic production capabilities in all fields. Thus, the protests seem to be the result of this “congenital” distortion in the form of the public order, which has undergone many changes, and ended up with an economic approach that combines anarchism, greed and a social policy that is based on the assumption of flourishing values of work and planning and good governance.
The importance of these social movements in Algeria, according to Lina Knoush, is that they are ultimately a manifestation of the structural stalemate that Algerian society suffers today because of the ideological vacuum of the entire political class. The decline of leftist and Arab ideologies, due to the abandonment of secular movements and the fact that the latter maintains a single program calling for “liberating” the authority while providing no other tangible or credible alternative, are some factors. Another factor is the deviation of Algerian Islamists who, through a mass political movement (the Islamic Salvation Front), turned toward the policy of social conservatism, which is devoid of any real ideological content but has maintained some similarities with the Liberals. All these factors point to how strong the regime that is now trying to prepare for succession without obstacles is. This vacuum within society can also lead to protests and sporadic violence.
The description and analysis of Trabelsi, Knoush and others of the Algerian situation was based on past protests, but is also deeply connected to the current crisis especially that domineering and corruption as local dynamics associated with neoliberal globalisation have become a clear feature. In spite of the absence of talk of tyranny, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika acknowledged the spread of corruption in the country. In a speech delivered on his behalf by the secretary-general of the Presidency during the Governors’ Conference held in Algiers last November, Bouteflika warned that “bribery, nepotism, and unjust bureaucratic acts are spreading in society and turning into parasites.” Some independent international organisations have declared that corruption in Algeria has worsened recently. Transparency International’s Global Corruption Perceptions Index (TII) has indicated that Algeria has fallen sharply to 112th place in 2017, having ranked at 88th two years prior.
This rampant corruption has had devastating effects on Algeria’s economy, but the fight against corruption is not only through legal legislation, according to Ahmed Marwani, but also requires strong political will to protect the rule of law, to enact the principle of separation of powers and the presence of independent justice, independent press, improving the legal system, activating the role of monitoring, enhancing transparency and accountability, and raising awareness on the damage caused by corruption. More importantly, anti-corruption campaigns should not be circumstantial, but should be a permanent and ongoing process by enabling the various mechanisms that have been developed to play their role freely.
Masses are taking the lead
In light of the fragility of Algerian political opposition and its differences, its inability to gain the trust of the masses and its lack of strategies and programs capable of providing an alternative model to the regime, the Algerian people took the initiative, as was the case with the Arab popular uprisings, which can be understood within the framework of new social movements.
The theory of social movement is related to social political phenomena in general and focuses on the large-scale, demanding opposition movements that are difficult to link to one party, group, or class; the so-called social non-movements, which are the collective effect of a large number of actors who do not work collectively. When ordinary unconnected individuals are deployed and carry out similar daily practices that do not conform to public order, but do not take on the form of challenge and confrontation, they produce a pressuring situation that is significant in changing the political and social reality. According to Asif Beyat, it is the quiet creeping of the masses that puts traditional regimes and forces in trouble. Social non-movements are not an opposing target that can be repressed, nor are they organised entities with specific leaders that can be constrained and absorbed. They are ordinary people, and they are only carrying on with their lives.
It is indisputable that popular protests in Algeria have entered a new phase, analysts say.
After being spontaneous, random and unorganised, demonstrations are now more regular and after new sectors of the country have joined in, they have become more robust and solid, especially after the joining of universities and postgraduate colleges, university professors, judges and lawyers. Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term (despite his poor health and old age) seemed to be repulsive to many Algerians, according to Gillian de Amor. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in cities across the country and abroad over the past few days to oppose Bouteflika’s nomination, breaking the wall of silence and fear. The current Algerian government did not expect this unprecedented level of crowds. It should not expect that the protests would end quickly either. The protests surprised the international community and Algerian political observers, as the country had largely escaped mass rallies that erupted in the Middle East and North Africa during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011.
To sum up, the current protests in Algeria have overtaken the previous protest movements and broke the wall of fear and silence. It is a popular protest movement that embraces all groups and sectors and seeks to change the nature of the political approach, which had contributed to the deterioration of the economic situation and the increase in poverty and unemployment. It had also led to the growth of corruption and nepotism and increased feelings of injustice, as well as humiliation and degradation by insisting on imposing an old and sick president who is unable to appear or speak in public. In this context, Bouteflika has become the past, while the future is still full of expectations.
This article first appeared in Arabi21 on 10 March 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.