Sixty-five years ago, the people of Algeria rose in great numbers and picked up arms against France, the local colonial power. Thus began one of the bloodiest national struggles in modern history. When the Algerian revolution started on 1 November 1954, despite being four times the size of France, Algeria was known as “French Algeria”. In 1954, France had already been occupying the North African country for over 125 years, making it yet another French overseas territory in which white European settlers dominated everything. No one ever thought that one day France would be humiliated and forced to leave Algeria.
Algerians celebrate 1 November every year as their glory day; the day that their country became free and they become masters of their own fate. The anniversary is usually remembered with shows and other activities all over the country. Not this year though. Thousands of young Algerians have been on the streets for 37 consecutive weeks, and 1 November was no exception. Huge, unprecedented demonstrations took place across Algeria last Friday. On that occasion, the demonstrators notably called for a second “revolution” and second “independence”, as if the country is still under French control in some way.
Throughout its 57 years of independence, Algeria’s political regime has failed to develop a national model of governance open to all citizens and free of political constraints. This gave the military a prominent role in politics beyond its traditional role as a guarantor of national security and defending the country. Over the past six decades of independence, political legitimacy in Algeria was based on the struggle against France not on a patriotic agenda in which the people are the source of legitimacy through fair representation and free elections. History seems to be the source of legitimacy for the elite, but not for the citizens in a democratic society. Algeria still has a Ministry of Mujahidin, catering for those who fought against France decades ago.
Propped up by the military, the post-independence political elite became part of the problem as they failed to produce a workable political model legitimised by the people, not by what happened decades earlier. This lack of political development helped entrench the military-political elite in power, suffocating opinion while leading the country into a bloody civil war in 1991
Such conditions, as a MEMO article rightly predicted a year ago, were leading to the current political turmoil in which Algerians, on both sides of the political divide, appear to lack imagination and direction. The public protests are in their eighth month, but have failed to produce any workable agenda let alone a leadership trusted enough to carry it out. While young people continue to call for the political elite to go and for the country to start again with a clean slate, the old guard still plays for time with little doses of tranquilisers seeking to calm people down.
It is worrying that the Algerian uprising is becoming a weekly ritual without any clear objectives. Rejecting the current legal and constitutional framework means that any new political settlement will be based on a barren base upon which there is no constitution nor any other institution acting as a frame of reference. While protests are legitimate and legal, when they turn against state institutions they become a threat to security and society. The country should have learned this hard lesson from its 1991 experience, when civilian protests turned into full blown civil war because the military annulled the first openly-contested elections.
Little has been achieved since former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced out of office on 2 April. Despite the government taking some measures to calm the situation, including scheduling presidential elections for 12 December, the protests have continued in the same roundabout manner and as leaderless as when they began.
The people of Algeria, it seems, have failed to learn from the recent experiences in the Sudan or neighbouring Tunisia. In both countries, civil protests produced interim leaders and their own national agendas within the prevailing state institutions, enacting radical change without risking state collapse, as happened in Libya. The old constitution in Tunisia, for example, was maintained until a new one was approved in 2014, granting the state continuity but without the former regime. It was an upwardly smooth change in which the electorate participated actively.
Algeria, on other hand, is heading for a political and legal void as demonstrators insist on forcing the elite, including elected representatives, out of office without having reasonable alternatives in place. In the process, they are blaming the Bouteflika regime for everything. In fact, the regime headed by the former president for 22 years was neither his creation nor his idea. When he was first elected in 1999 he was faced with a divided country where starting anew was neither an option nor an easy way out. He tried to improve the system by allowing free elections – at least in the first decade – but he was overwhelmed by the military establishment and external threats. In later years he lost direction and his achievements sank into spiralling corruption. It was a classic outcome of staying in power for too long.
Today, the Algerians still have the chance to reform their country into a progressive society where political legitimacy is earned through hard work and not allocated on the basis of a history long since forgotten by the majority of people. November 1 this year brought a new dimension onto the streets as people called for new “independence”, but such a noble aspiration will not materialise unless demonstrators agree on a consensual national agenda to move forward. The collapse of neighbouring Libya should remind Algerians of what happens when state institutions are demolished rather than reformed.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.