Algeria protests: Finding a voice, youth seek more than token change
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was an independence war fighter who drove out the occupying French, built a prosperous economy, ended a decade-old civil war that killed scores of thousands in the 1990s, and healed a nation.
He and his party, the National Liberation Front, or FLN, were supposed to be remembered as heroes in Algeria.
Yet as protests that erupted over the octogenarian’s intention to run for yet another term as president of Algeria morphed into demands for an overhaul of the entire political system, Mr. Bouteflika and the ruling class are finding themselves increasingly out of touch with the Algeria they built.
Armed with lessons they learned from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and fueled by demands for better living conditions, young Algerians are no longer deferring to their founding fathers.
As they fill the streets in protest, deflecting as inadequate an initial offer by Mr. Bouteflika to reverse course and not seek reelection, they are increasingly finding their own voice, which is both peaceful and warily nonpartisan.
And as they keep the heat on the ruling party, they are sending warning signals across the Arab world.
On Friday, Algerians staged one of the largest demonstrations since the political crisis began, with tens of thousands pressing their demands for fundamental change.
“This generation did not experience the ‘black decade’ of the 1990s, they did not hold a special reverence for the ruling class, and they grew up with the Arab Spring,” says Houcem Hamza, professor of political science at the National Higher School of Political Sciences in Algiers.
“It was only natural for them to start a peaceful protest movement, and it is growing.”
From peacemaker to punchline
A hero of the war for independence and former foreign minister, Mr. Bouteflika was coaxed out of political retirement by the left-leaning nationalist ruling elite to first serve as president in 1999.
Algeria then was still in the midst of a civil war between the ruling FLN and the military on one side and Islamists militants on the other. The conflict had already killed some 150,000 people since the military annulled the Islamists’ 1991 electoral win.
Mr. Bouteflika moved forward with an amnesty in 1999 and later ordered a national referendum be held on a charter for peace and national reconciliation that aimed to reintegrate the Islamist militants into society. Mr. Bouteflika’s heavy focus on reconciliation led the various militias to lay down their arms. The violence ended in 2002, and national unity was restored in 2005.
As peace came to Algeria, Mr. Bouteflika and his inner circle of former revolutionaries, generals, and business elites quickly worked to rebuild Algeria’s economy, bolstered by the country’s 12 billion barrels in oil reserves and the largest natural gas field on the coast of the entire African continent.
Algeria’s state-dominated economy grew, and Mr. Bouteflika consolidated power in the presidency while increasing spending on social and housing projects.
When the Arab Spring swept North Africa and the Levant in 2011, Algerians, still worn out from the civil war and wary of foreign powers’ backing of regional protest movements, largely stayed at home.
When protests did break out over a rise in food prices – the so-called “oil and sugar” crisis later that year – Mr. Bouteflika and his crew were able to buy off protesters with $20 billion in subsidies, bonuses, and government salary raises.
A turning point
But then something happened.
As international oil prices dropped by nearly 50 percent in 2014-15, oil revenues dried up. The government cut subsidies. Nearly a fourth of Algerians saw their households dip below the poverty level.
But by then Mr. Bouteflika, who was paralyzed after a stroke in 2012 and last spoke in public in 2013, had become an absent ruler, an empty symbol of what many Algerians began to see as a hollow regime.
A failure to grow the private sector and mismanagement of the economy – 30 percent of Algeria’s GDP is still dependent on oil exports – meant that tens of thousands of young Algerians were without jobs.
In a country where 70 percent of the population of 42 million is under the age of 30, youth unemployment skyrocketed to 25 percent. A large segment of Algerians began turning to illegal migration to Europe as a first, rather than last, resort.
When Mr. Bouteflika announced in February that he would run for a fifth term in April’s presidential election, young Algerians, simmering over a regime that could no longer provide for them and over mismanagement of the economy, took to the streets en masse.
His announced concession Monday to not run for another term and instead delay elections to hold a “national conference” to draft a constitution to establish a “new republic” was received with anger, and young Algerians continued their nationwide protests.
Lessons from the Spring
Algerians taking to the streets are combining a unique Algerian perspective with Arab Spring lessons.
After watching the divisive politicization of the revolution in Egypt and the foreign meddling and violence in Syria and Libya, young Algerians have stuck to their mantra: Peaceful; united; for all Algerians.
No political parties have been welcomed at protests, Islamists are kept at bay, and even former ruling party officials who wished to join the movement are rebuffed.
“We are not allowing anyone to hijack this movement for personal interests, for outside interests, or allow the regime to divide us,” says Hichem, a 24-year-old activist. “We are a united Algerian movement for the people and by the people.”
Activists are also aware that the removal of a figurehead leader often leaves behind a deeper autocratic system intact.
Algerians insist that le pouvoir, or the powers that be – the influential businessmen, FLN old-guards, and the military – are “sacrificing” Mr. Bouteflika and are merely playing for time, waiting for the protests to die out, a measure they refuse to let happen.
“The postponement of the presidential elections and the set-up of a national conference are the umpteenth ruse of le pouvoir to extend the fourth presidential mandate and to maintain the status quo,” said the Collectif des Jeunes Engagés, or the youth engagement collective, a transnational group of Algerian activists, university students, and young professionals formed in February to organize protests.
“Let’s stay mobilized! Let’s refuse the regime’s agenda and continue to work for a radical break, one that would enable the foundation of the rule of law and a genuine democracy,” the Collectif said in a statement made available to The Monitor.
Mr. Bouteflika and his inner circle are veterans of the war for independence; the rest of the political class, even the opposition, all hail from the same technocratic school of political thought.
Young Algerians in the street say political parties, unions, and civil societies are all products of a bygone era and do not represent them.
“The mode of governance in Algeria has largely been management from the top rather than something more representative of the people,” says Andrew Lebovich, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Even the man tapped by Mr. Bouteflika to organize the “national conference” to draft a new constitution, Lakhdar Brahimi, a respected former UN diplomat and member of The Elders, is 85 years old and seen as close to the regime.
The generation gap is apparent even in the way the ruling party and protesters communicate.
For weeks, Algerians have taken to social media to share memes of Mr. Bouteflika, political cartoons, jokes, corruption allegations, and thanks and encouragement for their fellow countrymen and women to keep pressure in the streets.
In contrast, when Mr. Bouteflika announced his grand “compromise,” he wrote the Algerian people a letter.
“It is a generational issue rooted not only in politics, thought, and ideology, but in experiences and outlook,” says Mr. Hamza, the Algerian political analyst. “The center of power not only fail to understand the people’s demands; they fail to understand the people themselves.”
“Algerians are asking: How can we even communicate? How can we build a new republic with leaders in their 80s and 90s?”
Region on notice
Despite widespread admiration for the peaceful people power, few are expecting the Algerian “spring” to spread soon to other Arab states.
But it remains a fact that several of the issues plaguing Algeria’s ruling elite – a mismanaged economy, a lack of transparency, a credibility gap, and an inability to create jobs for a young population coming of age – are chronic ills in many other Arab countries.
In autocrat Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, 60 percent are under the age of 30 and face both rising inflation and 30 percent youth unemployment. Over 70 percent of Jordanians are under the age of 30, face a jobless rate of over 30 percent, and have begun marching to the capital to demand work.
Even Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s lone success story, struggles with a 30 percent youth joblessness rate and is governed by a 92-year-old president.
With Gulf monarchies themselves struggling to create jobs for young citizens, Arab satellite networks such as Al Jazeera have been less enthusiastic in their coverage of Algeria’s protest movement than they were for the 2011 uprisings. Some Arab publications barely mention it at all.
“Unless something really drastic changes, the protests are going to continue, and we will basically see how far the government is willing to go to meet their demands,” says Mr. Lebovich, the analyst.
The Arab world will be watching closely how far Algiers is willing to bend.