Sara Merabti & Kjetil Selvik
Since February 22nd, Algerian streets have been filled with protesters expressing political dissatisfaction in both vigorous and humorous ways. Their reasons are obvious with the 82 year old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (now resigned) attempting to present his candidacy for the fifth time since 1999. Having suffered a stroke, Bouteflika is tied to a wheelchair and unable to speak. His candidacy was promoted by powerful backers in an opaque and corrupt political regime.
While the story of the regime is well known and could get anyone and everyone to take to the streets, the story of the people is as important in the ongoing battle for Algeria. Algerians have defied the bleak predictions of chaos and carnage and continue to demand peaceful change. Therefore, it is important that we ask: what do the protesters stand for, what do ordinary people want, and not least, what can they achieve?
In the battle for Algeria, the story of the people is as important as the story of the regime.
In authoritarian states, the story of the people is always manipulated. The rulers often claim to be the extension of the people and in many contexts they talk down their populations by promoting the message that the people lack the necessary skills to run their own country. Entrenched Arab leaders are experts in this game. They exploit the fear of state collapse, war and fanaticism to scare their own population and the West so that they can say there is no alternative to them.
As such, among the many fights for freedom that the Algerian protesters are struggling for is the fight to free themselves from the regime's monopoly over their story. The elite’s past struggle for independence 50-60 years ago no longer stands as a legitimate claim to exclude the people. "We know you well, but you know us poorly”, wrote the protesters in a rally. When former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia told the TV channel France24 that the people welcomed Bouteflika's candidacy, the answer was direct: "No, Ouyahia, the Algerians are not happy and we are against his fifth mandate”.
By taking to the streets, the Algerian protest movement defeated important myths. The first is the idea that the 1990s civil war has condemned people to eternal silence. The regime has claimed and apparently believed that citizens were "vaccinated" against protests because the outcome of the previous mobilization for democratic rights was a devastating carnage.
The second is the notion that the people lack political commitment and abilities. The regime introduced a state of emergency in 2001 which prevented the population from protesting and organizing. Now, however, ordinary people are out on the streets raising their voices together from families of the civil war victims to the war-wounded soldiers, people with disabilities, unemployed youth, and the underpaid public workers.
The third myth is that Algerian people are violent. "We Algerians are unable to demonstrate peacefully", said Ouyahia to justify the ban on public demonstrations. The protesters responded by making "peaceful" (silmiya) a main slogan. They spread rules on proper conduct through social media and warned protesters against provoking the police or responding to violence.
The story of the people is not communicated through the media, which is subject to strict control. Neither state television nor private channels with links to the rulers, such as Echorouk and Ennahar, did initially cover the protests. But similar to the Arab spring, social media made it possible to get around the state’s information monopoly. Protesters uploaded pictures, films and commentary to counter the regime's narrative. In one incident, Ennahar newspaper spread fake news about protesters attacking security forces. Activists live streamed from the location on Facebook to show that the protests were peaceful.
After weeks of demonstrations, protesters began to shout: "Where is the media?" A considerable number of journalists in state radio, television and the national news agency responded by declaring their support to the people’s movement. One example is the news anchor who had presented Bouteflika's election statement and later resigned in protest. Algerian journalists have also held their own sit-ins in front of media houses, revendicating the “right and duty to inform”. “We are the people’s voice”, journalists insisted. On April 12, state television finally covered the demonstrations live for the first time.
When Bouteflika finally withdrew from elections, the head of the upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, took over as president pending elections on July 4th. But in practice, it is army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah who appears to be the new strong man. Gaid Salah, believed to be 81, was handpicked by Bouteflika and is regarded with little credibility by the protest movement. He says the army and the people will find a common path out of the crisis.
The fight for Algeria has entered a critical phase. Yes, the regime has succumbed to the protesters' first demands by withdrawing their support for Bouteflika, but now it expects the people to say thank you and go home. Security forces have now turned to water cannons, tear gas, beatings and arrests. But the protesters are not going to give up. "The power lies with the people", they insist. “You must all go!”
Eight weeks of street gatherings have strengthened the belief that the Algerian people can change their own future. It's no longer President Bouteflika who is titled "His Excellency (fakhamatuhu) " but rather the People, as Algerians like to put it "Their Excellency the People (Fakhamat Chaab)”.
But this story of the people is vulnerable. When the desire to increase suppression comes, we can expect a heightened information war. In fact, already General Gaid Salah warns that there is an "external hand" among the protesters and that alien, manipulative forces are purportedly waiting to create chaos.
This story of the Algerian people is a key driving force for the popular movement. It may well determine the movement’s fate in the long run.
Sara Merabti is a doctoral candidate in political science at University Paris-Est, and a research assistant at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. She is interested in politics and security governance in North Africa and the Middle East. She tweets @MerabtiSara
Kjetil Selvik is Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) Research Group on Peace, Conflict and Development. He holds a PhD in political science from Sciences Po in Paris and works on struggles over states and regimes in the Middle East. He tweets @SelvikKjetil