Protestors keep up the pressure across Algeria and are demanding an end to the corrupt regimes of the past, reports Susan Ram
Beginning in February this year, Algerians in their hundreds of thousands have been taking to the streets in a great surge of protest. The scale, breadth and organisational flair of this uprising, with its unbroken chain of Friday mobilisations in Algiers and other centres across the land, have already forced unprecedented concessions from Algeria’s corrupt and repressive regime. On April 2, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s ruler since 1999 but unseen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, finally stepped down as President.
It was the announcement, in early February, that Bouteflika would be seeking a fifth term in presidential elections scheduled for April that ignited nationwide fury. From the first protests on February 16, action quickly spread to Algiers. On March 1, an estimated three million people demonstrated across the country’s forty-eight provinces, demanding the departure not just of zombie ruler Bouteflika but of the whole regime.
This revolutionary tide in Algeria comes eight years after the Arab Spring of 2011, when a chain of mass popular uprisings caught hold across North Africa and the Middle East, toppling despots from Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the west to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the east. While that earlier spring tide lapped about Algeria, drawing protestors onto the streets, the regime drew on its substantial financial resources as a major oil and gas producer to see off the threat: higher subsidies, increased social housing and a hike in public sector wages were among the measures taken to placate the population. Algerians’ collective memory of the civil war of the 1990s, the ‘black decade’ in which more than 200,000 people lost their lives, also worked against a sustained mass uprising.
Despite this buying of time, the ‘pouvoir’ (powers that be) – sclerotic, authoritarian, profoundly corrupt and wracked by scandal – has proved incapable of the systemic change required to defuse a building crisis of hegemony.
The roots of this crisis reach back to the early days of independence (Algeria finally broke free of French colonial rule in 1962), when a bureaucratised, anti-democratic state backed by a powerful military swiftly put paid to the hopes and expectations of those who had fought for the country’s freedom. The regime’s longstanding reliance on the national oil and gas industry came crashing down in 2014 when international oil prices tumbled. After losing 30% of its total budget, the government in 2015 resorted to austerity measures - while boosting military spending: by 2017, the defence budget had soared to $10 million (6.24% of Gross Domestic Product), making Algeria’s army the second largest in Africa, after that of Egypt.
Incapable of responding to popular demands and growing desperation, the regime simply staggered on, lashing out at times to suppress the right to strike, dilute the Labour Code and stage arbitrary arrests. Unemployment currently stands at 11.7% of the active population, reaching close to 30% of young workers aged 16-24. Those in employment have seen their purchasing power plummet under the triple effect of price rises, currency depreciation and stagnating salaries.
This is the context in which Algerians have taken to the streets.
The country is now under a caretaker president, Abdelkader Bensalah, with fresh elections scheduled for July 4. Lurking in the background is the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, a grey eminence loathed and mistrusted by most Algerians. In a bid to secure the regime, Salah has been putting the screws on some of the more flagrantly corrupt: five billionaires were arrested on April 22, among them Issad Rebrab, Algeria’s richest man. A new leader – a ‘stripling’ 50-year-old businessman named Mohamed Djemai – has been found for the ruling party, the inaptly named National Liberation Front (FLN).
Meanwhile, Algerians continue to hit the streets: thousands again filled the plaza outside Algiers’ main post office on May 3, the 11th consecutive Friday of action. Their banners and slogans - “We are fed up with you!” “Gang of thieves, you have ruined the country!” “We will not shut up!” “The system must go!” – suggest a determination to push things further. Along with the scent of spring, revolution is in the air.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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