Yesterday’s student protests across Algeria signal a commitment to continued political activism and suggest deeper roots than a disagreement over the President’s bid for a fifth term.
Protests began last Friday after the announcement that Abdelaziz Bouteflika would be seeking a fifth term as President, having been in power since 1999. Bouteflika, who is 81, suffered a stroke in 2013, which continues to cause health problems, and some of the opposition to his candidacy stems from concerns that he is unfit to serve in his current condition.
Algerians continued to demonstrate throughout the weekend. Police on Sunday turned tear gas onto the crowds and have detained a number of participants. Officials and government supporters are staking their claims on the virtues of order and continuity, playing on fears of a return to the civil war of the 1990s. For the moment, this parallels the government’s strategy from 2011 when protests connected to the Arab Spring were quickly subdued. Protestors, for their part, are insisting on the peaceful nature of their activism, hoping to undercut the allegations of disruption and disorder.
Though last week’s protests began with a narrow focus on Bouteflika’s possible fifth term, the past few days have brought broader social and political critiques into play. National radio journalists have openly opposed the silencing of their coverage. One editor quit on Saturday to protest these restrictions; others released a letter asserting,
Algerian radio belongs to all Algerians… We are a public service not state journalists.
Lawyers staged a sit-in on Monday morning in support of the popular movement; according to one,
I chose to practice because I thought the Republic would allow me to be free…But we cannot be free without democracy and democracy is suffering in Algeria. We have opinions to express and we have come to do so. One of the most important principles of democracy is the transition of power. This is why I am joining my voice to those of the people.
Algeria is a republic not a monarchy.
Student participation further widens the scope of social concerns. Hundreds of students turned out yesterday in Algiers and other university towns across the country–many remained on their campuses to avoid confrontations with police.
The country has a major generational divide. Young people are less attached to a regime whose legitimacy still largely rests on individual connections to the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962). In addition to opposing Bouteflika’s fifth term, students demanded that the government launch job creation programs; more than 30% of Algerians under 30 are unemployed. Some students also carried signs against the extraction of shale gas. This expanded opposition platform may also be reaching a wider audience, as Algerian state TV actually carried some footage of the student protests yesterday evening.
The next few days are likely to bring additional demonstrations. One question is who will participate–and whether more groups join in the public opposition. Another question, of course, is whether the state will respond with more force or with promises of further reform–or possibly (though it is difficult) with a new presidential candidate.
For writer and journalist Salah Badis, however, the past few days have a significance of their own–beyond direct or concrete outcomes. His account of last Friday opens with his own hesitation and fear of meeting only violent repression. As he wandered the streets and eventually joined the marching crowds, though,
the scene I saw [on the Place du 1er Mai] freed me of the heaviness weighing on my chest: thousands of demonstrators occupying the square and submerging the police in blue…
He notes the presence of families and emphasizes the significance of this occurring in Algiers itself:
Algiers, the capital, that’s something else–everyone said so. The capital is something else in a country that is as big as a continent but is strangled to death by centralization. Protesting peacefully is theoretically authorized, but laws and the police forbid it in the capital…
Ultimately, he concludes,
the only thing I know is that it took twenty years of Bouteflika’s presidency for the Algerians to break the barrier of fear, and to return to the streets…
for the moment, what is really important is that the domain of the possible has been expanded in Algeria today.