Seven Months On, Algerian Protesters Still Don’t Have Democracy

Just two words – “Yetnahaw Gaâ” – were enough to land him a prison cell. Scrawled in Algerian Arabic and held aloft, it is an expression now synonymous with the country’s desperate struggle for democracy: ‘they all must leave’. The sign’s wielder, Mouaffak Serdouk, was seized, hastily prosecuted, and sentenced to a year behind bars. He’s not the only victim of Algeria’s slide into authoritarianism. Seven months since peaceful protests ousted an unpopular president, citizens are subject to an increasingly heavy-handed military stewardship. Fresh elections have been called, but for those seeking meaningful change, only root-and-branch reform will suffice.

Serdouk, a supporter of Algeria’s national football team, was detained while at a match in Cairo. Egyptian authorities promptly expelled him, and when he arrived back in Algiers, he was arrested. Scarcely a fortnight later, a court found him guilty of “publicly displaying a paper that can harm the national interest”. At least 40 other protesters remain in custody, all under investigation for ‘damaging national integrity’.

Among them is Lakhdar Bouregaa, a prominent veteran of Algeria’s independence struggle with France. In June, he described the ruling military as a collection of “militias” unworthy of the army’s prodigious history. Arrested for ‘weakening morale’, his detention reflects the military’s effort to consolidate power. Under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – who they helped eject – the army’s political clout was diminished. Amid the spiralling civil strife (and lacking an organised political opponent) Algeria’s generals believe they can now, once again, shape the nation’s future.

Alongside remnants of the Bouteflika administration, they make up what demonstrators describe as Le Pouvoir. This opaque coalition of political and military figures want protesters pacified and order restored, and have announced fresh elections to be held as early as December. “The situation can no longer tolerate delay,” declared army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah, a high-profile member of Algeria’s old guard.

The country was meant to go to the polls in June, but lacking any credible candidates, the vote was abandoned. The protests that propelled Bouteflika from office have continued ever since. Opposition groups demand a wholesale clear out of the Algerian establishment, including current prime minister Noureddine Bedoui and interim president Abdelkader Bensalah. Worried that regime figures seek an election to entrench their positions, demonstrators have rejected calls for a new vote.

Instead, they want a more measured transition period to lay the bedrock of a wholly democratic government. In the meantime, collective leadership should be adopted, opposition groups say, with technocrats drafted in to ensure smooth running. But not all agree. The UGTA, a powerful workers union, supported efforts to remove Bouteflika, but now backs the army’s call for a swift ballot. Undeterred, protesters say the unrest will continue until meaningful change is enacted.

But the military’s patience is running short. When Lakhdar Bouregaa was arrested, YouTube – where his speech was broadcast – was briefly blocked. Weeks earlier, Tout Sur l’Algérie, an independent news site openly critical of the regime, began experiencing shut-downs in what it describes as an “act of censorship”. Worse still, starting in June, security forces have been detaining protesters for carrying Amazigh flags. Also known as Berbers, this large ethnic community has a unique cultural identity within Algeria, and has – in the past – pushed for greater autonomy. Never before has carrying their banner constituted a crime. The tide of repression is rising, humanitarian groups say.

“The Algerian authorities initially tolerated the protests by millions of people that began in February to demand political reform,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But Algeria’s authorities are now turning the vice, jailing flag-wavers and turning back would-be marchers”.

In an effort to placate protesters, the ruling faction has started to prosecute some of Bouteflika’s most despised associates. Two former prime ministers, two former intelligence chiefs, eight ministers and several high profile businessmen, all suspected of corruption, have been taken into custody. But opposition figures have largely rebuked the move, arguing that it should be the job of a future, legitimate government to bring criminals to justice.

The arrests have also compounded Algeria’s worsening economic picture. Despite its wealth in natural resources, the nation’s financial fortunes were dismal under Bouteflika, whose bloated bureaucracy deterred foreign investment. He favoured a handful of prominent industrialists, many of whom now face malpractice charges. Their arrests are positive, undoubtedly, but come saddled with short-term pain. Leaderless, several large companies are struggling to pay wages and have had to offload staff. One in four Algerians under-30 (who form 70% of the population) is now unemployed – any attempt to redress the financial situation must, therefore, prioritise young people, experts argue.

“All efforts for reorienting the economy and increasing productivity have to focus on the youth, Algeria’s most valuable resource. Youths have been driving the protest movement from its inception,” said Dalia Ghanem of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Unless they are given a chance to participate in political life and help the country transition to a more genuine democracy, their aversion for their leaders may escalate and erode national stability”.  

Greater involvement by the international community has also been mooted – and for good reason. Algeria is a key gas supplier to Europe, and its partnership with America is critical to the West’s war on terror. But such is the nation’s ugly colonial history, there is little appetite for meaningful foreign intervention. And so resolution must come from within. Failed uprisings punctuate the Arab world – Algeria isn’t quite there yet, but if the military’s taste for power lingers, the worst may still lie ahead.