What Algeria Can Learn From The Arab Spring

As the Algerian national football team was to debut in the Africa Cup of Nations group stage against its Kenyan counterpart on June 23 in Cairo, Egypt, three Algerian supporters were arrested shortly following the match.

Two were expelled to Algeria for reportedly having brought smoke bombs in (often used by Algerian fans during competition matches), whereas Samir Bouserdouk, the third one, was incarcerated in Cairo for rather a political motive.

Bouserdouk held a placard that read, “they’ll all leave”  —a catchphrase from the mass protests that have seized Algeria since the first February-22 uprising, and which demands a radical change among Algeria’s political elite.

Algerian authorities subsequently intervened to release the traveling protester and drive him out back to Algiers, only to sentence him to a two-year prison term for having waved “placards likely to undermine the national interest,” reported Algeria’s state-owned ENTV.

The awkwardness of this unanticipated incident goes to show to what extent some neighboring countries, not least Egypt, take a dim view of the Algerian mass protests —however civic and peaceful they proved.

Egypt has seen its protesters, who demanded for political change over the years, following the 2013 coup against Morsi, gradually smothered until utmost authoritarianism was brought about by al-Sisi’s military rule.

Then, General Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who later became president, took a strong stance against any political objections. By dint of constitutional adjustment in early 2019, al-Sisi is now bound to rule as president  until 2034. Morsi for his part was Egypt’s first democratically elected president, succeeding to Mubarak.

Al-Sisi had rebuked Algeria’s mass protests just as much as he did Sudan’s, patently for fear of a ripple effect.

The broader scope

Algeria is the largest country in the Mediterranean basin, as well as in the North African and Middle Eastern regions, and currently in Africa as a whole, having been its second-largest prior to the separation of Sudan in 2011. It goes without saying then that whatever follows as regards Algeria’s stability and its political circumstances may unquestionably bear upon its surroundings.

Demonstrators in Algeria took to the streets for the 20th time this Friday, July 5. They demanded a radical change among the country’s leadership, fueled by social grievances that never fail to recall those that had ignited uprisings throughout the Arab world in 2011 and 2012.

These upheavals had swept over countries like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, and left them devastated by and large. Employment, costs of living and other social issues were at the center of the protests. In a context of economic and social stagnation, North Africa and some parts of the Middle East —save Gulf monarchies— hold the highest rates of unemployment among youth. “These problems were often exacerbated by the overly visible hand of the I.M.F., which has shown unwavering fidelity to the neoliberal creed that drives it,” wrote Gilbert Achcar.

When accused, added the Lebanese academic, the I.M.F. “concluded that the Arab world implosion was due to an insufficient application of its prescriptions, whereas, obviously, it resulted directly from these same prescriptions, which were completely unsuited to the regional context.”

Arabia and Arab springs

But other than the world’s financial hegemonies, some countries ruled by nonelected leaders —particularly, monarchies from the Arab Gulf— have long taken to viewing democracy at close quarters as their main bête noire. Yet they happen to be the West’s prominent allies.

The conspicuous killing of the Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, and the furious ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen still failed to indispose Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from being at the center of the 2019 G20 summit, as well as being the forthcoming one’s host.

Besides intervening militarily in Yemen since 2015 and in Bahrain in the wake of 2011 upheavals, Saudi Arabia, as well as The United Arab Emirates, doubled efforts to derail any progress toward democracy in North Africa and the Middle East (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria —by supporting radical Islamism— and Yemen).

In Sudan, the Gulf Cooperation Council, strong of six Middle Eastern countries, offered to help ex-president Omar al Bashir before his fall on April 11. The oil-rich members now support Sudan’s army, which is led by officers who fought alongside the Saudi-headed coalition in Yemen, as they rebuke democratic opposition represented by the Forces of the Declaration of Liberty and Change (FDLC) —a figurehead of the popular uprising of December 2018.

Over a hundred Sudanese protesters died in an abrupt crackdown carried out by the army in early June.

In Algeria, the Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, the country’s strongman after the removal of Bouteflika on April 2, was often accused, so much by former military figures as by protesters, of taking orders from the United Arab Emirates —which had supported al-Sisi’s coup in 2013, Haftar’s takeover in Lybia after Gathafi’s death and the restoration of Abd Rabbo’s regime in Yemen.

In mid-February, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan (an acolyte of Saudi Arabia’s bin Salman and colloquially dubbed M.B.Z.) received Gaid Salah in an “extended meeting,” according to state-owned ENTV of Algeria, after the Algerian army leader took part in a defense exhibition hosted in Abu Dhabi.

Fears of an Egyptian scenario

Followed then the impeachment procedure called for by Gaid Salah against Bouteflika, some five days after Gaid’s U.A.E. visit, Bouteflika being now “constitutionally unfit to rule”. The elation of Algerians following Bouteflika’s resignation on early April was nevertheless stained with tinges of fear. The people dreaded the advent of “another al-Sisi”, after Algeria plainly fell into the hands of its army.

As in Egypt, the army, both in Algeria and Sudan, sacrificed the president as an ultimatum to placate the peoples’ growing political dissatisfaction. Yet it remained apparent that, by doing so, the army was to establish sterner and more authoritarian regimes only, in hopes of safeguarding remnants of the status quo —what analysts are often fond of calling “conservative coups”.

But as taught by the Egyptian experience, people in Sudan and Algeria still took to the streets and proved persistent in demanding a complete renewal within their respective ruling classes. They were now aware of the military political stronghold —backed by Saudi and Emirati oligarchs— as they called for the long-awaited advent of a truly democratic and civil government.

On the evening of July 5, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was lit up in the Algerian flag colors, the 5th of July being also Algeria’s independence day. (An unprecedented effort likely aimed at improving the Emirates’ image among Algerians who bridled at its late interference in Algerian politics.)