North African dispatches: Why Algeria is different

Published on Pambazuka News, by Imad Mesdoua, April 5, 2011.

… Whilst Egypt rejoiced, nearby Algeria stood in anticipation at the call for pro-democracy protests on 12 February. A coordination made up of several members of civil society and political parties called for a rally on Algiers’s 1 May square and throughout the nation, hoping to emulate the wind of change blowing through the region. Despite high ambitions to mobilise, they were somewhat left short, with only a few thousand showing up.

Why was this case? Algeria has always been a land of rebels, the ‘Mecca for revolutions and revolutionaries’. In the 1960s, it emerged an independent nation following an atrocious war with the French coloniser, which gained it a sobriquet as the land of the ‘1.5 million martyrs’. In 1988, a recession-hit Algeria witnessed events comparable to those which recently took place in Egypt and Tunisia. Millions of Algerians took to the streets in nationwide riots and protests to demand the end of the FLN’s (National Liberation Front) one-party rule and reclaim their political and socio-economic rights … 

… Why then did Algerians, in this apparently negative environment, not march by the hundreds of thousands under the circumstances? For one, there is the fear of violence breaking out. The government mobilised for the occasion a daunting arsenal of helicopters and the odd-30,000 anti-riot police in the capital, a sign that nothing was being left to chance in the higher echelons of the country’s polity.

Despite a recent promise to lift the country’s 19-year state of emergency, protestors were frigidly reminded that protests were not authorised in the capital Algiers. With trains suspended and all major access routes carefully monitored, any sort of movement from neighbouring counties was rendered impossible. All of these measures obliviously made for a particularly tense build up which evidently left many wondering, whether it was worth putting one’s own security at risk.

The tragic reality for Algerians today is that no political party or figure seems able enough of rallying then aptly voicing grievances around one truly coherent set of political objectives (i.e., change!). This problem originates primarily in the political elite’s inability or unwillingness to rejuvenate it. Both the opposition and government boast figures at the other end of the country’s demographic make-up. With a population among the world’s youngest – the average Algerian being 24 – any political figure over the age of 50 talking of ‘change we can believe in’ is bound to seem out of touch or irrelevant.

All of these observations bring me to the final possible reason behind Saturday’s meagre showing. This movement for change does not yet resonate to a majority because it might appear, with the presence of certain political parties and/or figures, as another venture through which they may gain greater exposure. Though intense grievances exist in the country, Algerians continue to be highly sceptical of political parties – whether they are of the opposition or not. They are seen as self-serving or in league with the powers that be, thereby rendering their actions legitimate to audiences already acquired to their beliefs.

Young Algerians remain desperate for change, thirsty for a better life and disenchanted with their overall situation. Politics and ideology aside, they aspire to nothing more than dignity and a visionary project for their society. For some it can come through economic accomplishment and personal stability. For others it is a sense of belonging and a renewed trust in the country’s politics. Over the past weeks, the attempts by over a dozen people to immolate themselves publicly served as a bleak reminder to all of the profound malaise felt throughout vast sections of the nation. In this context, while many will continue to debate over the success/failure of Saturday’s march, what is certain is that the march broke a long-standing taboo of challenging the status quo … (full long text).


Algeria slashes food prices amid riots
, January 9, 2011;

Galerie de photos de magharebia, on flickr, page 5, /picture no 110109;
and page 6.

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