August 22, 2019
Demonstrators say they will persist until military-backed government is replaced by civilian democracy
Protesters in the Algerian capital, Algiers, on Friday last week. Photograph: Ryad Kramdi/AFP/Getty Images
By Ruth Michaelson | The Guardian
Six months after a wave of protests began in Algeria, people are still demonstrating and the military-backed government appears determined to keep its grip on power.
The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm since tens of thousands of Algerians first took to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday.
“We didn’t come to negotiate, we came to kick you out,” read one placard brandished last Friday. On Tuesday this week the number of demonstrators swelled as older Algerians joined students in the heat, defiant in the face of government efforts to curb the protests by closing off areas of the capital and introducing new rules for demonstrations.
The movement that unseated the former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is now locked in a stalemate with a regime bent on showing it can keep the upper hand and outlast the protests.
Weeks of mass demonstrations forced the 82-year-old Bouteflika to resign in April, and the protesters pressured the authorities to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for 4 July.
Since then, the opaque coalition of political and military figures considered the country’s true power, known as le pouvoir, has been reluctant to make any further concessions.
The interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, remains in power alongside the all-powerful army chief, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, while protesters say they will persist until the military-backed government is replaced by a civilian democracy. No new elections are scheduled.
Nourhane Atmani, 20, a student protester, said: “If you look at the bigger picture there’s no government any more, there’s the military and the people. Many members of the government were arrested and are now on trial. This is their way of trying to keep the peace, the same way that we’re trying to keep the peace.”
Two former prime ministers, Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, have been arrested along with several former MPs. They are being held in prison awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, the Algerian authorities have fought minor battles to prove they still have the upper hand. Eighteen protesters were arrested and put on trial in July accused of “undermining national unity” for waving the flag of the country’s marginalised Berber minority at protests.
This month the government briefly blocked access to YouTube and Google after the former defence minister released a video calling on the army to “realise the demands of the people” and relinquish power. Officials have also deported a researcher from Human Rights Watch.
In the late spring Salah led what he labelled an anti-corruption drive, sparking fears he was settling scores. Several key businesspeople were arrested as well as Bouteflika’s brother Saïd and two former spy chiefs, whom Salah accused of plotting against the army.
Salah is unpopular but is also the kingmaker. “There are few signs he wants to run the daily life of the country. He wants a president who is halfway accepted, and there’s a certain urgency to get to elections,” said Isabelle Werenfels, an analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The question is whether he’ll manage to get to elections without making major concessions.”
Chants against the military chief, the interim prime minister, Noureddine Bedoui, and a new six-member dialogue panel put forward by the government fill the streets each week. Much of the anger is now focused on the panel, intended to oversee negotiations between the government and the protesters with the aim of organising elections.
“The members of the discussion panel are all traitors, rejected by the people and by the protesters themselves,” said Abdelhalim Aghrid, 51, who joined a student protest on Tuesday. “This panel isn’t recognised by the people, it’s a committee that was brought by the government to destroy the protests.”
Returns from summer breaks could lead to more civil disobedience and disruption. The unrest risks further unsettling the country’s shaky economy.
“September will be more decisive,” said Soufiane Djilali, the head of Jil Jadid, an opposition party. “Either one side will resort to violence or we will manage to have an election that takes place peacefully.”
He noted that the protest movement was divided, with some demanding bigger changes before an election take place and others seeking the election of a caretaker president to usher in a period of reform.
Werenfels said: “The question is: who will time serve? It can go both ways.”