Riot police outnumbered several hundred protesters at a demonstration in Algiers, the capital, on February 19 [AJE]
Algiers - The now infamous chant, "the people demand the downfall of the regime" began in Tunisia, and in a few weeks, served to bring down the twenty-four year regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The chant was echoed in Egypt, and in even less time the regime of President Hosin Mubarak was toppled. Since the formula has been so successful, it has resonated across the Middle East and North Africa among people from Tehran to Manama.
While the chant has been heard in some of the waves of protests in Algeria, many are quick to tell you that the downfall of the regime is not necessarily what Algerians want to see happen.
"The downfall of the regime is not one of our demands," says Imad Boubekri, youth coordinator for the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, a group which has been speaking out against abuses for the past 25 years. “Our demands are for the rights of Algerians – the right for political participation, assembly and freedom of the press. We demand more freedoms, so that we may see democratic peaceful change in the current government," he says.
To that end, organisers in the country continue to call for mass demonstrations to pressure the government to begin making reforms.
Lack of critical mass
The Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, an umbrella group comprised of trade unions, opposition parties and human rights groups, has organised protests in the country, and is calling for Algerians to demonstrate every Saturday.
While uprisings in neighboring North African countries saw tens of thousands take to the streets, protests in Algeria are far from reaching a critical mass, and the most recent protests in the capital saw no more than a few hundred participants.
The reason for low turn-out may be because many Algerians in the country are suspicious that opposition political parties are behind the protests. While the recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were non-party affiliated, the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria does include a number of political parties.
One of the participating parties is the RCD, The Rally for Culture and Democracy, a small, fiercely- secular party whose leader Said Saadi saw less than two per cent of the popular vote in the 2004 presidential elections in Algeria.
"The Committee has made a strategic mistake to involve someone as unpopular as Said Saadi," says Elias Filali an activist and blogger in Algeria. "This one mistake literally killed any potential of protests getting bigger. Here in Algeria we lack a good opposition leader."
While the politicisation of protests and the absence of legitimate leadership have discouraged many in Algeria from taking part in demonstrations, Algerians do have much to protest about. Algeria is plagued by many of the ills seen in neighboring Arab nations. A recent UNICEF study found that youth in Algeria are frustrated and do not feel they are sufficiently respected or listened to.
"[Algerian youth] are concerned for the future because of high unemployment and lack of opportunities," said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Representative in Algeria.
Even when faced with a 30 per cent unemployment rate and dismal future prospects, young people in Algeria still have not taken to the streets en masse to vent their frustrations. The recent civil war in Algeria may be one of the reasons many in the country are unwilling to protest.
A history of violence
"Remember Algeria’s been through a terrible civil war that saw 200,000 people slaughtered," says Elias Filali. "I think people are tired of violence. Images of blood on the street, images of beheaded people on the street – it’s not easy to forget. And people they're tired –it doesn’t mean they don’t want to see real change, but they haven’t got the appetite for any more protests"
Between 1991 and 2002 Algeria was embroiled in a Civil War that began when the country’s military abruptly canceled elections and declared emergency rule after the Islamic Salvation Front won majority of popular support and votes in parliamentary elections.
What ensued was a bloody armed conflict between the military and armed guerilla groups, which saw hundreds of thousands of Algerians killed or disappeared. As a result the national psyche remains scarred and many in the country have come to associate political uprisings and instability with violence.
Mounia Aouadi is a high-school teacher of mathematics living in Algiers, she says that the uprisings in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are new, while Algerians have been through political conflict and are not willing to trade the bit of hard-earned stability and peace they currently have for an uncertain political future.
"We as Algerians, the blood that runs through our veins is revolutionary blood, ae are all the children of martyrs. And we’re tired. We really understand what revolution means. Until now we are hurting from what happened to us – our wound is still bleeding," says Mounia.
In the face of protests in the country and ongoing political turmoil in the region, the government of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced the repeal of a 19-year old state of emergency in the country on February 24. The law was one of the protesters key demands, and its repeal reflects a major concession on the part of the regime. Such concessions, have in fact become the modus operandi on the part of the government of late.
"The regime had made unbelievable concessions within the past few days – a lot of concessions have been made to the youth, to the unemployed. Even the police have received orders to treat people gently, people who sell illegally in the street are being left alone. So they’re doing everything they can just to keep people away from protesting. They're trying to calm down the situation," says blogger Elias Filali.
While government concessions have been a direct response to popular pressure and are seen by many as politically expedient moves, they do indicate a willingness on the part of the government to take small steps towards reform.
There are also democratic openings that exist in Algeria, albeit restricted, that allow for dissent and free expression. As opposed to neighboring countries, Algeria has a relatively free press with more than forty-five daily newspapers published in the country.
"Algerian newspapers are seen to be among the freest in the region," reads the US State department website.
While the Emergency Law criminalised protests, Algerians have nonetheless taken to the streets numerous times to vent frustrations and protest the living-conditions in the country. Rising food prices in early January sparked riots and demonstrations across the country, with the government immediately reducing prices as a result.
Recent government concessions paired with the small democratic space that exists in Algeria preclude the possibility of a political explosion, such as was seen most recently in Egypt and Tunisia.
Possibilities for reform
The Economist magazine recently produced the "Shoe-thrower’s Index," a chart aimed at predicting the next Arab country which will host a revolution. Algeria was ranked ninth out of seventeen countries. Yet Algerians in the country will be the first to tell you that Algeria is far from a revolution.
While Algeria today is as thirsty for real democracy as its counterparts throughout North Africa and the Middle East, what Algerians want is not a sudden overthrow of the regime. Algerians – in their own words – are tired of unrest. What Algerians want is reform, transparency and accountable representation in government.
"Change today in Algeria is inevitable," says activist and organiser Imad Boubekri. "As civic organizations and youth activists, we are trying to inform those in power that reform is inevitable, but it will happen with peaceful means."
While protests and uprisings continue to explode around the Arab world, it is clear that massive protests in Algeria will not bee seen anytime soon. Nonetheless, the Algerian people are closely watching the political changes happening in neighboring Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and holding out for the possibility of a gradual and peaceful shift towards reform in the country.
Assia Boundaoui is an Algerian-American freelance writer and audio-journalist based in New York City.