A group of protesters gathered last month at Algiers University in the centre of the city, ready to demonstrate against Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fourth consecutive term as president of Algeria. Police were there early, in heavy numbers, to ensure that the demonstration did not spread beyond the Fac Centrale d’Alger.
“There were not more than 100 protesters, but there were probably three times as many police,” said Kamal Benkoussa, who is supporting Barakat (“Enough” in Arabic), a civil society movement established in early 2014 to campaign against Bouteflika’s fourth mandate and in favour of a democratic transition in Algeria.
The protest was the latest in a series of Barakat-organised demonstrations against Bouteflika’s decision to run in the presidential elections, scheduled for April 17.
“The police made a human wall to make it impossible for people to walk on the street. We had to stay in a very small space in front of the university. People were worried that if they walked on the street, they’d be arrested,” Benkoussa, who withdrew from the presidential campaign on the news that Bouteflika was standing for re-election, told Al Jazeera.
A 1991 law governing public meetings and demonstrations requires public gatherings to be authorised by the government, and demonstrations in the capital Algiers were banned in further legislation introduced in 2001. In a country where political dissent is not tolerated, Barakat’s success in gathering support around the country is no small achievement.
There's been a crackdown on peaceful protests and the freedom of association.
But just as the Algerian authorities did in early 2011, when people took to the streets to campaign for regime change and demand greater freedoms and more jobs, they have again quickly clamped down. A planned sit-in in the centre of the capital on March 6 was met with hundreds of police, and about 100 people were arrested, including several local journalists. On March 1, more than 100 protesters were arrested in the capital alone.
“There’s been a crackdown on peaceful protests and the freedom of association in the run-up to the elections in Algeria,” Anna Guellali, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “It’s a basic right: the cornerstone of democracy, especially in the run-up to elections. It’s very important to let people express their views.”
Benkoussa said that frustration with the regime in Algeria is widespread, with citizens blaming the government for a lack of jobs and housing, perceived corruption among the elite, and the lack of a genuine choice between candidates at the polls. But Barakat’s scope to become a genuinely popular movement has been hampered by the police response, Benkoussa said.
“There is a pattern of crackdown against the Barakat movement,” Guellali said. “The police have conducted systematic, arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters on numerous occasions, and they are using pre-emptive techniques to prevent protests [from] being held.”
Barakat is not the only movement protesting against the president’s bid for a fourth term. Student protests have taken place in several towns, including Tizi Ouzou, where a demonstration in early March described the election as the “masquerade of the century”.
Strikes and demonstrations in favour of wage increases, which are common in Algeria, have also taken on a political dimension. On March 5, a demonstration in Ouargla against job shortages was joined by youth campaigning against Bouteflika.
While there is no formal coordination between student groups and Barakat, many Barakat members are students. According to Mustapha Benfodil, one of the founders of Barakat, students were among the first members of Barakat, and the average age of the movement’s members is between 20-30.
Numerous political parties have also decided to boycott the elections, among them the Mouvement de la societe pour la paix (MSP), a moderate Islamist party, and the Rassemblement pour la culture et la democratie (RCD), a secular party deriving support from the Kabylie region in northeastern Algeria.
Despite the numerous campaigns against Bouteflika’s bid for a fourth term, it remains unthinkable that they will affect the result, according to John Entelis, professor and chair of the department of political science at Fordham University in New York, who specialises in Algerian politics. “As long as he is still alive on April 17, Bouteflika will win the presidency overwhelmingly,” Entelis said.
Bouteflika’s presidential campaign collected more than four million signatures in the eight days after he declared he would stand for re-election.
Society is silent... Bouteflika will win a fourth mandate without a doubt. People are scared to see instability.
Many barriers remain to mounting an effective opposition to the government in Algeria, including a weak opposition movement and a population that fears unrest.
“It could be the beginning of a Tunisia-like mass mobilisation were it not for the fact that these protesting groups do not reflect a coherent or cohesive movement,” Entelis told Al Jazeera.
The pro-Bouteflika campaign has meanwhile contested that without the president at the helm there can be no guarantee of stability in Algeria. The government has played on the fears of the population of a return to the bloody state of civil war in the 1990s. More than 200,000 people died in a decade of fighting following a military coup d’etat to prevent the Islamist opposition group, the Islamic Salvation Front, from winning the second round of what would have been the country’s first democratic election.
“Algeria has always been a civil state [run by elected officials].Those calling for a boycott what are they offering? What are those offering who call for a period of transition or are calling for the army [to intervene]? What are Barakat offering? We have suffered the bitter price of chaos with rivers of blood,” Ouyahia said.
There appears to be little appetite to risk the kind of instability that other countries are experiencing in the aftermath of a string of regime changes in the Middle East over the past several years.
“Society is silent,” added Benkoussa, the Barakat supporter. “Bouteflika will win a fourth mandate without a doubt. People are scared to see instability.”