The recent popular movement across Algeria has truly been inspiring. While there has been much discussion about whether the ongoing mass demonstrations and strikes constitute a revolution, an uprising, or a social movement, the facts remain the same – for the first time in decades the Algerian people are taking their collective future back into their own hands.
The military severely miscalculated the people’s preparedness to accept their rule unquestionably. When it was announced that Abdelaziz Bouteflika would run for a fifth time in the upcoming presidential election, despite having been left paralysed and incapacitated by a stroke in 2013, the country erupted. Every week, larger crowds have gathered in the main squares of many Algerian towns and cities, in scenes reminiscent of the 2011 Arab spring. More recently, calls for a general strike were headed in many urban centres, with children conjuring up images from the war of independence as they taunted and forced the shop owners who attempted to break the strike, to close down. Students in many universities responded to the regime’s attempts to close campuses for “early holidays” by occupying immediately.
The slogans have been clear also. From calls for meaningful leadership change, to the now famous, “The people demand the fall of the regime”, echoing the rest of the region, as well as solidarity with the people of Palestine and new versions of the anti-French slogans of the 1950s and 1960s, such as “20 years is too much”, the people are taking back the public space. This is all the more important because of the regime’s belief that the people would remain scared, scarred by the bloody civil war that rocked the country for over a decade in the 1990s, after the military repressed the election of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
Not only did the regime expect the memory of the “Black decade” to serve as an effective disciplining factor for the people, but it has also repeatedly used references to the violence and chaos of those years as veiled threats to the population. In response, the demonstrations have remained – very self-consciously – peaceful and refused any direct confrontation with the army and the police. Chants that the people and the police or the army are brothers have become ubiquitous.
Part of the regime’s mistake has been to misunderstand its own population. The majority of the protesters did not live through the civil war, and if they did they were still young children. Their life has been marked by a different kind of violence: the endemic unemployment, lack of opportunities, and poverty that has become the hallmark of contemporary Algeria despite the massive profits made by the regime’s trade of the country’s natural resources. The structural decay, the corruption, the police repression all create a suffocating feeling of a future continuously denied. It is this pressure cooker that has exploded, and when the regime warns of a return to the past, it underestimates the people’s refusal to return even to the present, to yesterday’s normal.
On March 11, under great popular pressure, the regime announced that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would not seek a fifth term, that the Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia would step down, and that the cabinet would go through a reshuffle. Crowds across Algeria celebrated. Chants of: “This is the beginning, there is more to come” and “Ali Baba is gone. Now the 40 thieves”, resonated across the country. For the first time, perhaps since the revolution and independence, the people enjoyed a taste of their collective power.
However, while this is an important first victory for the movement – the regime blinked first – it is also a limited advance. Bouteflika is not stepping down. Instead, he is prolonging his presidency for up to a year while he prepares for a supposed “national consultation”. He remains in power, the regime plays for time, and moves to stabilise the situation in an attempt to work out whether the movement will take the bait or whether it will have to move to repression. This will be the question in the weeks and months to come.
The regime has been taken by surprise. It is weak. And it does not have an obvious alternative to Bouteflika – if they had they would not have taken the risk of standing him for another term. It has also lost the support of important pillars of its power such as official “opposition” figures and the National Organisation of Mujahadeen – the body of veterans of the revolution. Famous figures of the National Liberation Front, who had been sidelined by the regime, such as Djamila Bouhired and Zohra Drif, also joined the movement. Right now, too heavy-handed a response would sign the end of the military’s control over the country.
The response by the regime should, therefore, be understood as an attempt to give enough to divide the demonstrators and regain a foothold, while avoiding to give too much before launching a counteroffensive before its so-called consultation runs out. The response of the popular movement in the interim will be the key deciding factor of how effective this strategy is. Here the real issue lies.
Much like in the rest of the region, a great weakness of any challenge to the Algerian regime is the lack of a credible alternative. The official opposition parties, even within the Berber movements and the socialist left, are rightly seen as having been too conciliatory towards the central power in Alger, and the trade unions are solidly controlled by the military. The Islamists have both been discredited by their actions in the 1990s and crushed by the regime. Even the opposition candidates in the presidential elections lack any real base among the people. This leaves the movement very exposed to potential divisions, splits, and lack of strategic focus.
Yet, as the slogans written on the walls in the 1950s, and once again mobilised during the recent demonstrations, famously declared: there is only one hero – the people. One should remember how the movement has taken the regime by surprise, as it has international commentators, before writing off any possibility for an effective challenge to power.
Two important avenues remain open to the people in the streets of Algeria. Firstly, they can continue the refusal to accept anything short of significant change. This might not mean the fall of the regime, or its replacement by an alternative, but a stubborn refusal, by the millions in the struggle, to return to their homes until the regime enacts considerable and serious reforms and offers a clear road map towards democratisation. A sort of mass “we shall not be moved” approach can achieve this.
Secondly, the demonstrators could start developing organs of self-organisation such as assemblies, publications, and other public and online platforms where debates, demands, and actions can be discussed and voted on. This process would also start the process of identifying real grassroots leaders who could form the backbone of a future organised challenge to the status quo.
Both the history of Algeria and that of the region point to two realities that will be very present in the minds of all those taking part in this process: nothing is more powerful than a people in revolt and nothing scares the regime more than that power. When a regime, much like a feral dog, is scared it will lash out violently if it feels able to get away with the consequences. If the masses overpower it, it will try everything it can to defuse the danger while safeguarding what it can. The task in front of the Algerian people right now is to force the latter while avoiding the former. It is a formidable and difficult task. But no one is better prepared to face it than the people who withstood 132 years of French rule, eight years of war of liberation, and 10 years of civil war, and who came out of it all still prepared to fight back, still prepared to defend their dignity, still prepared to demand a better tomorrow.
Revolution. Revolution. Revolution until victory.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.