Does ‘progressive leadership’ or something more complex and sinister explain why Algeria’s ‘Spring’ never materialised?
The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 brought down autocratic governments across North Africa and the Middle East. But, despite widespread street protests that initially threatened to spark a Tunisian or Egyptian style revolt, an expected uprising in Algeria failed to materialise.
President Abdelazziz Bouteflika’s regime – often accused of being one of the most repressive in the region – promised modest political reform and managed to hold onto power.
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Every state has an army. But in Algeria it's the army that has a state.
In May 2012, it claimed to have delivered on these promises when parliamentary elections were held, in which the ruling National Liberation Front (or FLN) won an overwhelming majority of the votes.
Although opposition groups were quick to deride the poll as a sham and to accuse the government of manipulating the results, European and American observers called the poll a step toward democracy.
So what has been going on in Algeria for the last year? Did it genuinely, as the government would claim, avoid the upheaval that swept through the rest of North Africa last year because of the Bouteflika regime’s ‘progressive leadership’? Or has something darker and more complex been going on – a story that opponents and human rights activists say has more to do with a wary population traumatised by the country’s violent past and living in fear of its secret police?
People & Power wanted to find out, but getting into Algeria is difficult – not least because Al Jazeera has been denied official access to the country since 2004. Nevertheless, when our requests for journalist visas were ignored, our filmmakers managed to get in unofficially and were able to work discreetly.
By Caroline Pare
In the capital Algiers at least, life seemed freer and more lively than we expected. The shops and cafes were full and, superficially at least, this did not seem to be a place on the cusp of revolution. It felt like a country coming out of something very bad and now quite determinedly making the best of a difficult situation.
But when we began meeting human rights activists, we got a much better sense of what ordinary Algerians are up against and what they really think. To start with, the military and intelligence people, the DRS, are omnipresent, so meetings had to be arranged surreptitiously.
Repression, unemployment and self-immolations
On one occasion, for example, a contact identified himself at a street corner by using pre-arranged code words. Then he asked us to follow him very discreetly and at a distance to the Metro, past the police and the surveillance cameras, onto a train and out to his tiny apartment in the suburbs.
Only when safely behind closed doors did he feel able to speak freely about the repression and the many economic problems the country faces – a housing crisis, rocketing unemployment and spiralling food prices. He told us things were so bad that desperate young people were burning themselves alive.
There were around 130 self-immolations in Algeria last year.
Indeed just before the election in the seaside town of Jijel, a 25-year-old man, Hamza Rechak, set himself on fire, in despair at having been prevented by police from selling cosmetics from his small stall and then at being taunted by them.
His death caused outrage in the town and sparked a riot as young men attacked the police station in fury.
Other Algerians told us that theirs was actually the first country to have an Arab Spring.
In 1988, the people took to the streets and forced the government to hold a free and fair election. After the first round of voting it became apparent that the opposition Islamic FIS party was set to win. But it was not to be because the military intervened.
The country turned in on itself and entered a ‘dark decade’ of bloody violence that saw an estimated 200,000 people killed. To this day it casts a fearful shadow.
The chaos enabled the DRS to get a stranglehold on the country and the body politic that democracy activists say persists to this day.
So the elections that were held this month do not seem to have much credibility among voters. Indeed we heard from various political analysts before the election that they could predict the turnout – based on what the government required to make the process acceptable in international eyes – and sure enough they were pretty close to the 43 per cent officially announced. The governing party won overwhelmingly.
In Algeria, we are told, everything is preordained by the powerful shadow state, the DRS. And it does not brook criticism.
Algeria’s ‘dark decade’
Algeria is a country rich in oil and gas reserves, earning it perhaps $200bn each year. But there are few jobs in the oil industry for Algerians and unemployment and poverty are real problems. Youth unemployment is at over 40 percent. The level of desperation on the ground is such that discontent boils up into street protests on a daily basis – we were told that there were 40,000 such protests last year alone against housing, food prices, police corruption etc.
Yet Algerians have not yet turned to outright revolution. We began to understand why when talking to people about the ‘dark decade’ and the terrors they lived through that still traumatise their lives. To put it simply, people are scared.
We spoke to families whose loved ones were killed or vanished during those years. As many as 20,000 of these ‘disappeared’ are still being sought by their families, according to a group called SOS Disparu that supports families looking for their loved ones.
They introduced us to one woman whose husband was snatched from their doorstep 18 years ago. She has heard nothing officially of him since then, despite writing and visiting all the government offices she could think of. The only information came from fellow detainees who tell her he was probably horrendously tortured. All these years later the memory of her husband still moves her to tears.
‘Revolution will come sooner or later’
Will all this change? We were taken to see Dr Salah-Eddine Sidhoum, an orthopaedic surgeon and one of Algeria’s most respected opposition figures. As we sat in his study, the TV in the corner was showing a live broadcast of the funeral of Algeria’s first post-independence president.
We asked Sidhoum why the events that shook the rest of the Arab world in 2011 seemed to have passed his country by. His response was emphatic. “Algeria is not an exception,” he said. “The revolution will come here in Algeria sooner or later – it’s just a question of time.”