Algeria’s revolution of smiles, one year on
Algerians took to the streets in February 2019 to oppose a fifth term for president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Two months later he had resigned. A year on, the peaceful weekly protests continue
In 2013, then Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffered a debilitating stroke that left him wheelchair-bound and, later, unable to speak. Having already suffered from stomach cancer for years — and often in Paris for treatment — he largely vanished from the public eye. Nonetheless, and despite being represented only in poster form, he ran for a fourth presidential term in 2014, winning 80% of the vote. When it was announced in February last year that he would run for a fifth term, the population took to the streets in protest.
By March 11 the presidency had backtracked, announcing Bouteflika would no longer stand for office. On April 2 he resigned under pressure from the army chief of staff, relinquishing power after 20 years in office.
It was not, however, enough to stem the tide of protest. Now in its second year, the "revolution of smiles" continues, with demonstrators taking to the streets every Friday, seeking an opening of the democratic space, increased liberties and the rule of law.
Protest is not new to Africa’s fourth-largest oil producer and the continent’s second-ranked military power after Egypt.
The October 1988 youth riots, for example, led ultimately to the adoption of the 1989 constitution. It opened the political space within the country, but provoked a brutal civil war that ran from 1992 to 2002.
That décennie noire, or "black decade", had a huge impact on Algerian civil life today, as exiled Algerian poet Noufel Bouzeboudja tells the FM: "Hundreds of journalists, writers, playwrights, artists and intellectuals were assassinated … [so] the Algerians lost their elite capable of leading the country on the track of a deep change for a modern and modernist country."
The result of this loss, says an oil industry insider whose elder brother was killed during the civil war, was that a series of puppet presidents were elected in heavily manipulated elections.
Beauty and peace are not sufficient for a revolution to come up with concrete resultsNoufel Bouzeboudja
Bouteflika’s successor, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was elected with 58.3% of the vote in a controversial election on December 12 that had an official voter turnout of less than 40% (though the Rally for Culture & Democracy party put turnout at just 8%).
Tebboune installed a cabinet drawn largely from the previous regime’s ministers.
The scale of the revolution of smiles — or Hirak movement — is unprecedented in the wake of the civil war. The year of peaceful protests has "changed many things in Algerian society", says Bouzeboudja. "It took away [protesters’] fear of the regime … The public space is occupied by not only thousands but millions of pacific protesters."
An Algerian who has experienced the protests in Algiers himself, but who speaks to the FM on condition of anonymity, says he is concerned about whether the movement is a legitimate, "spontaneous" civil society protest, having previously been made wary of false-flag rioters disturbing genuine cost-of-living protests. But he is deeply impressed with its sustained ethic of nonviolence and its success in ousting Bouteflika.
Chanting "Throw them all out", the protesters have mostly eschewed formal leadership structures, which has made the protests difficult for the authorities to infiltrate and hijack. The oil insider says apparent attempts by the state to manufacture diversionary incidents or inflame border tensions with Morocco have failed to impress the demonstrators.
But Bouzeboudja warns that protesters’ lack of structure, resulting in part from an uneasy affiliation of secularists and faithful, has allowed le pouvoir ("the power"— as the elite is nicknamed) to reconsolidate. There has been an attempt by civil society organisations to convince national heroine Djamila Bouhired, 84, to stand as spokesperson for the movement.
At the age of 22, during Algeria’s liberation struggle with France, Bouhired was sentenced to be guillotined for the bombing of a café. A survivor of torture in jail, she later famously resigned from parliament, refusing to be a Bouteflika stooge. Though she is a regular participant in the Friday marches, urging protesters on as the next generation of freedom fighters, Bouhired has so far declined to be spokesperson, saying one must emerge from the youth.
That would appear to be rapper and activist Raja Meziane, voted among the BBC’s 100 most influential women of 2019. Her single, Allo le Système! has garnered 44-million views on YouTube.
Its lyrics include: "You think you’re eternal, you have buried us alive, and left the dead in power … We are the flood, you’d better leave us alone, bunch of thugs."
But many of those identified as potential leaders have been thrown in jail. According to human rights organisation Amnesty International, at least 76 protesters have been arbitrarily detained since the December election, and more than 1,400 people have been prosecuted under the country’s repressive laws in the past year. Just two weeks ago, 56 peaceful protestors were arrested and at least 20 prosecuted on the charge of "incitement to unarmed gathering".
The FM’s eyewitness urges the Hirak movement to appeal to the UN special rapporteurs on human rights and on indigenous rights — the latter because of an apparent targeting of Berber activists — to monitor the situation. "There is an international responsibility towards the movement in Algeria," he says, "but no questioning has been directed at Algeria by the UN, the AU or Maghreb bodies — all of them are silent and just waiting to see how things will happen."
Peaceful as the movement may be, it is armed with carefully documented revelations by Algerian army whistleblower Amir Boukhors that allege financial corruption in the ruling clique, the salting away of hundreds of thousands of euros and the buying of luxury apartments in Europe. The heads of some generals and businessmen have rolled as a result, but critics say this appears to be more a factional squabble than a true housecleaning, and it is unclear whether the guilty truly remain behind bars.
What it means:
Protests continue for the second year, and demonstrators take to the streets every Friday
Yet notable results of the movement have been the formation of the "feminist square" — which has foregrounded women’s issues — the support given to the movement by the liberation war veterans’ association and the coalescence of an alliance called Forces of the Democratic Alternative. That alliance has put forward demands for a constituent assembly, an independent judiciary and a guided transition to democracy.
But whether this happens is uncertain. For a start, foreign pressure for further democratisation seems unlikely.
Algerian analyst Faten Aggad-Clerx describes Algeria’s relationship with former colonial power France as follows: "In reality, Algeria’s ruling system has been closely connected to France’s own ruling system.
"The countries have entertained relations between ruling clans, not a relationship between states."
And, she says, though the interests of other countries, notably Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, "are significant … all foreign powers acted as one would expect [them to]: prioritis[ing] their interests, not least in the oil and gas sector".
There’s also a very real threat that a proxy war in neighbouring Libya by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia could spill over into Algeria, destabilising the country.
Much, it seems, will also be determined by whether the military backs down — or drops all pretenses and follows Egypt’s example of seizing complete control.
As Bouzeboudja warns: "Beauty and peace are not sufficient for a revolution to come up with concrete results."