The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Algeria’s protesters achieve a historic victory

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In September 1956, revolutionary authorities in Algiers — then a city controlled by the French — declared a general strike. The action was met with vicious brutality by French forces but proved to be a galvanizing moment, stirring popular solidarity and cementing the North African nation’s anti-colonial uprising in the global imagination. A half-decade later, after hideous bloodshed, Algeria won its independence.

On Monday, Algeria entered the second day of a general strike that was aimed at the regime installed by former revolutionaries. A vast cross-section of the country’s society — from public-sector unions to urban shopkeepers to hundreds of lawyers and judges — had joined the strike, calling on ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to back down from a bid to run for a fifth term in office. The mood in the capital recalled the spirit of that original general strike more than six decades ago, said Laeed Zaghlami, a professor at the University of Algiers.

“Everyone seems to be making that comparison,” Zaghlami told Today’s WorldView over the phone.

But this time, rather than face bloody repression, the protesters secured a landmark victory. Bouteflika, 82, who had returned the previous day from two weeks of medical treatment in Switzerland, postponed elections scheduled for April 18 and said he would not seek a fifth term in office. His prime minister resigned amid reports that the regime would usher in a technocratic government to shepherd some sort of political transition. The announcement provoked scenes of celebration in Algiers, with residents honking horns and cheering in the streets. Weeks of major demonstrations have won a dramatic reversal from an entrenched establishment.

“For decades, protests were rare as Algeria’s powerful security and intelligence forces exerted total control,” reported my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan. “So when masses of Algerians first swept into the streets last month, few expected Boute­flika to fall. But in the end, the security forces, while firing tear gas to disperse protesters, did not resort to a violent crackdown.”

“There will be no fifth term,” Bouteflika said in a statement, possibly signaling the end of a two-decade tenure. “There was never any question of it for me. Given my state of health and age, my last duty towards the Algerian people was always contributing to the foundation of a new Republic.”

That wasn’t quite Bouteflika’s position little more than a week ago, when, in the face of sustained protests, he said through intermediaries that he would step down only after being reelected once more. But that attempt to assuage protesters’ demands was insufficient. They viewed the bid to extend Bouteflika’s already overly long reign — made all the more conspicuous since a stroke in 2013 left him using a wheelchair — as the cynical ploy of a stale regime that refused to relinquish its domineering control over the state.

Algerians colloquially refer to the regime’s ruling political and military elites, and the cabal of wealthy oligarchs beholden to them, as “le pouvoir,” or the powers-that-be. The regime has remained largely intact since the heady days of independence from France. Its greatest test was an Islamist-led insurrection in the 1990s that was eventually quashed in a bloody civil war that saw perhaps as many as 200,000 Algerians killed. But a generation later, the regime’s inability to provide jobs for its youth — some two-thirds of the country’s population is under 30 — and its perceived cronyism and mismanagement lit a fire under a vast spectrum of Algerians who want meaningful reform.

“This generation has lived through neither the war of independence nor the civil war — just the freedom of social media,” wrote Algerian journalist and novelist Kamel Daoud. “Today this freedom has sprung from screens into the street. The internet has been the great giver of freedom of speech in Algeria and the regime has realized it too late. It tried to slow it down during the first days of the protests, but it was useless. Algerians — hyper-connected — found out that they could have not only a Facebook page but a country.”

And they aren’t about to stop now. Already, there are calls for a timeline for Bouteflika’s departure and plans for further demonstrations this week. Loyalists and insiders remain in key leadership positions, with Bouteflika shuffling the country’s interior minister and a leading diplomatic adviser into the vacated posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister, respectively.

Local reports floated the possibility of a figure like Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister and respected international diplomat, leading a caretaker government that could pave the way for fresh elections. “Le pouvoir realizes that it has lost its credibility. The only possibility is to find a soft way to go out of this mess,” said Zaghlami, who expressed confidence that the Algerian political scene is “mature” enough to manage a democratic transition. “I hope that reason will prevail,” he added. “We cannot afford to go through another civil war.”

The past decade has thrown up many a cautionary tale in the Arab world. Though the upheavals of 2011 saw four long-ruling autocrats toppled, only in neighboring Tunisia has a democratic transition succeeded — and not without plenty of bumps along the way.

In an interview with the Project on Middle East Democracy, Algeria expert Isabelle Werenfels discussed the uncertainty to come. “One thing we do not know is how the silent majority—the many Algerians who have not left their homes to march—feels,” she explained. “Does the silent majority tend toward a change of president, or a regime change? And is there still support for the president and his camp? Certain segments of society have profited over decades from the regime’s strategic distribution of rents and privileges through clientelist networks, including those of the [ruling party] and its satellite organizations.”

But for now, analysts point to the incredible unity underlying Algeria’s protest movement as grounds for cautious optimism. “The demonstrations have united Algerians as never before, transcending regional, generational, ideological and identity fault-lines, bringing together women (in huge numbers), men and children, leftists, liberals and conservatives, Islamists and secularists, Arabic speakers and Berber speakers,” noted Hugh Roberts, an Algeria specialist at Tufts University. “There has also been an explicitly nationalist dimension to the demonstrations: the national flag has been everywhere; veterans of the war of independence ... have been marching alongside their fellow citizens.”

James McDougall, a historian at Oxford University who has written about Algeria, linked what’s transpired there not to the uprisings of the Arab Spring but to the country’s own long legacy of “popular resistance,” anchored in the revolutionary war against France.

“There is a deep-rooted radical popular democratic tradition,” he told the Guardian. "There has been a collectivity that explains their extraordinary atmosphere. There has been a joyous rediscovery of something that was thought to have been lost.”

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