Algeria braces for protests in wake of successful revolts in Egypt, Tunisia
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Algerian opposition groups have called for widespread protests on Saturday, ignoring a government ban on demonstrations. But can a fractious opposition replicate the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt?
As Algerian opposition groups prepare for a day of protests on Saturday, analysts are examining whether the winds of change that originated in Tunisia and blew east to engulf Egypt might now head back west to Africa’s oil- and natural gas-rich second-largest nation.
Defying a government ban on protests, Algerian opposition groups have vowed to go ahead with a Feb. 12 call for “democratic change”, sparking a debate over whether Algeria could be the next domino to fall.
That appears to be the goal of Fodil Boumala, a writer and administrator of the Facebook page Res Publica II, which claims to offer “a space for reflection and debate”.
Boumala is also a member of the National Coordination for Change and Democracy – an umbrella group of human rights organisations, trade unions and opposition parties known by the French acronym CNCD – which is organising the Feb. 12 protest.
“The objective is rupture, the departure of the current government and the establishment of genuine democracy,” said Boumala in a telephone interview with FRANCE 24.
There are numerous reasons why Algeria could be “the next Tunisia” or “the next Egypt” – including having a longstanding leader who has muzzled the opposition, high unemployment and relatively high literacy rates. Algerians have long chafed under what is popularly called “hogra” – a term that literally means “contempt” in Algerian Arabic and is used to refer to the rampant abuse of authority and arbitrary nature of official decisions.
But few Algerian and international analysts believe the rupture that Boumala is seeking could come as swiftly or effectively as it did in Tunisia.
"If we compare [Algeria] with Tunisia and Egypt, it will not be Tahrir Square," said Abdelmoumen Khelil, secretary general of the Algerian League of Human Rights, with a laugh. Tahrir Square is the central Cairo meeting point that has been the focus of protests in Egypt.
Opposition rejects Bouteflika’s offer
Demonstrations have been banned in Algeria because of a state of emergency that has been in place since 1992 when the military cancelled free elections, sparking Algeria’s descent into a brutal civil war.
Last week, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, announced that he would lift the state of emergency “in the very near future”, following a spate of copycat suicide attempts mimicking that of the 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in protest at unemployment sparked the Tunisian uprising that led to the overthrow of the president. Bouteflika has also promised to allow more democratic freedoms and generate more jobs.
But organisers of Saturday’s march have dismissed the president’s promises, demanding an actual end to the state of emergency and calling for Bouteflika himself to step down.
Bouteflika’s offer came weeks after police broke up a Jan. 22 rally organised by the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) party and prevented protesters from reaching May 1 Square in central Algiers.
The Jan. 22 protest of around 300 people failed to attract a large crowd and protesters were easily encircled by an impressive presence of helmeted riot police armed with batons and shields.
RCD officials said more than 42 people were injured in the clashes while Algerian security officials said seven policemen were wounded.
‘Already a victory’
Hafidh Daamache, deputy editor of the Arabic newspaper El-Khabar, is sceptical about the success of Saturday’s event. “Here, people think [about] themselves, their homes, their jobs,” he said.
While residents of the northern Kabylie region, from which the RCD draws much of its support, are more politically mobilised, Daamache noted that it was easy to cut access routes to Algiers. “May 1 Square can be locked [down] with 300 policemen and the roads to Algiers are few and easy to block,” he said.
But Boumala remains optimistic. “The CNCD has brought together people who are not accustomed to talking to each other,” he said.
“The protest is already a success – the mobilisation, the vibrancy of the public debate is a victory,” Abdelmoumen concurred.
A fractious opposition
But Nicole Chevillard, an analyst and editor at Risque Internationaux (International Risk), a Paris-based publication specialising in high-risk countries and emerging markets, remains doubtful about the Algerian opposition’s ability to bridge longstanding divisions.
“They are so divisive, le pouvoir,” she said, referring to the French-Algerian term for the shadowy power brokers who pull the strings in a country where the military exerts the real power. They have “manipulated the opposition, using false pretences and avatars for years”, she says, adding: “This explains the distrust of the Algerians.”
Ever since it gained independence from France in 1962, Algeria has essentially been a single-party state, with the fractious opposition parties that are tolerated by the regime showing no inclination to challenge the military.
Two rival parties represent the Berber community, a non-Arab minority from Kabylie who speak their own language and make up between 15% and 20% of the population.
Both the RCD and the rival Front des Forces Socialistes (Front of Socialist Forces, or FFS) have called for democratic reforms. But the FFS has not joined the CNCD and will instead hold its own rally on Feb. 12.
Although the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have impressed Algerian activists, they maintain that the Algerian situation is markedly different. “In Algeria, the issue is not so much that people cannot speak, but that nobody listens,” Chevillard explained.
She remains astonished by the copycat suicide attempts following Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. “It is not at all part of local culture, nor is it part of Arab culture,” Chevillard said.
But the fact that the spate of suicide attempts continues is a sign of the desperate hunger for change.
“Given the present state of Algeria, it will take time,” said Abdelmoumen. “But people want change to happen.”