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Middle East and Africa

At the time of revolutions Algeria seeks a peaceful reform

Saturday 26 March. In May 1st Square in Algiers twenty or so people surround the untiring human rights militant, the lawyer Ali Yahia Abdennour (90 years old!) and once again attempt to launch ‘a march for change’. All in vain.

 

 

The first attempt at a march dates back to 12 February when 2,000 people had tried to challenge the impressive security force. From that moment on, and from one week to the next, the number of supporters of the protest continued to decrease in numbers, and along the road the National Coordination for Democratic Change (CNCD), which assembled human rights militants, members of the world of institutions and trade unions and militants of the two laical parties, split into two parts, so much so that now there is an ‘institutional’ CNCD and a ‘political parties’ CNCD. Does this evolution mean that the Algerians remain on the edge of the Arab revolutions which they even followed with great fervour in the case of Tunisia and Egypt and with concern in that of Libya? Why are the Algerians ‘not moving’?

 

 

Many Algerians smile at this queston. In reality a great deal ‘has been moving’ and for some time now. Their attempts to change the regime have paid such a price in terms of human lives: more than 500 victims in the big uprisings in October 1988 which witnessed, for the first time in the history of independent Algeria, the army repressing the population. Those uprisings had led to an openness in favour of political pluralism before precipitating into civil war following the annulment of the general elections won by the FIS Islamists in December 1991. The attempt of Islamist change fails, but at a cost: from 150,000 to 200,000 dead, thousands missing and the exile of the ablest part of the population (40,000 people according to the least exaggerated estimates). And above all a deep trauma that makes the Algerians mistrustful towards political passwords. The elderly fear that the country will fall into violence once again. The younger people do not see themselves at all in the governing political class. Nonetheless, this alienation from politics, the result of two decades marked by violence and the opposition to any change, is no longer a guarantee of tranquillity for the regime.

 

 

End of resignation

 

The political opponents lived in resignation in the face of a regime that could count on increasingly full coffers thanks to the increase in the oil revenues (over 200 billion dollars in foreign currency reserves and revenue regulation funds ). They woke up after the success of the Tunisian revolution. The impact was even more extraordinary since Ben Ali’s regime had become the authoritarian model for the supporters of the regime. The effect of the Egyptian revolution was even more powerful owing to the strong similarities with the Algerian situation. In order to cut a good figure, the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika hurried to remove the state of emergency in force since 1992, and which had become the instrument par excellence of the authoritarian government. But he did not move towards political openness for this reason. The government continues, in breach of the law, to refuse to support some political parties giving as its reason the fact that it is busy with economic and social issues that are of the utmost importance for the citizens. “The government will decide at the right moment” declared the Minister of the Interior Dahou Ould Kablia with regard to the applications for accreditation that have been pending for about ten years.

 

 

Affirmations that have become the target of criticism from the opponents, but which clearly correspond to the authoritarian vision of the regime, which during the last fifteen years has been devoted to gradually eating away all the democratic concessions granted after the big uprisings of October 1988. The political field is blocked, the law on the parties is made inoperative, the monopoly of power over audiovisual media gets stronger and stronger. The only progress that has been maintained is a relative freedom of the written press. Despite the annoyance that this press causes in the circles of power, it makes it possible to give an open image of the regime.

 

 

Coming out of the permanent revolt

 

With opposition forces suffocated and still extremely marked by the differences of the 90s, with an armed Islamist protest to a large extent defeated, the supporters of the regime did not even pose themselves the question of political reform. An Egyptian or Tunisian type scenario in which the opposition unites against the regime does not seem probable in the short term. The only very serious ‘inconvenience’ for the regime is linked to the persistent social unrest that is often expressed in uprisings and small revolts for jobs, housing or water. In January 2011, at the same time as the Tunisian protest, for the first time these uprisings took on a generalised character. The revolts resulted in five dead and almost one thousand injured, but stopped after three days as numerous Algerians refused to let themselves be dragged into the spiral of violence. For many opponents the game is now to leave the revolt and build an alternative to the regime.

 

 

Moreover, the latter has multiplied the conciliatory measures in order to free the social expectations from claims of political change put forward by all the political factions. The state has decided to not repress the street vending in which a number of jobless young people are involved, to facilitate the purchase of a house (credit and aid) and to extend the breadbasket of the subsidised products. Other measures have been taken like the creation of loans with zero interest rate for the young unemployed who want to create new firms. The measures have been deemed ‘democratic’, but the objective is clearly to avoid the ‘contagion’ of the Arab revolutions. This is a concern that is felt in society, where the social demands multiply: protests for housing, claims for higher salaries… even the oil-well workers are not exempt from this.

 

 

‘It is a change that can be realised with the power’

 

The Algerians play hide-and-seek with the regime. The latter states that priority must be given to social issues and so they put forward claims in this direction, taking advantage of the phobia for the political change that dominates the power. In Algeria many people say that the Tunisians did an ‘October 1988’ and that it was successful because it obtained the end of the regime. In Algeria, on the other hand, the regime is still in power. In the face of the Arab revolutions in which the deep impact is inevitable even if not mechanical, the establishment attempts to satisfy the social demands in order to separate them from those of political democracy. However, following a reaction of initial refusal, the regime is also making it understood that it is ready for political reforms.

 

 

Without hurry, even of the totally unexpected evolutions of the situations in many Arab countries show that regimes can be lacking time. ‘to continue the block on democratic life while the Arab landscape is changing is a real risk that the regime is taking upon itself in a moment in which it is not even sure that it can last. It is in the interests of the regime to open itself up as soon as possible and to move towards democracy without Tom, Dick and Harry having to flee the country’, warns the president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), Mustapha Boucachi in an interview on the site maghrebemergent.info. The president of the League clearly echoes those in Algeria who are fighting for a real change without violence. ‘This is a change that can be realised with the government. First of all the appearance of democracy must come to an end. The military and secret services that govern the country with telephone calls… all this must end immediately.

 

 

Then we all know that nobody in this country desires gaps in power, we all know that this would be dangerous, above all in a country like Algeria. This could lead us straight into a situation like the Libyan one. In such a vast country, with a non-unified political class and a government that for years has governed on the basis of the principle of divide et impera, not to mention the greed of all of them, a gap in power must absolutely be avoided. Reason wants us all, opposition and civilian society, to do everything in our power for the change to take place peacefully’.

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