Protesters in Martyr’s Square chanted “yesterday Egypt, today Algeria” during demonstrations in the Algerian capital Algiers on February 12. The Algerian government’s response to the protesters was reminiscent of Egypt’s ex-President Hosni Mubarak during the last five days of the 18-day protest in Cairo. Armed riot police and pro-government thugs attacked pro-democracy protesters to provoke violent clashes. The same aggressive approach to the protesters was seen again on February 19 when military-style armored police vehicles deployed throughout Algiers to prevent the protests from even forming. Mubarak was visibly desperate when he sent in the camels and horses into Tahrir Square. In Algeria, however, the heavy-handed response from the regime should not be seen as an act of desperation.
After all, Algeria has seen this all before. In October 1988 strikes and walk-outs by students and workers, fuelled by the regimes’ slow response to a decrease in standards of living and the sluggish approach to political reform, degenerated into rioting that ended in the destruction of the property of the government and the ruling FLN party. The government responded by unleashing the security forces to quell the unrest, leaving more than 500 dead and around 3,500 in jail. These hard-line measures led to a more unified opposition front ranging from lawyers, journalists, and physicians to the Islamist movement that was gaining momentum at that time.
Then-President Bendjedid drew up several reform measures to meet the demands of the opposition. The government drafted a new constitution, which was approved in February 1989. The changes included guaranteed freedoms of expression and association, and, to appease the Islamists, withdrew the guarantees of women’s rights that originally appeared in the 1975 constitution. The army’s role was relegated to national defense, downgrading its political importance. The ruling FLN, meanwhile, disappeared altogether from the revised constitution.
Then in 1991, an Islamist political party that had a strong showing in earlier local elections won the first round of national elections. The army stepped in before the second round could take place. It deposed Bendjedid, effectively took control of the government, and still hasn’t left. Although the regime made some changes in the 1990s – by allowing a relatively free press, establishing a “pluralistic” party system, and engaging in modest economic reform – the top generals still pull the strings behind the current political leadership.
The years of overwhelming violence in the 1990s seemed to eradicate any hope for a just society in Algeria. The civil war left as many as 200,000 people killed, and the current regime still hasn’t addressed the legacy of this violence. The Black Spring of 2001, during which the government’s crackdown on Kabyle Berber activists left 90 dead and 5,000 wounded, demonstrated that the culture of impunity remains entrenched. In 2006, President Bouteflika issued a decree that criminalized public discussion of the civil war and made prosecution impossible for the human rights abuses committed by both state security forces and militant groups. The ongoing battle between the citizenry and the Algerian army is epitomized by the weekly rallies of the families of the disappeared demanding that the regime release information about the whereabouts of their relatives.
Lighting the Way
The recent collapse of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s autocratic regimes offers several key lessons for Algeria. In order to achieve political change in Algeria, the opposition must take into account the overreaction of the riot police. Spontaneous protests should observe the rules of the game by being nonviolent. To take advantage of the far-reaching publicity potential of Twitter and Facebook, Algerian activists must overcome their linguistic dependency on French and start sending out their appeals in English, both for the sake of their Arabic-speaking compatriots and for the English-dominated news agencies.
The U.S. response to Algeria has demonstrated its ambivalent attitude toward the pro-reform/pro-democracy wave in the Middle East and North Africa. When the protests broke out in Algeria on February 12, the State Department released a statement calling for “restraint on the part of the security services” and also reaffirmed its “support for the universal rights of the Algerian people, including assembly and expression.” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on February 14 that “there is a greater respect for the rights of the citizens,” when he was asked about the lack of U.S. condemnation of the hard-line responses to pro-democracy protests in Algeria, Bahrain, and Yemen, as opposed to Iran. That this statement was uttered with a straight face regarding Algeria suggests that the State Department needs a refresher course on the history of the Algerian security forces.
Algeria, of course, has been a close U.S. ally. After 9/11, Bouteflika visited then-President George W Bush twice and the leaders bonded over oil and terrorism. Algeria and the United States have cooperated on several law-enforcement and counter-terrorism initiatives, with Algeria attempting to link the U.S.-led war on terror to Algeria’s decades-long struggle against Islamist militants.
Algerian Vice-Prime Minister Nouredine Yazid Zerhouni has emphasized the illegality of the protests and made it clear that the regime will continue to be treat protesters harshly. Zerhouni has also repeated the 19-year old argument on the necessity of upholding the state of emergency because of the threat of al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist movements in Algeria. But the current movement is spearheaded by neither the clamorous Berber minority nor the Islamist opposition. The move by protest organizers to call for demonstrations on Saturdays instead of Fridays, which could have mobilized Islamists, should help weaken the regime’s arguments playing up the Islamist threat. The newly emerging opposition seems to be mostly secular and includes both Arabs and Berbers, traditionally a dividing line in Algerian society.
The regime’s excessively confrontational approach to the protesters weakens the potential strength of a collective movement. The riot police’s tactic of dividing planned marches into clusters of small, chaotic groups demolishes any sense of power that would come from mass mobilization. The Co-ordination for Democratic Change in Algeria (CNCD) is a recently formed coalition of human rights groups, trade unionists, and other small opposition parties calling for weekly protest marches in the capital. Though the attempt to centralize and coordinate the protest movement is laudable, it militates against spontaneous daily actions that typified the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Algerian demonstrations should organically rise without the constraints of political affiliations.
On a trip to Madrid this past weekend, Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said in an interview with Spanish daily El Pais that the domino effect in the region is “an invention on the part of the media” that doesn’t apply in Algeria. He reassured the West that “Algeria is not Tunisia or Egypt.” The regime’s reaction to the protests in Algeria illustrates the distance between its perception of reality and the truth of simmering unrest in the country. Sending in the riot police to maintain this distance will not hold back the region’s tides of change for long.
The United States has frankly lost the opportunity to lead by example in the Middle East. An inability to choose between “stability” and “democracy” has handicapped the Obama administration. The resulting hesitancy has made the United States irrelevant in the current pro-reform trend. For now, America remains merely a spectator to the great drama unfolding in the Middle East.