North Africa: People Power


(Part 2 of IntLawGrrl Karima Bennoune's series on developments in North Africa; Part 1 appeared 1st at IntLawGrrls, here.) Today the Algerian government tried to hold back the winds of change blowing westward from neighboring Tunisia by besieging its own capital city. A peaceful protest called by the Algerian opposition party, the Rassemblement pour la culture et la démocratie (RCD), on the Place du 1er Mai was forcefully disrupted by large numbers of heavily armed riot police. One report claimed that 10,000 police had been deployed. Meanwhile, as many as 42 people were injured, several seriously, and others arrested, including a photojournalist. 

Security forces encircled the RCD headquarters on the Didouche Mourad, the main thoroughfare of Algiers, and set up checkpoints to prevent protestors from arriving in the capital from other parts of the county, or from reaching the Place du 1er Mai from other parts of the city. As depicted in this YouTube video, the trapped protestors – and those on balconies above – waved Algerian and Tunisian flags and chanted “Djazaïr, horra, dimocratia.” (“A free and democratic Algeria!”)
Today’s protest had been organized around very specific demands, set forth in the poster below right:
► the lifting of the state of emergency in place since 1992,
► the opening of political space,
► the restoration of individual liberties and constitutional rights, and
► the liberation of those demonstrators arrested during the riots and protests that erupted across Algeria earlier this month who remain detained.
In fact, today’s events but illustrate the importance of those very demands.
The RCD had applied for a permit for this demonstration – and the government summarily denied permission. Hence, the gathering was technically unlawful, putting protestors at risk of arrest. The wilaya, or province, of Algiers put out a widely broadcast statement Thursday calling on the population to show “wisdom and vigilance,” and not to respond to the call to protest. According to these authorities’ Orwellian message,“protests in Algiers are not authorized and any public gathering is to be considered a breach of the peace.” They acted on those pronouncements today.
Many Algerians remember all too well the émeutes of October 1988 when a previous generation of protestors were shot – perhaps as many as 500 in a week’s time – arrested in large numbers, and tortured. And this week theUnited Nations said that 100 people have died in recent events in neighboring Tunisia. So, there is reason to be concerned about the safety of those who will be involved in what are likely now to be ongoing demonstrations.
In the beginning, the U.S. media and government paid little attention to the protests in neighboring Tunisia. That mistake should not be repeated. The international media should closely follow developments in Algeria so as to let the Algerian government – and democracy activists – know that the world is watching.
Today’s events come amid escalating political tensions in the country.
In recent days Ahmed Badaoui, a trade unionist, was arrested and accused of fomenting rebellion in relation to a text message he sent regarding events in Tunisia. Subsequently, a coalition of political parties, human rights groups, unemployed youth and trade unionists met and agreed to hold a joint protest on February 9, which will mark the nineteenth anniversary of the declaration of a state of emergency in Algeria.
Peaceful protests like these are crucial because real change is needed and demanded by so many Algerians:
► One is the man with desperate eyes whom I interviewed in Algeria in October, a victim of the fundamentalist terrorism of the 1990s, unable to obtain a job, traveling from government office to office unsuccessfully seeking assistance for himself and his children with his collection of ripped documents.
► Or the Algerian artists who last week braved the police in the Rue Hassiba Ben Bouali – an Algiers street named for the nationalist heroine killed by the French Army - to express their opposition to the stifling of freedom of expression.
► Then there are those who live ten to a room in the quartiers populaireswith few prospects of getting a job or getting ahead, and without avenues to peacefully express their anguish.
► Or those countless harragas who as a result attempt to flee illegally by boat across the Mediterranean to Europe every year in search of a better life, and too often find an anonymous death on the sea.
► And finally, those Algerian men and women who have expressed the ultimate frustration in recent days setting their own bodies on fire as if to try and recreate Mohamed Bouaziz’s catalytic Tunisian moment.
In fact, according to the Algerian newspaper El Watan, this week these various manifestations of despair intersected when a group of youngharragas set their own boat on fire after being caught by the authorities. Remember Fanon’s “the wretched of the earth”? These are the wretched of the sea. How desperate must a young person be when he would rather burn himself to death than return home?
On the subject of the rash of self-immolations, see the excellent article in the January 21 issue of El Watan by Chawki Amari, Melanie Matarese, Ramdane Koubabi and Ghellab Smail, entitled “Immolation: I burn therefore I am.” It features the testimonies of some of those who have recently tried to incinerate themselves in protest, including a 40-year-old divorced woman struggling to make ends meet, whose mother was humiliated by local officials when she went to request that their dwelling be included in a public works program, and a 34-year-old unemployed man wrapped in bandages who explained that burning himself “was the only way to denounce la hogra (the arrogance with which officials sometimes treat ordinary people), contempt and …misery...”
Algeria fought a bloody, decade-long battle to defeat armed fundamentalism in the 1990s, and many thousands of ordinary Algerians were killed by fundamentalist terrorism. (In fact, the authors of “I burn therefore I am” make a link between that experience of largely unredressed violence and the current waves of self-immolation.) The government often uses the threat of terrorism to justify the continuation of the state of emergency and the prohibition of gatherings in the capital city like the one scheduled for today. Of course, there is a considerable irony to this, as it is the same government which has amnestied all of the perpetrators of the 1990s, to the horror of many advocates for victims. Moreover, it is profoundly heartening that attempts by fundamentalists to rally early January’s demonstrators to their banner failed entirely.
In light of all this, the government of the United States would be mistaken in thinking that the best way to assure its security interests in the ongoing fight against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria and elsewhere is to simply overlook legitimate popular frustration in the region.
Unquestionably, the Algerian military has played a significant role in the fight against AQIM. However, it must also be noted that as of now in Algeria there is little to no popular support for AQIM, an organization descended from the remains of the armed groups that brutalized the population in the 1990s. It is especially loathed of late because of its reported involvement in kidnappings, which have also sparked large protests in parts of the country.
Although security is used to justify the stifling of peaceful expression like today’s demonstration, it is actually vital, both for human rights and for real security, that legitimate popular grievances are heard and redressed democratically. This can help to maintain the consensus against AQIM and against fundamentalism as a political alternative, while improving the quality of life for millions. And figures like Saïd Sadi, head of the RCD, have warned that if peaceful protest proves impossible and democratic changes are not made, serious violence could erupt. He argues that there is even more anger in Algeria than in Tunisia.
What happens next depends in part on how many Algerians defy the ban on peaceful protests in Algiers and attend the February 9 demonstration, and on how the authorities respond. The best ways to honor the memory of so many who sacrificed for the country, whether during the 1950s/1960s battle against colonialism, or the 1990s battle against fundamentalism, would be to allow the next “unauthorized” peaceful march to proceed without the repression witnessed today, and to permit such gatherings to be the start of a new social democratic opening in Algeria that creates a better future for all its people.
Imagine a North Africa where a truly democratic Algeria adjoins a free Tunisia…
JANUARY 22, 2011