Thinking beyond the Arab spring: let the Algerian protests speak for themselves

4 mins read

By Emelie Isaksen

On February the 22d, people took to the streets in great numbers to protest their current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. This happened all over Algeria, even in the capital – Algiers – where street protests are illegal. Although the protesters reached a first victory on the 2nd of April, when it was announced that 82 year old Bouteflika would not be running for a fifth term in the upcoming elections, the manifestations of discontent are still far from over. It did not take long before international media was framing the events as a possible return of the Arab spring, questioning if Algeria which “surprisingly” had managed to stay stable back then had now finally caught up with history. The rhetoric of Bouteflika – or rather of the political machinery representing him – echoed that of Mubarak in 2012, and the protesters unwillingness to accept symbolic concessions invited simplistic comparisons. However, according to for example Malika Rahal, a contemporary historian focusing on Maghrib and Algeria, what has remained largely undiscussed is the specific and multifaceted Algerianess inherent to the manifestations. The diversity of people claiming their rights on the streets of Algeria deserves a more nuanced coverage than the one currently offered by western media.

The history of Algeria is a unique one. The country’s colonial past was significantly violent and profound, and Franco-Algerian relations remain tense until this day. The fact that Algeria has already known tremendous violence is something that could to a large extent explain the unwillingness of the current so called “smiling revolution” to be identified with the Islamist civil war of the 1990s or with the Arab spring. The protests, which have been reccurring every Friday, remained extremely peaceful for a long time. People were said to have brought garbage bags to pick up trash from the manifestations as they sung chants with lyrics such as “silmiyya, silmiyya” (“peaceful, peaceful”). In fact, the ambience on the streets has been compared to celebrations post independence. Certain historical symbols, slogans and martyrs have played a big part in colouring and constructing the current protests, which are extremely rich in visual details and symbolical creative banners. The slogan “one sole hero, the people”, which was largely used during the Algerian war for independence is once again visible on the streets, and every week a new enourmous fabric-banner with a graphic message is hung from a big building in the centre of Algiers. The movement has referred to the independence in 1962 as the “liberation of the state”, thus pointing to the current manifestations as a way to obtain “liberation of the people”. To simply juxtapose the present to the war of liberation in ‘62 would however render invisible the diverse political and national developments which have shaped Algeria into what it is today.

One important aspect of the present manifestations that should not go unnoticed is the diversity of people marching the streets. After the war of independence, social structures in Algeria were largely uprooted and have ever since been slowly rebuilt. The Algerian population is a very young one, and students have played an important role ever since the first week of demonstrations. Women make up the majority of Algerian students today, and when one Friday coincided with international women’s day – a widely celebrated holiday in Algeria – women quickly took an even larger part in the demonstrations, notably large for a country in which women have gained emancipation in education and work but where family structures remain largely traditional. The protests have also shed light on different parallel priorities present in the struggle, one example being the availability and use of Palestinian flags in and by people from working-class areas and the complete lack of them in more wealthy parts of the capital.

Although elections were postponed and Bouteflika ousted, a generous amount of issues still remain to be solved. The military, which has a long history of intervening in Algerian politics, is once again speaking up in questions which in essence should not be handled by the army, and they are now the main target of slogans in the student-dense protests. Demonstrators have insisted that they will not support elections under figures whom are remnants of Bouteflika’s apparatus, such as the current interim president Bensalah whom they believe will try to ensure survival of the old regime. Instead political activists such as Muhannad Arzaki Farad argue that in order for the people to be content – a transitional period is required, in which the remnants of the previous regime are abolished, and in which an independent committee is set up to organise and monitor the elections. A recent banner was a clear response to the army’s choice of supporting to hold elections as planned in July: “The army: We do not back it uncritically; We do not oppose it unthinkingly; Its duty is to be in step with us honourably; Our duty is to march with it vigilantly”. And currently, elections have in fact been postponed, as no candidates have managed to register successfully with enough supporting signatures.

While arrests of people with ties to the Bouteflika regime and in high positions within society have been making the international news, the last couple of weeks have also seen an increased amount of police repression and arrests of people protesting, especially of people with a working-class background. These events have been largely overlooked by the international community. What will follow is hard, if not impossible to say, and instead of trying to make sense of Algeria’s current revolutionary movement by searching with torch and light for a suitable sorting category, its complexity and uniqueness should be underscored. Rather than repeating an Arab spring, Algerians have learned from the past – emphasising non-violence and insisting heavily on not settling for less than their full goals. The mixture of people from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds – old and young; men and women; veiled as well as unveiled – might be what gives the movement the strength it still has. The role of western media should be precisely and solely that of letting these loud and diverse Algerian voices speak for themselves.

Emelie Isaksen is an enthusiastic coffee-drinker from the forests of Värmland, who’s currently finishing her bachelors degree in development studies in Uppsala. Her passions are environmental studies, SVT, the potential power of art and secretly capturing her friends on camera.

Illustration by Emelie Isaksen.

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