Protest Week 14: Algeria Awaits Final Verdict On Democracy

On Friday, 24 May, thousands of Algerian protesters returned to the streets of Algiers to demand a complete political transformation, in what marks the 14th consecutive week of demonstrations. Though crowds waned slightly throughout the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the cries for a complete government overhaul re-emerged at full force in Downtown Algiers, as well as in other major cities such as Annaba, Oran and Constantine.

Protests initially began in February after former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would seek re-election. Bouteflika’s governing party, the National Liberation Front, has reigned in Algeria since independence in 1962. Protesters successfully forced Bouteflika to step down on 2 April of this year. The 82-year-old president was subsequently replaced by Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of the upper body of parliament, who has close ties to former president Bouteflika.

The efficacy of the protests is not to be underestimated, especially in Algeria’s political climate, where international watch groups have consistently lambasted the government for exceptionally restrictive freedom of assembly and association laws, largely rooted in a 2001 blanket ban on demonstrations in Algiers. Since 2001, the ban has led to hundreds of arrests, particularly amongst political dissidents and journalists. Additionally, these austere restrictions played a significant role in the conspicuous absence of political transformation in Algeria after the Arab Spring in 2011-2012.

Over the course of the past 14 weeks, hundreds of arrests have been made. Attempts to disperse crowds has resulted in serious injuries, amongst police officers and demonstrators alike.

Protesters have remained in the streets despite of successfully removing Bouteflika from office due to Bensalah’s close ties to the hegemonic FLN. Thus, the nature of the protesters’ demands has transmuted slightly: now, demonstrators are largely calling for Bouteflika’s entire political cohort to relinquish control over the transitional period before the upcoming elections, scheduled for 4 July. Prominent spokespeople in the movement recently published an open letter, in which they claimed “free and fair elections” are not possible “when the vast majority of the population rejects the fact that they are organised by discredited institutions, opposed to any form of positive change.”

Though the months-long protests have been largely peaceful, the demands have met a reticent opposition. Namely, army chief of staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who initially helped to facilitate the removal of Bouteflika, now insists that the protesters’ revised demands are “unobjective and unreasonable“, adding that they sought to “deprive state institutions of their cadres and denigrate them.” General Salah, amongst other prominent FLN leaders, insists that the elections must happen as scheduled on 4 July.

While the notable successes of the movement are worth commending, particularly for the absence of fatalities, it is unclear whether the opposition of prominent military officials will halt further progress.