On Friday, Al Jazeera reported that thousands of Algerian protestors had gathered in the capital of Algiers to demand the removal of the country’s powerful army chief, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, despite a heavy deployment of security forces in the city. This demonstration marked the 31st consecutive week of protests in the country that began when former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his decision to run for a fifth term in office. Bouteflika left office in April but demonstrators have continued to call for free elections and a further removal of political elites.
Activists outside of the post office square in Algiers on Friday chanted, “The people want the fall of Gaid Salah,” and, “Take us all to prison, the people won’t stop.” Adlene Kada, a 23-year-old protestor told Al Jazeera correspondents, “We will not stop marching. It is a unique opportunity to change a corrupt system,” Meanwhile, other demonstrators directed their chants at the military helicopters monitoring the protests repeating, “We want a civilian state, not a military state.”
When the protests began in February 2019, they caught the Bouteflika regime by surprise. Before the demonstrations, a survey done by the Arab Barometer showed that Algerian citizens had been largely disengaged from the political process, with only 20 percent expressing an interest in politics. In fact, only 19 percent of Algerians voted in the 2017 parliamentary elections. Algerians also did not participate heavily in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. This political apathy was largely the result of a non-competitive election process with no choice for regime change. However, with the collapse of global oil prices in 2014, the Algerian government was forced to reduce economic benefits like subsidies and back pay owed to civil servants causing outrage among citizens. The Washington Post reported that optimism about the future of the country dropped by 41 percentage points from 2013 to 2019, and that citizens held increasingly negative views about the government with just 10 percent of people believing that the government was doing a good job at managing inflation and reducing inequality. This discontent, combined with the broken political system, left ordinary Algerians with no formal way to voice their frustrations, leading to a massive increase in peaceful protests. The Arab Barometer quantified this increase in political engagement with another survey that found that the percentage of citizens who had signed a petition within the last three years increased by 50 percent since 2016, and the number who had taken part in a peaceful demonstration almost quadrupled.
In response to these demonstrations, Algerian authorities have put increasing pressure on protestors by arresting activists and attempting to control the spread of information. Amnesty reports that at least 37 dissidents have been arrested since 11 September 2019, with 24 still in detention. On 18 September 2019, General Ahmed Gaid Salah ordered the national gendarmerie to “seize and fine vehicles and buses” headed towards the demonstrations to block access to the capital for protestors. NetBlocks, an organization that monitors internet freedom, also reported that access to the internet has been disrupted in several regions of the country in an attempt to slow the spread of information about the protests.
However, police crackdowns are not the only struggles that Algerian activists face. There are also many divisions within the opposition. For example, many protestors have different opinions on the role religion should play in politics with some believing that religious leaders should make decisions in government and others believing that religion should be separated from public life. Many people also worry that democracy could bring instability, indecision, and economic decline. Across the country, the Arab Barometer survey found that only 41 percent of Algerians believe democracy is preferable to other political systems and only 9 percent believe that democracy requires free and fair multi-party elections. The majority of people surveyed believed democracy meant that the government would provide security and ensure jobs for all.
For these protests to achieve productive outcomes, members of the opposition must reach a consensus on exactly what kind of political reforms they envision. More importantly, if the Algerian government wants to ensure a peaceful presidential election process in December, it must recognize the grievances of protestors and respond to their needs rather than using fear and intimidation to silence their voices.
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