This is the fourth in a series of articles by Karima Bennoune covering this month's election in Algeria
On Thursday April 17, Algerians were asked to decide whether 77 year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – a stroke patient who in 2008 had the constitution changed to enable himself to seek first a third and now a fourth term in office - should remain in power. “The President is not even able to campaign. Others are campaigning for him,” journalist and opposition activist Meziane Abane, who was arrested three times this spring, told me in Algiers in March. “This has never been seen before in the entire world.” In response to this non-campaign, Algerians abstained en masse. Only 51.7% of the country's 23 million registered voters actually voted, down from 75% in 2009. The interior ministry claims 81% of those who voted cast their ballots for President Bouteflika, a statistic which is disputed by opposition political parties that boycotted the election.
Since late February, the non-partisan Barakat (Enough!) Movement has been organizing small but resolute demonstrations across the country against the President’s attempt to seek a fourth term, and for a more just Algeria – no mean feat when the government stifles opposition, repeatedly arresting and beating Barakat’s members. The activists have also been the targets of a vicious smear campaign in cyber-space, on television and even on their own Facebook page. They are incessantly accused of being Zionists and foreign agents, and of threatening the stability of the country. Their individual pictures are often displayed together with this invective, a tactic the movement has decried as incitement to assassination.
Beyond all this anti-Barakat propaganda, the reality is that Barakat brought together women and youth, professionals and the unemployed to challenge what they viewed as an electoral masquerade, but also to continue to demand the restoration of citizenship and dignity even after the elections. They are resolutely non-violent, reformist rather than revolutionary, and they seek neither re-enactment of the “Arab Spring” nor any international involvement in Algeria. Instead, they are simply a diverse, local citizen movement with neither funding nor NGO status.
On the eve of the elections, this movement took to the streets to hold its 18th peaceful protest of the season – peaceful on the demonstrators’ part alone. After the carnival of police brutality that greeted their first actions in early March, the security forces had shifted tactics, containing the movement’s protests but allowing them to take place. Not on 16 April. All of those I interviewed previously for openDemocracy - founders Mustapha Benfodil, a prominent writer, and Dr. Amira Bouraoui, a female gynecologist, as well as Louiza Chennoub, the woman who became one of the faces of the movement after being famously gagged during a march by a policewoman - were again ruthlessly attacked by security forces. As the Barakat movement commented on its Facebook page on 16 April: “The peaceful citizen demonstration that we organized in front of the central campus of the University of Algiers was violently repressed, and broken up by police officers in uniform and in civilian clothes, as well as by hooligans of all sorts who had been dispatched to attack peaceful citizens… Those who responded to Barakat's call to demonstrate were beaten up. As we write this, some demonstrators are actually trapped in a building near the campus, among them Mustapha Benfodil and Amira Bouraoui. The demonstrators who were seriously injured are now at Mustapha Hospital in Algiers. Barakat (Enough!) says no to la Hogra (the arrogance with which officials treat ordinary people), and long live Algeria.” On Youtube, you can see that Dr. Bouraoui is nearly strangled, while Chennoub appears draped in an Algerian flag and in tears as she was forced off the streets with another woman by a horde of policemen. The Algerian government seems to believe that that which it bans will simply disappear. They are mistaken.
Immediately after the election results were announced on 18 April, the Barakat activists renewed their declarations of defiance on the organization’s Facebook Page. “Boutef and his ruling circle cannot lock me up in a voting booth,” declared Mustapha Benfodil. “The next steps: application of article 88 (of the constitution which holds that in case of physical incapacity, the Constitutional Council should relieve the president of his functions) – building a new constitution – political transition after the funeral of Boutef who, without a miracle, will not be able to complete his term – new elections. A simple calculation: with 49% rate of abstention + those who voted for Benflis, Louisa H (opposition candidates)… + the blank ballots, we are more than 30 million who rejected the imaginary president. This is plenty of material with which to plan for hope. Barakat (Enough!) of depression!”
Dr. Amira Bouraoui was similarly steadfast as she addressed herself to the government: “Barakat will continue its struggle in a peaceful manner. Barakat remains determined to achieve the RIGHT to life, the RIGHT to live FREELY in one’s country. In spite of the witch hunt which the uncultured regime organizes against our members, we are not afraid of anything... The only fear which motivates us comes from knowing that Algeria is still in… your unclean hands… We will liberate ourselves from you… because lies, violence and mean-spiritedness have never been able to last forever. … Algeria belongs to its children whose oil you have sold off for the next twenty years. We will fight peacefully to the end.”
The Barakat Movement’s constant emphasis on peaceful action reflects the anxieties left behind by the country’s terrible internal conflict of the 1990s - the “dark decade” - during which fundamentalist armed groups massacred and assassinated hundreds of thousands while the state responded with torture and forced disappearances. Today, and throughout election season, the regime uses the very real ghosts of this violence to haunt the population, despite the fact that many victims of terrorism are highly critical of the regime’s national reconciliation which amnestied the perpetrators of the 90s.
Nevertheless, as sociology professor Nasser Djabi told me in Algiers in March this year, the government threatens the society by saying, “either accept us as the political system, or there will be chaos.” Benfodil, himself a victim of the fundamentalist violence of the 90s, wrote for the newspaper El Watan about election day in Boufarik, a town located in one of the dark decade’s toughest zones. He quoted Nadir, an election worker, who explained his attitude toward the current political situation: “I prefer misery to decapitated heads. We lived hell here.”
In such an environment, in this post 17 April era, the challenges that lie before the Algerian opposition, including the Barakat Movement, are great. As Djabi explained, they must do no less than “rehabilitate politics itself.” On 21 March, I attended a debate about the current political situation at the headquarters of independent newspaper Algérie News, which has subsequently had advertising for state companies pulled from its pages because it offered space to the Barakat Movement to hold an election week press conference. Near the end of the 21 March debate, a young woman opined from the floor: “What should we do? That is the only question that I am interested in. It is the regime that infantilized the people, the nation and the exercise of democracy itself. We must pick one struggle – not by suppressing differences because we do have differences – but we must unify around a democratic project for the Algeria of tomorrow.”
This project is urgent, because the Algeria of today is experiencing some turbulence. During a recent demonstration by unemployed men, government buildings were set on fire in the Saharan city of Ouargla, some 480 miles from Algiers. This led to arrests, followed by further protests. On the night of Saturday 19 April, 11 soldiers - some very young - were killed in a terrorist attack, likely carried out by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, in Iboudrarene. On Sunday 20 April, marches to commemorate Berber (Amazight) protests in 1980 and 2001, were brutally suppressed in the city of Tizi Ouzou. A Youtube video of policemen pummeling young demonstrators, including one who appears to be unconscious circulates widely, provoking even the director of the national security services to reportedly order an investigation. Meanwhile, the country is surrounded by neighbors like Libya and Mali which are experiencing dire security challenges that pose tremendous difficulties for Algeria as well.
The question is, what real solutions President Bouteflika ( who rarely appears in public due to his health problems ) and his government now have to offer as the fourth term begins. Will they come up with anything other than doling out oil revenues – which are increasingly recognized to be finite – to friends and roiling sectors of the population without building an infrastructure that can outlive those oil revenues? Foreign powers seem happy with this arrangement as it keeps the oil flowing and makes profits for their companies, so they look the other way as protestors are battered and the opposition silenced.
But Algeria is not a gas station. It is a country of some 39 million people who have over successive generations paid a terrible price in blood in the quest for liberty - in the 50s and 60s for freedom from France, and in the 90s for freedom from fundamentalist terrorists. They now deserve a real, peaceful democratic transition that ensures the economic, social, civil and political human rights of all. While the Barakat activists who work for just such a future seek no outside support, it is clear that they may be at risk of reprisals in coming months and will need civil society solidarity as they aim to keep going. As the movement posted on its Facebook page just after the electoral results were announced: “Barakat. The struggle continues. Long live Algeria!”
Read Karima Bennoune's series of articles on openDemocracy 50.50 covering the recent Algerian elections: