Melanie Matarese: The age and profile of the activists, the nature of their demands, and the absence of iconic leader(s) – all suggest that the opposition movement to President Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fourth term gathering in Algeria’s civil society, is like no previous. True?
Sidali Kouidri Filali: Yes, it is fundamentally different. In 2011, the protests were of a social nature at first. Today, they are political. Behind the refusal of the fourth term, we protest for our dignity. The regime imposes on us a candidate, physically unfit, who hasn’t spoken publically for two years, supported by a politico-financial mafia. We don’t have any other choice but to enter into a conflict with this regime, which despises its people and squanders our oil.
MM: Barakat seems to have emerged pretty well overnight, is that the case?
SKF: We saw it coming. We saw the ministers using the Republic’s money as though it was the King’s own coin for distributing around the circuits that have been so well oiled for the last fifteen years. Abdelmakel Sellal (the current Algerian Prime Minister) visited more than 40 wilayas (cities)! Something never seen before and certainly not since Independence!
We thought that the political elite, the intellectuals were going to react, but nothing happened, so it was clear that we needed to take action. This is when it all started. At the first protest, there were barely five of us. Today, we are completely overwhelmed by requests from every region of the country, enquiries about how to organise, people realising,“well then, we also think in the same way”. Only, they don’t have the channels to express themselves at their disposal, since the media is at the regime’s mercy and on its payroll. Nevertheless, we have succeeded in breaking down that wall of fear, bringing back hope and provoking the regime into a head-on confrontation with its own people.
MM: Didn’t we see this with the CNDDC in 2011, or again with the Mouvement des Chomeurs (Unemployed Movement)? The regime is only too adept at dismantling protest by repressing it or by driving it to implode….
SKF: We are quite aware that the regime has its methods, and that it is one of the most vicious and most experienced dictatorships in the world. But this time, their classic responses won’t have any effect. They will be outclassed. When we were arrested by the police, on Saturday March 1, during the protest in front of the central faculty of Algiers, we were surprised by the reception we had at the police stations. So many police officers, whatever their function, came to congratulate us, whereas in 2011, they were saying, “what do you think? Algeria is neither Egypt nor Tunisia”. Today, they support us. Some of them said, “I would never shoot my own people”. The last few days, we saw army officers removing their stripes(rank) and sending us messages of solidarity, something never seen before in Algeria.
A woman being silenced and arrested during a Barakat protest on March 6 in Algiers
MM: What about the absence of charismatic political “figureheads” to lead the movement?
SKF: Of course, we received calls from many prominent citizens and well known political figures offering their help. But despite our inexperience, even if we were to make mistakes or even fail, we want to do this on our own. We need to try to structure ourselves, because we consider that the political parties have failed.
In 2011, we saw social contestation taken over by the people who have always done politics. This tendency in fact partly explains the failure. Politics is a gerontocractic activity and even the opposition reproduces the very same schemes utilised by the regime they pretend to confront. People don’t believe in political parties any more. However, if they are with us as citizens, as is the case of Soufiane Djilali, who put himself forward without a mention of Jil Jadid (his political party) – if they do it this way, we say yes!
MM: But surely if the political parties calling for a boycott joined you, your potential to mobilise people would increase tenfold?
SKF: The boycott is an option that we respect, but it is a political solution. Even if 99% of all Algerians were to boycott, Abdelziz Bouteflika (current Algerian president) would still go through. A passive boycott will not hurt him. At this stage, we would like nothing more than to say STOP to this masquerade. Let’s defend Algeria first. We do not want a fourth term, which would be the mandate of death for Algeria. We receive a lot of support from people who never did politics but who readily identify with the slogan, “NO to the mandate of shame”. It’s the minimum we should ask for.
MM: You don’t seem to have escaped the accusations that you are being manipulated….
SKF: I must insist on the autonomous and civic character of our movement, which has no partisan affiliations, no official or unofficial allegiance to any candidate. Our demands are clear and unambiguous like our aspirations. If we are here today, it is so that this country doesn’t go adrift or enter the unknown, which could easily happen if such rotten a system continues to govern.
MM: At every protest, activists are arrested. Do you not fear that discouragement will wear you down? How far are you willing to go?
SKF: We are willing to do whatever it takes to defend our rights. All the way. But I insist: peacefully. We know that Algerians are traumatised. We are accused of wanting to destabilise the country, but I answer; we are patriots, we only defend Algeria. It is those confronting us who use violence. On Tuesday, at the Constitutional Council, whilst we were trying to deliver a simple letter, activists were beaten up and humiliated.
We can see that the regime is cowering. And this mobilisation counts even more especially if we consider a significant obstacle: our recent history. It is not easy for us to shake the Algerian people, who have entered a state of lethargy bought off by the regime through a social peace. But the Algerian people today, are they not the same people as those who in 1954 (the start of the Algerian revolution against the French occupation) defeated terrorism?
The regime knows that it has every reason to fear them. And I tell you this, this nation will wake up, the rupture is vertical: there are Algerians at the heart of the regime, who do not want to continue this way. The regime doesn’t want to see what is outside its cocoon, but reality will soon catch up with it.
This article first appeared in French on El Watan 2014 on the 7 March 2014.
It was translated into English by Rachida Lamri, who is a writer, musician and activist. She is a member of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC), a London-based organisation campaigning for peaceful democratic change in Algeria. She is also the founder of a cultural organisation called Culturama.