Algeria’s opposition movement marks first anniversary
Algerians demand a complete overhaul of the ruling elite as they continue protests that toppled ex-leader Bouteflika.
Algiers, Algeria – Several thousand people converged in downtown Algiers on Friday to mark one year of unprecedented protests that led to the downfall of Algeria‘s longtime leader.
By the end of the morning, a large noisy crowd, including women and children, with some waving the national flag, gathered at the Grande Poste building, a hot spot of the mobilisation over the past year.
Marching through the main streets of the capital, protesters chanted, “We are not here to celebrate, we want you to leave”, referring to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s decision to make February 22 a special holiday in honour of the peaceful movement.
The move was seen as an effort to hijack the leaderless youth-dominated movement.
“He wants to dispossess us of our revolution,” Youcef, a 34-year-old unemployed activist, told Al Jazeera.
Police were deployed in force, blocking protesters on streets in Algiers.
The metro was closed and all trains to the capital were cancelled, apparently a move to keep the number of demonstrators down. Even though the protests were smaller than in the spring of 2019, the demonstrations have not waned.
Over the past week, Algerian social media was flooded with calls to fill the streets of the capital on Friday to demand a complete overhaul of the ruling elite, an end to corruption, and the army’s withdrawal from politics.
When a group of peaceful protesters converged in Algiers on February 22 last year in order to stand against then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth consecutive term, they had no idea their action would be part of a year-long movement that would topple the veteran leader.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw people coming out everywhere then. I had not experienced that before,” Sakina, a 29-year-old bookseller, told Al Jazeera.
Under the pressure of both the protest movement and the military authority, Bouteflika stepped down in April after a two-decade-long rule.
His resignation has remained the biggest success of the movement, known as the Hirak.
“It is a milestone. It gave us hope and opened doors to a real transition,” Drifa, a 36-year-old YouTuber, told Al Jazeera.
But Bouteflika’s retirement failed to satisfy the tireless protesters, who have continued to take the streets every Friday and Tuesday calling for sweeping reforms and the departure of the old guard.
“Bouteflika’s resignation and the imprisonment of corrupt businessmen and political leaders, including former Prime Ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, are tangible results. But this is not enough,” Kamel, a 65-year-old shopkeeper, told Al Jazeera.
“The regime is far from having changed and our main demands are far from having been achieved. We want to establish a real democracy and end this dictatorship.”
He said Tebboune – an ally of Bouteflika and a former housing minister who was elected president in a vote largely rejected by the protesters last December – was a “powerless civil figure for a military authority which effectively rule the country behind the curtain”.
Many said the Hirak had a positive impact on society, reconnecting the Algerian people with politics without fear of plunging the country into another civil war.
‘No longer afraid’
For years the trauma of the lingering conflict between the Algerian army and Islamist groups – known as the Black Decade, when some 150,000 people were killed – was exploited under Bouteflika to discourage dissent.
“Large protests were unimaginable before the beginning of the Hirak, especially in Algiers. But we are no longer afraid. A new generation who did not experience this tragedy is raising its voice,” Sakina said.
The first anniversary of the grassroots movement triggered many questions about the future of the Hirak: Should the activists negotiate with the newly elected president, who declared he is ready to “extend a hand” to cooperate with them? Should they build a solid structure and designate representatives?
The movement is divided over these decisions.
Many said the government is not willing to make any further concessions. “We can’t negotiate with the ruling elite because it only gives orders. The sole solution is their departure,” Kamel said.
Some are ready to cooperate with the administration provided all imprisoned activists are released.
“There will be no negotiation as long as innocent people are in jail because they took part in the march,” Farida, a 56-year-old physiotherapist and member of a committee for the liberation of political leader Karim Tabbou, imprisoned since September, told Al Jazeera.
According to the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, nearly 2,500 protesters have been arrested over the past year. Hundreds are still in custody pending trial.