Algerians keep up protests against ruling elites but crowds dwindle

Debate among Algeria’s political elites shifted from polarisation between the protest movement and the military-dominated government to talks of compromise.
Sunday 12/01/2020
Pressing for reforms. Algerians chant slogans during an anti-government demonstration in the centre of Algiers, January 10.(AFP)
Pressing for reforms. Algerians chant slogans during an anti-government demonstration in the centre of Algiers, January 10.(AFP)

TUNIS - Thousands of Algerians took to the streets of Algiers and other cities in a winter drizzle for the 47th successive Friday to continue pressuring for broad political reforms despite the new president’s pledges to lay the foundations of a “new Algeria.”

“We are the sons of Amirouche, we will not retreat,” chanted protesters in Algiers in reference to independence hero Colonel Amirouche Ait Hamouda.

“It is you or us. We will not stop,” they repeated under a giant banner painted with names and portraits of activists detained for their role in the protests.

The protests January 10 were a continuation of what has been widely described as the largest political pro-democracy movement since Algeria’s independence 58 years ago.

Demonstrators have forced changes that most political analysts predicted were unattainable in a country where the military dominates politics and other aspects of civic and business life.

Long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted last April and dozens of his loyalists have been jailed or replaced.

Former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected president December 12 and the military chief, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was de facto leader of the country and could have overshadowed the new head of state, died December 23.

The leadership change appeared to have affected the political situation and debate among Algeria’s political elites shifted from polarisation between the protest movement and the military-dominated government to talks of compromise.

That change in the political mood extended to the protests, with many questioning the power of the people in the streets without leadership or a clear agenda of demands and a strategy to achieve them.

The number of protesters was lower than in previous demonstrations but still reached the thousands.

Before the marches began, baton-wielding police dispersed crowds of demonstrators in Algiers. Police had been deployed in force and dozens of protesters were arrested, protests figures announced on social media.

Dozens of police vehicles were stationed at Asselah Hocine in Algiers from where protesters from the restive Bab el Oued district moved towards the centre of the capital.

More than 70 people who were jailed before trial or had been convicted were set free December 28. Protest figures welcomed the detainees’ release as “a gesture of appeasement” by Tebboune and demanded that other detained protesters be released.

The latest demonstrations came after Tebboune announced a new government in which no member was seen as opposed to the pro-democracy protests.

Tebboune formed a panel of law experts to rewrite the constitution that would include his promises to “turn a new page” in Algeria’s history to ensure a more tolerant, stable, democratic and inclusive path.

“The proposals by the committee of experts will help Algeria to prevent any form of authoritarianism, to ensure a genuine separation and balance between the powers,” he said. “The deep constitutional reforms were aimed at ushering in new models of governance and laying the foundations of a new Algeria.”

The revised constitution draft, which would limit a president to two terms, is to be submitted to a referendum after endorsement in parliament.

Tebboune said that regaining the trust of Algerians is a must to strengthen stability and build a consensus over the country’s direction amid a tormented regional environment with the flare-up of the conflict in neighbouring Libya and the spread of jihadism in the Sahel.

Some protest figures dismissed the president’s moves of openness as manoeuvres to divide the protest movement and its leaders. They said they sought “change by Tebboune to help Algeria end the regime not reform it.”

Others added that Tebboune would face “stiff resistance from the regime” for his reforms and opposition and protest figures have an interest in helping him advance his programme.

Tebboune said after meeting January 9 with protest figure former Ambassador Abdelaziz Rehabi: “The political moves and initiatives at present and in the future aim at building confidence which strengthens dialogue and communication in order to cement an internal front that is strong and cohesive and able to mobilise the energy and the competence of national elites and skills to make up for the lost time.

“That effort will help build state institutions to shape and embody democracy in order to spare the country from dictatorial practices and allow everyone to enjoy security, prosperity, freedoms and stability.”

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