A new pace of time in Algeria

Whatever happens, Algeria has entered a new phase in which decades-old woes cannot be swept under the rug, anymore.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Key juncture. Algerian female protesters wear their national flags as they demonstrate against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in power, in Algiers, March 8. (AFP)
Key juncture. Algerian female protesters wear their national flags as they demonstrate against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in power, in Algiers, March 8. (AFP)

With mounting street protests, Algeria bears all the hallmarks of a country whose rapid tempo of change is outpacing the ability of its political system to adjust to new realities on the ground.

It is too early to tell how events will unfold in Algeria and how the rulers who still matter there, especially in the military, will interact with the protests.

The issue of time is key to the ability — or inability — of any regime to cope with unrest and deal with the pressures for a peaceful transition.

Experience in the Arab world has shown that long-entrenched leaders can become complacent after many years of unchallenged rule. Endless terms in office can make time seem expansive. There is no rush, accordingly, to introduce significant reform.

For the older generation of leaders, meaningful change is only envisioned as a process that takes decades to mature. No major reputational damage would be usually feared from sudden ripples that could unexpectedly upset the placid power streams.

The spin doctors had it easy in those days. Damage control was a formal exercise that could outstretch the limits of political credibility with no risks. With no live satellite broadcasts and no social media, events took days to report. More important, there were no educated and politically savvy young populations with their fingers on computer keyboards and, much more commonly these days, on their smartphones.

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, the reputation of leaders can change over weeks, if not days. The catch-up game, which had assailed regimes’ attempts, becomes a near-futile exercise.

In Algeria’s case, social media seem to have been a major catalyst of the mass protests.

“The internet has allowed Algerian youth to see what is happening in other countries culturally, economically, politically, as well as seeing younger presidents compared to theirs,” Brahim Oumansour, a Paris-based researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations, told Agence France-Presse. “All this serves to amplify the anger, disappointment and frustration of not reaching the achievements of other countries.”

The problem with social-media-driven turmoil, however, is that it can amplify messages without offering cues as to which direction to take. This is all the more true in a place where opposition politics has been often more equated with unstructured expression of dissent than offering alternatives.

As expressed by French academic Karima Direche to France’s Le Monde newspaper, young Algerians were expected to remain “frozen in the traumatic time frame of the 1990s.” However, they weren’t inhibited anymore by the horrors of the ’90s nor impressed by the glorious days of the War of Independence that made Abdelaziz Bouteflika a hero.

With generational mutations in the background, speeches by long-revered leaders are outdated the minute they are aired. The many steps inherent in the traditional process of preparing any presidential speech are so time-consuming they cannot match the technical and political agility or spontaneity of the young crowds.

Funny how proposals that might have seemed magnanimous in a one time frame can sound irrelevant and anachronistic in another.

For decades, time seems to stand still and then suddenly both arms of the clock go crazy.

Contrary to the violent confrontations between demonstrators and security forces that broke out during the “Arab spring” uprisings in many Arab capitals, the demonstrations in Algeria have been generally peaceful. Violence was the accelerator of the forest fire that swept the region in 2011.

Algeria has been spared that kind of upheaval. It has not, however, been spared the uncertainty that comes with pent-up frustrations of the young.

The peaceful nature of the protests has reflected a striking degree of maturity on the part of both the young demonstrators and the security forces facing them but impatience is in the air. The problem is that most young people in the Arab world are unwilling to wait. They often demand instant gratification. With so many false promises, who can blame them?

Algerian youth see the current state of affairs as unbearable. They cannot rely on the largesse of the state as they did during the heydays of high oil prices. Instead, they can count on the country’s red tape and its outdated regulations and tax codes to smother any sense of creativity and entrepreneurship. They can also count on the European Union’s restrictive visa policies to hinder attempts to seek greener pastures abroad.

Whatever happens, Algeria has entered a new phase in which decades-old woes cannot be swept under the rug. The country’s coming generation is not willing to look the other way as it faces top-down decisions, corrupt practices and unfriendly business environments.

In addition, it sees the ruling class’s push to have Bouteflika serve a fifth term as president as utterly humiliating; and it views, with equal shame, the temptation for its citizens to illegally emigrate from a country so rich in natural resources.

Today, Algeria’s youth look with pride at the world’s attention to their peaceful protests. They are determined to continue advocating for a system reset that recognises the intelligence of young Algerians and ensures their access to modernity. To make that possible, they want a level playing field and a new cast of characters at the helm of the state.

Driven by frustration and impatience, there is only a thin line that they could — or could not — cross in their quest for change.

Eventually, it will all depend on the ability of the powers that be in Algiers to introduce the transformative shifts that are needed. If they hesitate for too long, it might be too late before they know it; for time, more than ever, is running short in Algeria.