Protests go on in Algiers even as president pledges reform

“Istiqlal, Istiqlal” (“Independence, Independence”) chanted protesters voicing widely shared grievances among Algerians.
Sunday 19/01/2020
Protesters demonstrate in Algiers, carrying signs which read: “I am optimistic about my Algeria” and “Me, too”. January 17. (AP)
Proclamation of hope. Protesters demonstrate in Algiers, carrying signs which read: “I am optimistic about my Algeria” and “Me, too”. January 17. (AP)

TUNIS - People took to the streets across Algeria January 17, continuing mass protests that have taken place for 48 consecutive Fridays.

The demonstrators, seeking sweeping changes in the Algerian government, remained high-spirited more than a month after the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president to replace Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was ousted by the pro-democracy movement after 20 years in power.

“Istiqlal, Istiqlal” (“Independence, Independence”) chanted protesters voicing widely shared grievances among Algerians that the country’s independence from France was “seized” by the military and business elites to monopolise power and wealth.

Protesters said revising the constitution was a charade in response to reforms proposed by Tebboune, a former prime minister elected president December 12 with a low-turnout vote.

Tebboune’s style of direct talks with personalities and opposition leaders supportive of the pro-democracy movement to win support for his reforms and ease the protests left protest figures divided.

He met with former Prime Ministers Ahmed Benbitour and Mouloud Hamrouche, staunch supporters of the protests. Tebboune also visited ailing former Foreign Minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi to brief him on reform ideas.

He talked with Islamic scholars and former independence war figures, including Youcef al Khatib, as well opposition leader Soufiane Djilali, leader of Jil Jadid party.

Djilali is among those who advocated evolution, rather than revolution, to push for reforms and avoid violence and strife.

Other opponents refuse dialogue with Tebboune and seek to energise the protests despite apparent fatigue in the movement as Algerians seem increasingly tired of taking part in marches each week without seeing tangible results.

Critics of engagement with authorities claim Tebboune’s election and his reforms would not change the Algerian government. They seek a peaceful revolution to achieve political gains.

“The meeting with the president January 15 aimed at submitting to the president the conditions of Jil Jadid for the dialogue with the regime and it was not a dialogue,” Djilali said in a statement. “The goal of the dialogue is to establish a genuine democracy in Algeria.”

Tebboune said: “The revision of the constitution is the cornerstone for rebuilding Algeria into a new republic to achieve the claims of our people expressed by the popular pro-democracy movement.

“The proposed deep reforms of the constitution will help the coming into existence of new modes of governance and lay the foundations of new Algeria.”

The proposed changes, which would include limiting a president to two terms in office, are to be submitted to a referendum before April with parliamentary elections before the end of the year.

However, experiences of constitutional change left many sceptical.

“Now we have to make one of the two choices: setting the conditions for a dialogue or refusing the dialogue and continue with the protests in the streets each week to keep up with the unchanged radical stands without results,” said Djilali.

During demonstrations January 17 in Algiers, rights lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi, a leading figure in the protests, said: “We continue our protests, our peaceful revolution with patience and perseverance because we believe nothing has changed. We have the same regime which recycled itself with the election of a new president.”

“There are no signals or measures to display a true intent that the demands of the people will be satisfied. The authorities can take action to prove the good intent of appeasement without the need of dialogue. The authorities do not authorise the opposition or the protesters to take measures as gestures of good faith,” he added.

Bouchachi cited freeing detainees, including protest figures Karim Tabbou, Fodil Boumala and Samir Belarbi, ending restrictions such as police roadblocks so people could travel to join protests in Algiers, opening state-owned media outlets to the opposition, tolerance of opposition and dissenting views in public spaces and ending legal restrictions of free and independent political activities.

Tebboune has freed more than 70 detainees since his election and promised to address all other demands to “win the confidence of the Hirak (pro-democracy movement).”

Analysts said Tebboune appeared “hesitant” in his moves, which must come swiftly to build confidence. Some said the president’s actions were limited by “many red lines from the military.”

“We missed the opportunity to forge a consensus about free elections in December to put the country onto path of a democratic transition and we face the risks of missing another opportunity to have a genuine dialogue about change,” said Bouchachi.

“That confirms the belief of many Algerians that there is no change and the regime rejects the core issue that the source of power will be the free will of the Algerian people.”

More than ten protesters were detained by police in Algiers for taking part in the demonstrations, said the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees. Police deployed enough force in the western towns of Tiaret, Saida and Sidi Bel Abbes to stop Algerians from taking to the streets.

Activists said such incidents cast doubt on Tebboune’s pledges of “a new Algeria.”

“An explanation is that the factions of the regime are divided about the future shape of the regime after the elections and the death of (General) Ahmed Gaid Salah December 23,” said Nasser Djebbar, a university teacher and leading figure in the protests.

“The new situation put some factions on the losing side while others won prompting the losers to undermine the gainers. The second interpretation is that the regime is divided about whom to deal with the Hirak: ignore it like Gaid Salah did or listen to it.”