Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Notations From the Grid (Weekly Edition): On the Protests in Algeria

As part of our continued quest to bring all voices, please enjoy this perspective on the current situation in Algeria as it is in the midst of protests as its' ailing President wants to run for President again.   Whether this begins a new impetus for another Arab Spring is the big question: 

Quick Thoughts on Algeria’s Protests

Algeria has in recent weeks been gripped by a growing wave of popular demonstrations, which are reaching a crescendo as the closing date for nominations for the 18 April presidential elections approaches. Central in this equation is the prospective candidacy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, incapacitated for several years and demonstrably incapable of leading the country or its government. To learn more about the context and prospects of the Algerian protest movement, Jadaliyyaturned to Thomas Serres of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming L'Algérie face à la catastrophe suspendue. Gérer la crise et blâmer le peuple sous Bouteflika (1999-2014) (Algeria and the Suspended Disaster. Managing the Crisis and Blaming the People under Bouteflika (1999-2014).
Jadaliyya (J): What is the background to the current round of protests in Algeria, and should they be understood in the context of the presidential elections or as part of a broader agenda with more comprehensive demands?
Thomas Serres (TS): These protests are at the crossroads of long-term discontent resulting from structural injustice and cyclical tensions linked to the presidential elections scheduled for 18 April 2019.
There is constant socio-economic unrest in Algeria. The society is very active and yet very fragmented. To overcome this fragmentation and make their claims heard in the public space, many social movements have tried to organize themselves and to mobilize in a peaceful manner. They also make limited demands and invoke national unity in order to gain popular support. 
During the past five years, some of these movements have been quite successful, especially those coming from the south of Algeria whose agendas focus on unemployment or opposition to fracking. Hundreds of associations, autonomous trade unions, human rights activists and YouTubers regularly denounce the status quo, and depict a catastrophic present (i.e. the daily sufferings of the population). Activists, journalists, and artists echo the widespread feeling of hogra (best translated as systemic injustice and contempt, denial of the right to live in dignity). They depict a situation that is quite simply unbearable.
The upcoming presidential election has been a catalyst for this popular discontent. The current mobilization sends a clear message: enough is enough. ‘Ashrun sena barakat (Twenty Years is Enough!) as one sign seen at the protests stated. In 2014, during the last presidential elections, the ambiance was already on edge and one could sense a mix of fear, fatigue, and disgust. Nothing has changed. Spokespersons of the regime display supreme contempt for the people. Their discourses are either redundant or absurd. Those who accept to take part in the elections as challengers are largely portrayed as complicit, if not complete jokers.
The April elections could appear as a form of political farce if the current political paralysis was not a reason for the socio-economic hardships experienced by people on a daily basis. Meanwhile, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is incapable of speech, is portrayed as the man who is going to save the nation from the prospect of another civil war. The elections have become a Kafkaesque mise-en-scène, an absurd distortion of a democratic process resulting in pervasive social anxiety. In short, there is only so much people can take. From this perspective, while the discourse of protesters has targeted the Bouteflikas (Abdelaziz and his brother, Saïd), it is also the broader system of domination that is under attack.
J: Are these protests spontaneous expressions of opposition to a further term for President Bouteflika that will eventually pass, or are they evolving into an organised campaign with a structure, leadership, and durability?
TS: The protests are generally spontaneous, for two reasons: first, Algeria has its own nationalist tradition and political temporality, which explains its relative disconnection from the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011. Algeria did experience a popular uprising in January 2011, but the fear of chaos, the financial resources ensured by high hydrocarbon prices, the political fragmentation, and the relative legitimacy of Bouteflika (compared to Tunisia’s Ben 'Ali or Egypt’s Mubarak) helped the regime navigate the crisis. The current protests are also free from any kind of foreign influence (which would be unacceptable given the shared nationalist narrative), though they are supported by the Algerian diaspora in Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
The second factor that explains the spontaneity of these protests is the widely shared rejection of formal politics. Political parties, linked to the regime or to opposition forces, are discredited because of their fragmentation, their incoherent discourses and their participation in clientelist networks. For this reason, social, political, and economic movements in Algeria have branded themselves as autonomous for more than a decade. They might include some political figures who support their cause, but they are not directed by any political organization. Therefore, the current movement is a grassroots one. It has benefited from spectacular mobilization on internet, but also from already existing forms of organization in universities and even among football fans. Moreover, this spontaneous mobilization displays remarkable organization, pacifism and civility (they are cleaning the streets after the protests) that counter the negative representations of the masses promoted for the last 20 years.
Activist networks that have been mobilized for several decades, even during the civil war of the 1990s, are finally seeing the fruits of their relentless actions to keep criticism alive in the public space. Youth organizations, human rights defenders, and social movements have all contributed to making this possible. This also rewards the efforts of newspapers such as El Watan and El Khabar that have been critical of the regime despite the many obstacles they faced.

J: What is the position of established actors in Algeria, such as the FLN, the military, and opposition parties, and to what extent are the current protests being used to settle intra-elite rivalries?
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