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Peaking after Friday prayers, streets across Algeria have been flooded with protesters demanding change in recent weeks. They are demanding an end to the 20-year rule of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has now pledged – not entirely convincingly – to stand down.
Whether genuine change will now come remains to be seen. But what is most notable about this mass “hirak” (the Arabic word for “movement”) is both its distrust of any politician who seeks to speak on behalf of the protesters – and its rejection of violence.
The importance of these two factors is grounded in the long struggle the nation has faced. Algerians, although determined and hopeful, are well acquainted with the dangers of striving for a change of this magnitude. Their shared past offers many lessons about nation building, many of which came at a heavy price.
Experts are divided over the definition of a “nation”, but many agree that two factors are important. On one hand, a collective memory serves as a record of the triumphs and failures from which the nation derives its lessons. On the other, imagination helps to instil a deep bond between the nation’s different members and cultivate an enveloping sense of community. Both of these factors have played a role in Algeria’s ongoing quest for nationhood.
Algeria won its independence from France in 1962 after a seven-year war that left more than a million dead. In Algeria, the memory of the martyrs is both a source of grief over the magnitude of the loss, and a source of pride, over the willingness of some to sacrifice everything for the nation’s freedom.
The FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) played a significant role in steering the country towards independence. But the war, and the role the FLN played in it, became a means for the party to legitimise its rule for decades afterwards, and a narrative behind which it could obscure its numerous failures.
The economic crisis of the 1980s played a major role in forcing the state to move from a single party system, which had allowed the FLN to monopolise power, towards a multi-party system. And the people took the chance to express their desire for radical change.
The FIS (Front Islamique du Salut), an Islamist party, took advantage of the situation, grew in popularity and in 1991 looked like it would defeat the FLN in the elections. But the Algerian army intervened, claiming it was protecting the nation from the dangers of FIS ideology, and blocked the electoral process. The FIS took extreme measures, a militarised wing was formed, and the country was plunged into chaos and civil war during a period known as Algeria’s “Black Decade”. Around 200,000 people lost their lives.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose recent bid for a fifth term (despite ongoing illness) sparked the current hirak, was elected for the first time in 1999. His Civil Concord law, followed by the 2005 Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which came during his second term in power, helped end the civil war. But this achievement yet again became a way to legitimise his rule for years afterwards.
No Arab Spring
Memories of the Black Decade also became a shackle, long hindering any widespread opposition. When the Arab Spring swept the wider region from 2011, fears of a return to the bloodshed of the civil war prevented many Algerians from seeking change which might trigger violence. Indeed, on February 28 this year, in an address to parliament, former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia tried to use the Arab Spring to caution the Algerian people against turning the nation into another Syria.
But the peaceful protests that followed have sent a clear reply: this is not Syria. Change through non-violent means is possible.
Algerians are well aware of their own past. And they don’t want to replicate the bloodshed Tunisia had to endure, the military seizure of power in Egypt, the unstable situation in Libya, or the devastation of Syria. The nation’s previous experiences, especially those of the Black Decade and the fatal manipulation of extremist ideology which sought to snuff out the diverse nature of Algerian society, are reminders of how a spark of change can easily, and often bloodily, be extinguished.
But Algerians also believe in the possibility of a different future, one that brings to fruition a nation imagined by them. The hirak is the people’s expression of this, one removed from the interference of politicians or foreign governments.
In a letter addressed to the people, Bouteflika has now declared that he will not run for a fifth term. But he has also cancelled the upcoming elections and extended his current term.
He has promised to oversee a peaceful transition to a new republic, but Algerians have rejected this and plan to continue the non-violent hirak. Remembering their past while striving for a better future, they are determined to translate their ideals into a new state. The struggle goes on – but its medium remains “silmiya” (peaceful).