Hopes by those seeking sweeping changes in the Middle East that, after decades of oppressive rule, the power of the people’s revolution in Egypt, which toppled Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of dictatorship on Friday, would spread next to Algeria received a setback at the first hurdle in Algiers on Saturday, when, as Karima Bennoune, an Algerian law professor in New Jersey, explained in a poignant article for the Guardian (cross-posted below), peaceful protestors were beaten up and arrested, although they were subsequently freed.
Public protests are banned in Algeria, but protestors remain hopeful, and those who turned out on Saturday know that, as in Egypt, unemployment, rising food prices, and the harsh realities of life in a brutal authoritarian state (the legacy of the unspeakingly horrific civil war in the 1990s, which, as in so much of the region, involved the meddling of the West) mean that the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is vulnerable to a movement of mass opposition, if a trigger can be found that will enable the people to overcome their fear. As the Algerian psychologist Cherifa Bouatta told Bennoune, while watching the scenes in Tahrir Square, “I have been waiting for this for years. This is the beginning. From the years of terrorism [the 1990s] and what came after, everything seemed lost. Our hopes for a just society were dying. But now the possibilities are fantastic.”
Algiers — In the wake of Friday’s historic events in Cairo, over 1,000 peaceful demonstrators defied a ban on protests in Algiers on the Place de 1er Mai on Saturday. The goal of the National Coordination Committee for Change and Democracy, the organisers of what was supposed to have been a march to Martyr’s Square, was to call for an end to the 19-year state of emergency, for democratic freedoms, and for a change in Algeria’s political system. Invigorated by Cairo’s great event, this Saturday in Algiers they chanted slogans like “Djazair Horra Dimocratia” (“A free and democratic Algeria”), “système dégage” (“government out”) and indeed, “Yesterday Egypt, today Algeria”.
There were small echoes of Egypt. Thousands of police in full riot gear painted the square blue in their uniforms, attempting to occupy the space and prevent the demonstration, yet the protestors remained, for hours risking arrest and beatings, shouting slogans and singing effervescently. A large group of young men, with the obvious cooperation of the police, entered the scene violently, chanting in favour of President Bouteflika (in power since 1999) and attempting to provoke fights with the protestors. (This was so reminiscent of Cairo, that for a moment, one half-expected a charge of men riding camels like in Tahrir Square.) At one point, these youths rushed the bench where I stood taking photographs with journalists, and we all toppled to the ground. Later, the pro-government provocateurs started throwing large stones.
The single most moving part of the day was the women’s demonstration. A group of about 50 of the many women present — a few young women in hijab, many other young women in jeans, older, seasoned feminist activists wearing khaffiyehs and dresses — took up position next to the bus station at 1st of May Square holding a large Algerian flag. One of these women, prominent psychologist Cherifa Bouatta, told me on Friday as we watched the celebration in Cairo:
“I have been waiting for this for years. This is the beginning. From the years of terrorism [the 1990s] and what came after, everything seemed lost. Our hopes for a just society were dying. But now the possibilities are fantastic.”
On Saturday in 1st of May Square, she and the other women explored those possibilities. They occupied the street; they called for profound political change; they ululated (what Algerians call “pousser les youyous”; a high-pitched glottal chanting); they sang “Kassaman”, the national anthem, and “listiqlal” (independence), a song of the anti-colonial movement that freed the country from French rule in 1962 at the cost of a million martyrs. Most importantly, they refused to cede to the police. The pro-Boutef youth repeatedly confronted them, and even began shouting in favour of an Islamic state at one point as a confused riposte to the women.
The most surreal moment came as I watched the unyielding female activists attacked by a group of young policewomen in pants and boots — their own career paths only imaginable thanks to the hard work of some of the very women activists they hit and shoved. A young policewoman, the age of one of the students I teach, slapped me for taking a picture as this occurred. The women protesters’ only “crime” had been to stand peacefully on the sidewalk of their own capital city singing the national anthem and calling for democracy.
Reportedly, as many as 350 were arrested during the day. Many were roughed up, including the prominent, 90-year-old lawyer Ali Yahia Abdennour, who is the honorary president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH). Cherifa Khaddar, the redoubtable human rights activist and president of Djazairouna, an association of the victims of the fundamentalist terrorism of the 1990s, whose brother and sister were brutally murdered in 1996 by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), was arrested twice. I watched in horror as policewomen manhandled her — unfortunately, not an oxymoron.
Just before she was arrested the first time, Khaddar was attacked by a group of the young pro-government “protesters”, some of whom attempted to pull her clothes off while another attempted to simulate sex with her. A policewoman dragged her away from this melee, only to help a group of male cops throw her to the ground and arrest her, rather than the perpetrators. Later on, at the police station, she found herself in a cell with 20 other women. Together, they continued the protest, chanting and singing: “My brothers do not forget our martyrs. They are calling you from their tombs. Listen to their voices, you free ones.” The police became enraged and attacked the women in the cell, dragging one away by her hair.” Khaddar was later released.
The situation is fluid. As the protest waned, the square was taken over by a large group of mostly young male protesters, many from the surrounding neighbourhood. Some of them had previously chanted pro-government slogans and insulted the women demonstrators, but now took up anti-government slogans themselves, talked supportively with the freed Khaddar and challenged the police alone. Hundreds of riot police then brought out their guns, marched in formation and shut down the square altogether. It looked like a scene out of the Costa Gavras film “Z”.
I hope that what happens in Algeria in the coming period will be watched carefully, notwithstanding the understandable preoccupation with events to the east in Egypt. The contexts are different, but the struggles are the same. Moreover, the brave Algerian activists of 1st of May Square — women and men, young and old — also deserve solidarity and support on the road ahead. Algerian writer and journalist Mustapha Benfodil said that this demonstration’s goal was to turn 1st of May Square into an Algerian Tahrir Square, and that what occurred on Saturday was a very important step in that direction. But he noted that much work remains to be done to that end.
Clearly, the wall of fear needs to be broken down here — perhaps a harder task than elsewhere, given the terrible violence of the 1990s that killed as many as 200,000 people and terrorised the entire society. The opposition needs to be united and organised. Additionally, activists need to build critical links with broader segments of the society to achieve the political change so clearly needed in the country and which the police overreaction only underscored — change that Tunisia and Egypt have proven to be entirely possible.
For now, perhaps it is more accurate to say, “Yesterday Egypt, tomorrow Algeria …”
Note: On Al-Jazeera English, Elias Filali, an Algerian blogger and activist, said that “human rights activists and syndicate members were among those arrested at the scene of the protests,” which were organized by the National Co-ordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD), “a three-week-old umbrella group of opposition parties, civil society movements and unofficial unions inspired by the mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt.”
Speaking from the scene of the protest in Algiers, Filali said, “I’m right in the middle of the march. People are being arrested and are heavily guarded by the police.” He also said that the demonstrators “were determined to remain peaceful,” but that the police “want the crowd to go violent and then get them portrayed as a violent crowd.”
Before the protest, he explained, “The timing is absolutely perfect. [Mubarak’s departure] couldn’t have come at a better time. This is a police state, just like the Egyptian regime [was].” He added that Algeria’s government was “corrupt to the bone, based on electoral fraud, and repression. There is a lot of discontent among young people … the country is badly managed by a corrupt regime that does not want to listen”. Noting that the government had assigned 30,000 police officers to the protest, he also said, “The regime is frightened. And the presence of 30,000 police officers in the capital gives you an idea of how frightened the regime [is] of its people.” One sign of President Bouteflika’s fears is that, earlier this month, as Al-Jazeera explained, he “said he would lift emergency powers, address unemployment and allow democratic marches to take place in the country, in a bid to stave off unrest.”
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:
I was hoping this revolution would spread to Algeria. They have tried and failed to bring about change many times. But hey, it takes time to overcome all these impossible hurdles. It took Algeria 132 years to get rid of the French colonialists.
The fear of more pain and suffering is the biggest problem, after years of terrorism, generations of people have suffered.
Yet, people are so tired of injustice and corruption on this planet. And that is a good thing!
(Thanks for writing this, I think you know this already – I really appreciate and admire the work you do.)
George Kenneth Berger wrote:
I am sharing this now, Andy.
Thanks for the comments — and Tashi, your support is very much appreciated!
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Eleanor Boyd wrote:
What kind of a state needs 30 000 policemen and helicopters overhead to crush a demonstration? The bravery of everyone who took to the streets in Algier should be applauded considering that they would know what the response of the government would be. The only way now for the people of Algeria to be free is for governments to stop dealing with this vile Algerian regime. People everywhere have to start saying no – the price of your oil or gas is too high. And what about the hundreds of protesters who have been arrested and are no doubt being tortured right now? When does the so-called West start to have a conscience and put pressure on this regime? Andy, what can we do?
Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:
Eleanor, that is exactly how this regime came into power, because of Western interference! The west and the EU will do everything possible to keep Muslim countries from having Muslim Democratic governments. They need their puppets to do their bidding, so they can control all the resources, and keep a firm grip on all their interests. Argh. When will all the madness end?
I guess, Eleanor, that we have to keep focused on it, writing about it, mobilizing, not moving on to whatever the next big thing is. I think part of me is in Tahrir Square …
[…] dictators — primarily Libya, where Gaddafi has responded with typical brutality, and Algeria and Yemen, plus Iran, where the regime may not technically be a dictatorship, although it exhibits […]
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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