Algeria: Hopes and fears: an Algiers diary

The Guardian

Sunday 13 February 13 – The Day After: 1st of May Square, Algeria's "Little Tahrir", looks bizarrely normal the morning after the 12 February opposition protest that defied a massive police deployment. The fountain is back on and there are only a few ordinary cops around, compared with the thousands from the anti-riot squad who blanketed the space on Sunday, arresting hundreds. I am picked up in the square to attend the follow up meeting of the protest's organisers, the National Coordinating Committee for Change and Democracy (CNCD), at a union hall near the airport. The elderly lawyer Ali Yahia Abdennour opens the discussion: "They beat our old and young, our women and men." He calls for demonstrations the following Saturday and every Saturday thereafter until the entire Algerian population descends into the streets. The meeting ratifies his idea, declaring another protest 19 February on 1st of May Square.

Monday 14 February – Valentine's Day à l'Algérienne

In the morning, I am stuck in the cement-like traffic of Algiers. A smiling young woman in hijab with elaborate eye makeup shares my taxi and we talk about how she would like to visit her relatives in the United States, and her hopes for Algeria. When she alights, she takes the rhinestone brooch off her headscarf and gives it to me, kissing me on both cheeks. This humbling generosity is one of Algeria's greatest natural resources; her broach one of the best Valentine's Day gifts I have ever received.

Later in the day, near the House of the Press where many newspapers are headquartered, Mustapha Benfodil, one of Algeria's leading writers and journalists, tells me how difficult it is to get permission to produce his plays in Algerian theatres. As a result, he has taken to staging readings in public places, lectures sauvages or wild readings, as he calls them. This often results in his arrest. He has written some of the best articles about the recent demonstrations in one of Algeria's prominent newspapers, El Watan. Here is how he described the 12 February gathering on 1st of May Square:

"There was an air of Tahrir Square, Cairo's heroic liberation site … Political and NGO activists, trade unionists, the unemployed, professionals, government workers, women, many women, artists, students, academics, the retired, adolescents, young girls, old people, secularists, Islamists, Communists, Facebookers and those with indeterminate opinions. The square … was sparkling, turbulent and full of that angry effervescence of proud cities." (Read the original in French if you can – it rhymes.)

At twilight, I meet with a woman professional in her 40s whom I will call Zohra, in the swank Hotel Djazair, and am taken aback when she leans over and says quietly, "I would do anything to participate in bringing this government down, whatever the price." For Zohra, taghair el nitham(changing the system) also means ameliorating the condition of women, and challenging social conservatism. "Now you have to hide to have a drink, if you choose not to fast during Ramadan, if you go out with someone." She will attend the 19 February march, though she will conceal this from her family.

I want to walk to where I am staying but am reminded of the night before when the somber streets rapidly became male-only territory, so I hail a cab. The balding driver in his sixties explains that "In Arab and Islamic countries, we have only been given a choice between dictatorship and Islamism. What we need instead is a just middle." He doesn't think much of the fundamentalists and is very sympathetic to the demonstrators. When I ask if many people will attend next Saturday, he replies, "Why [would people go] when last time you had 2,000 protestors and 40,000 police?" And when we talk about last Saturday's young "hired" pro-government counter-demonstrators, he asks, "What did they leave for these youth? No dancing, no bars, no cafes, no cinemas, just the mosque."

Tuesday 15 February – Mouloud

I celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed at lunch with a group of feminist activists. Many are involved with the newly-created Observatory on violence against women. They see the "woman question" as immediately political, and so their coalition joined the coordinating committee organising the protests. They want issues like the abrogation of the discriminatory family code to be on the change agenda. "Therefore, we must march." They toast democracy with a glass of Algerian wine.

Some argue that Islamism is dead here. When Ali Belhadj, former number two of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), attempted to enter the march on Saturday with a reported 50 of his activists – a fact that al-Jazeera trumpeted all day long – he was denounced as an assassin by some protestors (al-Jazeera did not make a headline of that). Many young people simply did not know who Belhadj was. Another woman tells me later that she is not so sure fundamentalism has faded, the society having been deeply Islamised since the period of terrorism.

Some of the women are very optimistic for the coming Saturday, expecting more protestors. The foreign minister had even announced today that the state of emergency would be lifted within days. However, another woman worries that next time the young counter-demonstrators will be ready to "smash our faces". One says simply, "This is not the end. It is the beginning." At the same time, they all stress the differences between Algeria and Egypt. Referring to the mass exodus of Algeria's educated class during the slaughter of the 1990s, they note, "their intellectuals did not have to leave and they were not isolated. Tunisia and Egypt have real bourgeoisies; our elite is dispersed everywhere."

I leave to meet the founders of Collectif Algerie Pacifique, a youth group created on Facebook: 3,500 people signed up to participate in their first action. "I hate politics," Amine Menadi, 29, says. "Our politics is to say what we think." He explains their initial motivation: "We wanted to respond to the way the minister of the interior insulted the youth [after January's riots] and to show we do know how to express ourselves peacefully but they won't let us." They had a gathering on 13 January in the 1st of May Square against the riots, but also against what caused the riots. "We have had enough violence in our country."

Aware of their own limitations, Amine asks: "How can we have a demonstration where we are only a few thousand and say we are the people? There are 5 million Algérois; 5,000 people is not even a rock concert." However, he reminds us that friends in Tunis "said that Sidi Bouzid was just a little town, and then they found themselves in the street." They are frustrated with some aspects of the opposition leadership, like the involvement of political parties, but say they are drowning, and that a drowning person will grab onto a pencil if it might keep him afloat. "We want a better Algeria. We will march on the 19th."

Wednesday 16 February – Vodka in Bab el-Oued

At noon, I meet Samir Larabi, a young activist with the new National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed. This organisation held a demonstration in front of the labour ministry on 6 February that was suppressed by the police. An unemployed man tried to set himself on fire but was saved by a journalist from El Watan. Larabi explains that people are active now because security has improved since the 1990s, and indeed, the country is well-off economically – while its ordinary people suffer miserable living conditions. This is partly a revolt of raised expectations.

A major theme of my interviews is the disgust that ordinary people feel about what is called politics. Larabi says the young "vomit the politicians". Yet, he also understands that a credible political alternative will be necessary to actually improve conditions here.

During the day, I Iearn that the YouTube H'chicha has called for an alternative protest on Friday 18 February. Some fear this will attract a different crowd, coming after Friday prayers. But a few longhaired young organisers I encounter tell me they would go to any demonstration called now.

I meet another member of the CNCD, a journalist/Facebooker in a leather jacket, named Fodil Boumala, who was arrested last Saturday. For him, the current government is "illegal, illegitimate and violates the constitution". He stresses that the marches are not ends in themselves, but he points to several successes: first, they got Algeria moving, quite literally; second, they got the Algerian diaspora mobilised – in Paris, Montreal and beyond; and third, they elicited responses from foreign governments – notably France, Germany and the US – calling on the Algerian state not to repress demonstrations.

I follow Fodil to a meeting of intellectuals. Everyone seems to be organising a committee or network, drafting a declaration or a set of principles. Still, these intellectuals are not overly optimistic. "It is not yet the turn of Algeria," one tells me. "We must worry about our Tunisian and Egyptian friends that they could have the same problems that we had [after October 1988 when protests led to brief democratisation, a flawed electoral process and a bloody civil war]."

At the end of the day, I head to Bab el-Oued, the legendary quartier populaire near the sea that was a stronghold of the FIS during the terrible 1990s, to visit an association that works with poor youth. This area was home to some of the early January riots. In the offices of SOS Bab el-Oued, a neighbourhood rock band practises what sounds like "Louie, Louie" in Algerian Arabic in the basement under a picture of Che Guevara. The activists here seem to be almost equally disappointed in the state and the opposition, neither of which they feel has made an effort to reach out to the base. "We are strangled. We are suffocated." There is "no work, no leisure … we had 10 years of terrorism."

Tired of explaining what reality can better illustrate, Nacer Meghenine, president of the association, leaps to his feet and tells me to follow. I end up touring Bab el-Oued by night. First, we visit a family of eight who live in one room. The grandmother holds an infant suffering from spina bifida with a large growth on her back and crossed eyes. They are waiting for an operation she needs. Despite their terrible situation, the grandmother is an ardent supporter of President Bouteflika whom she distinguishes from the government, and she opposes the marches because she is terrified of a return to violence – a fear the regime has capitalised on. "We are tired of blood after 10 years. Bezzef! [Too much!]" In response, Nacer says, "Don't tell them about democracy! They live day by day."

A 50-something fundamentalist in the street tells me there are lots of vultures here that only the will of God can chase away. When I ask about the marches, he says that as long as Bab el-Oued is not awakened, nothing will happen. Later, Nacer tells me that anyone who thinks fundamentalism is dead has not been to Bab el-Oued. He points out that the streets are full of bearded men, explaining that they have been a repeated obstacle in his work.

We head to a former parking garage turned into what one can only term so-called housing. There is garbage everywhere. Two young men stand inside the entrance, drinking vodka. What else is there to do in Bab el-Oued by night? I visit a young couple who live in two rooms with their infant. My friendly hostess tells me her husband works as a security guard. She lays out her daily difficulties. "My husband earns 10,000 dinars a month. My son's milk costs 300 dinars a can. It only lasts a few days. His diapers cost another 750 dinars. How can we feed ourselves?" She tells me there are women sleeping on cartons in the street. Ominously, she warns that things could explode. Then she shows me how she plugged the gaps around her windows to protect her son from tear gas during January's uprising. "It will be much worse than January, if it doesn't change peacefully."

In another home, a family of five live in one room. Some years ago, they made an official housing request but never received a response. The serious young father studied psychology and sociology, supports the marches and is desperate for change. He says, "I don't need a million dinars. I just need a job, housing and protection for my children." His wife was mugged a few days ago. As we walk back, I ask Nacer what the state should do for people here, and he says quite simply – we need a Marshall Plan.

A key challenge seems to be bridging the gap between the dedicated activists I met in the city above and the people here in Bab el-Oued, to cross the divide between the peaceful protests and the proletarianémeutes described by the researcher Amel Boubekeur. Nevertheless, whatever the imperfections, this Saturday, when I watch the bloggers and the feminists and the unemployed try to march for a new Algeria, I will think of what Samir Larabi told me: "We need democracy to fight exploitation. Bread and liberty are not alternatives." I will carry the rhinestone brooch of the young woman from the taxi in my pocket as a symbol of the sparkling promise of Algeria. And I will think of the desperate hope and anger of the good people of Bab el-Oued.

Despite all the paradoxes, this Saturday, the marchers will again try to take a step toward a better future for this country, the future its older people fought for yesterday and its young people deserve today.

Karima Bennoune, Thursday 17 February 2011 18.31 GMT