Algeria: Country's long haul towards liberty

The Guardian

Some 2,000 demonstrators again challenged the ban on protests in Algiers on Saturday. "On a marre de ce pouvoir" (we have had enough of this government!), they cried. An older man in the crowd told me, "What we want is a change of the system not a change in the system." I wish I could share the pictures I took of the protest, but my camera was stolen while I was surrounded by a debating circle of those for and against the march. Later, I am told that cameras are reportedly turning up at a nearby police station. A friend at the march, displaying typical Algerian hospitality, ran to the Rue Hassiba ben Bouali to buy me a replacement disposable camera. I filled it with more pictures – a woman in her sixties trying to inspire the marchers by singing at the top of her lungs; rows and rows of riot police banging their batons against their shields, injuries to the leg of a young protester – but that camera was then confiscated by hostile undercover policemen. So I will try to offer a few pictures in words. Those cannot be taken away.

In some ways, the demonstration in Algiers on 19 February 2011 was a greater success than the one held on the previous Saturday. It seemed that there were more protesters (though there were also, perhaps, fewer women in the crowd). The activists actually managed to march this week (though they also had to march in reverse at times as the riot police, who reportedly numbered about 30,000, surged forward time and again). Unfortunately, the protesters still did not manage to reach the 1st of May Square itself. And again, there were vastly more police than demonstrators. A young man asked me, "Why are we encircled, if we have our rights like they say?"

There are reports of a dozen or so injured. A union leader of theSNAPAP – a union of public employees that is part of the National Coordinating Committee for Change and Democracy, which organised today's protest – was taken to the hospital after being beaten at about 11am, and has since been released. A deputy of the opposition political party, the Rally for Change and Democracy, Dr Besbes, was badly beaten on the head and body, and is reported to be still in the hospital with a skull fracture. A limping young man in some pain showed me the scrapes on his leg where he was kicked by police with their boots and shin guards. Still another man told me that he saw a woman collapse after being crushed in the crowd as the police pushed them backwards.

By mid morning, the marchers spontaneously transformed their demonstration into a series of vigorous public debating societies on the Rue Mohamed Belouizdad that leads to the 1st of May Square. Large groups gathered to shout various opinions – against the government, for the government; desperate for change, terrified of a return to terrorism; sick of their living conditions and disgusted by the police response, or just wanting everybody to get the hell out of their neighbourhood already.

On Friday night, I met the president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, the lawyer Mustapha Bouchachi, one of the march's organisers, in his office in downtown Algiers. He stressed that this would be an entirely peaceful movement on the part of the protesters, and that he understood entirely the fear of the risk of violence in a society that suffered a decade long civil war during the 1990s. "This is not a Tunisian or Egyptian revolution," he explained, "which could be catastrophic in a society that knew the violence Algeria did in the 1990s." But, he saw today's protest – and the one last Saturday – as an important opportunity to give the young a chance to march, something which this generation has never had before. From what I saw, the activists were entirely, commendably, peaceful this Saturday. At one point, they actually began chanting, "maceera silmiya" (peaceful march) and "pacifique, pacifique" (peaceful, peaceful).

Mustapha Bouchachi also expressed yesterday his frustration that the government had "taken the people hostage", by suggesting that the only available options are to accept the status quo or to risk a return to the violence of the 1990s. He suggested that the current options were rather different.

"Either the government accepts peaceful change or they choose closure, in which case the youth of the country – who have a profound hatred for the government – will eventually explode in ways that could have a catastrophic effect on the country and the region."

The Algerian government – and the foreign governments which support it – would do well to heed this warning and act accordingly.

Note that the police response to this protest was likely less violent than it would have been without the statements of the French, German and US governments during the preceding week in support of the right of Algerians to protest. Zine Cherfaoui, former editor-in-chief of El Watanand now a journalist there, told me on Friday that such statements may have a positive impact and could make the authorities hesitate. He noted the strong impulse of Algerians against foreign interference, but stressed that, "It is not interference to say that the government must respect human rights."

Some of the people I met earlier this week were there again on Saturday. "Zohra", a woman I interviewed for a previous dispatch here, was back this Saturday, as she said she would be. She was happy. "This is a success," she said pointing to all the people in the streets, and the fevered discussions taking place on the sidewalks. Cherifa Kheddar, arrested last week, was also here again, standing with a sign denouncing Algeria's gender discriminatory family code. She told me that some men stopped to tell her she was being divisive by carrying this sign. It was ripped out of her hands finally by someone she believes may have been an undercover policeman.

And like last week, some young men demonstrated in favour of the government, with posters of President Bouteflika. Some chanted, "The people want free drugs" – a reference to what was rumoured to be given to some youth to bring them to challenge the marchers. The demonstrators themselves had diverse opinions about the counter-demonstrators. One said, "They don't even know what is written on their own signs. They are manipulated." Another man disagreed – and said, "We shouldn't say that about them." There were flyers posted on the columns of the arcades lining Rue Mohamed Belouizdad where much of Saturday's action took place that said, in Arabic and French, "Do not touch my neighborhood. Do not march on my peace and tranquility." Who knows where those came from?

By the end of the day, the young pro-government counter-protesters with their pictures of President Bouteflika had switched sides, and were picking up the slogans of the peaceful demonstrators – just as they had last week. As someone said, it is possible to rent these youths, but not to buy them. They chanted: "The Tunisians are better than we are," and "Belouizdad [the name of the neighbourhood] of Martyrs." Rather comically, at one point, a group in front of a cafe also chanted: "Al shaab yourid al qahwa battal." (The people want free coffee!) I spotted Amine Menadi, the blogger from Collectif Algerie Pacifique, whom I had interviewed a few days earlier, among these local youth. He was trying to talk with them, and I heard later he was trying to organise a sit-in.

A woman would-be marcher in her early sixties stood with two young men from the neighbourhood. Unable to march, she took up an avid debate with them about the future of Algeria, describing them as her sons. One of the young men, in a pair of pink-rimmed sunglasses, proceeded to buy us lunch – bread stuffed with onions – in the tiny restaurant nearby, offering the hospitality of the neighbourhood.

As to the road ahead, Cherfaoui told me that he thinks political change will come to Algeria over time. "We will follow the dynamics of our neighbours, even if it takes a while." He pointed to the recent rash of self-immolations and other suicides and what he called "the pressure from the street". This Saturday, the physically frail but morally resolute, 90-year-old lawyer, Maitre Ali Yahia Abdennour, walked among the demonstrators. He said, "We will keep marching!" I asked one young man in jeans and a striped sweater if he would come back next week, and he said, "I would come back tomorrow!" As I finish writing, the international press reports that the opposition is calling for protests every Saturday. I hope the demonstrators will eventually make it to the 1st of May Square. In the meantime, Cherfaoui argues that it is critical for Algerian civil society to get noticed and receive international support in the months ahead.

My Algerian grandfather was killed by the French army during the war of independence. All day, I have been wondering what kind of country he would wish to see were he alive today? A country where thousands of policemen shut down a peaceful protest of young and old who want to bring about positive social and political change for the benefit of all Algerians? I do not think so. Or would he, instead, have wanted to see a nation of brave people willing to take to the streets, to risk beatings and arrest to express their frustrations in peaceful protest? The answer is certain. 

On Saturday night, I can see the maqam shahid, the monument to the million martyrs of the war of independence, that graces the heights of Algiers. Algeria's leaders have inherited a heavy responsibility to build for the youth of today the truly free country their great-grandparents made enormous sacrifices to create. If they won't, perhaps it is time they stepped aside and let others do so.

Karima Bennoune, Saturday 19 February 2011 20.43 GMT