Algeria: The road from Sidi Bouzid to Algiers

The Guardian

A hundred stalwart demonstrators stand on the Place de 1er Mai (First of May Square) in Algiers, at what has become their weekly Saturday gathering. They include activists from opposition political parties, women's rights advocates, and people who are just plain fed up. This small but resolute troop is surrounded (and vastly outnumbered) by police who push them around and try to make them go away.

I was sorry to see fewer people demonstrating last weekend than in February, and asked Madjid Makedhi, who has reported many of the protests for the El Watan newspaper, to explain. He told me the diminished numbers are entirely understandable in light of the massive security presence (there is even a helicopter overhead).

"Algerians have been separated from politics by these security policies of the government," Makedhi said. "Today ordinary Algerians can only think about their daily lives, about taking care of their children, and trying to have enough money to satisfy the needs of their families."

Still, the activists refuse to give up. Cherifa Kheddar, the women's rights advocate who I saw arrested last month, was in the square again last Saturday with her sign calling for the abolition of the gender-discriminatory family code, and carrying a bag full of similar placards for others to use.

The authorities ripped them all up, so she then raised her hand in the victory sign, and asked: "Are you going to try to take my fingers away from me now?"

On Sunday in Algiers, I interviewed protesting teachers and members of the new National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed. About 600 lined both sides of the street near the presidency building for hours, singing, chanting slogans – "hukuma dégage!" ("government out"), "al-hukuma dar al-ajaza" ("the government is an old folks' home") – and many others.

Everyone has demands. The demonstrating teachers want better working conditions. The protesting unemployed want decent jobs. On the other side of the street, waving their Algerian passports, stood a group of now jobless workers who fled Libya during the current conflict and want to be assisted by the state. More than anything, they all want to be heard.

I wonder what the young policemen must be thinking as they stand in the street all day with their youthful counterparts. Fadia Babou, a serious 24-year-old unemployed woman who used to work for a radio station, tells me: "Really, the young policemen are living in the same situation we are."

In recent weeks, there have been multiplying manifestations of discord – communal guards marching, wounded veterans sitting in, doctors on strike, community meetings demanding change. Many more are planned. One of the young teachers tells me the problem is that each sector is demonstrating separately and there is currently no structure available to bring them all together. He is not hopeful about this as he says all the political parties are discredited and no single forum appeals to everyone.

Later in the day, I am told that some of these protesters are planning to spend the night on the pavement. They are taking the lyrics of Bob Marley to "stand up for your rights" seriously. However, Algeria's road ahead may be different from that of Tunisia or Egypt. The lingering nightmares of the 1990s, when some 200,000 died in a terrible war with fundamentalist armed groups, are partly responsible for this. According to this week's Jeune Afrique, the distinction is also partially due to the fact that much more freedom of expression is possible here than in Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's Tunisia and this provides something of a pressure valve.

However, one of the biggest obstacles may be a lack of popular belief in the possibility of change.

Women's rights activist Fadila Chitour explains to me that many Algerians suffer from what she calls wounded memories, from the sense that so many deaths in the country since independence – in the protests of October 1988 and in the terrible 1990s – have been in vain. Hence, there is a pervasive feeling that making sacrifices now will not change anything.

This profound disillusionment with politics, which echoes Makedhi's assessment, makes rallying the population to protest much more difficult than elsewhere. Chitour is, however, confident that change will come to Algeria. "It is ineluctable," she asserts.

However, the big question for Chitour is not whether change will come or when, but how. "Will it be by peaceful means or not?" She says Algerians are terrorised by the idea that blood could flow in the streets again. And so she and the other members of the National Co-ordination for Change and Democracy will keep organising their peaceful protests every Saturday trying to make sure that grievances are channelled nonviolently.

Meanwhile, the Committee of the Unemployed will meet soon to assess its next move as well. My fervent hope is that the leaders of Algeria will heed the calls of the peaceful protesters, while that is possible. Among other things, change will require responsiveness to the youth, unity in the opposition and a seizing by all of this "moment of grace" as Tunisian human rights activist Alya Chamari described this spring across north Africa.

Is there a road that leads from Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution, to Algiers? That remains to be seen. Still, I cannot forget what Chamari says when I ask her if there is a message for Algerians, and others, from the Tunisian revolution: "You must never lose hope. And you must count on your youth."