By Ameen Izzadeen
Is it Algeria’s Arab Spring? After weeks of people-power protests across the country, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Wednesday resigned, ending his 20-year autocratic rule. The news was welcomed by noisy celebrations by millions of young people who had been continuing their protests since mid-February.
The scenes were reminiscent of the jubilation after the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, the overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, the fall of Berlin wall in 1991, and the short-lived Arab Spring victory in Egypt in 2011.
The Algerian Spring, we hope, will not end up like the Egyptian Spring.
In Egypt, the people-power revolution ousted the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. A series of democratic elections then saw the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party securing the presidency and the legislative assembly. But the democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, lasted only a little more than a year. The Morsi government was overthrown in a counter revolution backed by the Egyptian deep state, the military, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and the United States. It paved the way for the return of a military general as Egypt’s president.
With Egypt’s tryst with democracy going awry and with the Libyan and Syrian regime-change experiments ending up in prolonged bloody civil wars, the Arab Spring had given way to an Arab winter until this Wednesday the Algerian protesters forced the resignation from the 82-year-old paraplegic president.
However, it is too premature to celebrate victory. A closer look at the events that took place in Algeria, in the days and weeks before Bouteflika’s resignation, evokes fears that what happened in Egypt, post-Arab Spring, could happen in Algeria, too.
Just as the Egyptian military chiefs played a mediatory role in persuading Mubarak to step down, Algeria’s Army Chief Ahmed Gaid Salah also took the side of the people and applied pressure on Bouteflika to resign. But the Algerians knew that what happened in Egypt was a charade. The Algerians are politically more battle-hardened, for they won their freedom in 1962 from France after a bloody war. Some 250,000 Algerians were killed in the eight-year independence war led by the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its armed wing the National Liberation Army.
Like many newly independent African states, Algeria’s freedom flavour was short-lived. Ahmed Ben Bella, who was elected as the first president in 1963, was overthrown in a 1965 military coup led by Col Houari Boumedienne. (He visited Sri Lanka in 1976 to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit and handed over its chairpersonship to Sri Lanka’s then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.)
Algeria, an Ottoman province till the French took over it in terms of a 1916 deal with Britain, has a chequered past. In 1976, Boumedienne introduced a socialist constitution with the FLN as the sole political party. Islam was recognised as the state religion to pacify the Islamists who played a key role in the freedom struggle, but had, since, become disappointed with the manner in which the state was being run by the junta. After Boumedienne’s death in 1978, Col. Chadli Benjadid took over, thus continuing with the military’s hold on politics. The country saw its first economic riots in the 1980s. It led to the lifting on the ban on political parties. Encouraged by the development, the Islamists organised themselves under the banner of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and won the multiparty elections to the local councils in 1990. The military-backed government, alarmed by the popularity of the FIS, began a crackdown on the Islamists. Despite the harassment, the FIS won the first round of the 1992 general elections and was predicted to win a clear victory in the second round. The military intervened and cancelled the elections.
The military’s anti-democracy action, however, was supported by the United States and Algeria’s former colonial master France. This was because by 1991, the West had serious worries about the Islamists’ threat to its geopolitical interests in the region, although the West had fathered the birth of modern Islamic radicalism as part of its policy towards defeating the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The action triggered Algeria’s civil war in 1991. The ten-year war killed some 150,000 people. With the Islamists banned from contesting the 1997 elections, military’s backed parties won the parliamentary elections. In 1999, the military backed candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was elected as president.
In his initial years in office, Bouteflika was seen to be doing quite well. He introduced political and economic reforms. Under his presidency, oil-rich Algeria experienced an economic boom in the mid-2000s. But the prosperity was short-lived. Today, in Algeria, every fourth person under 30 is unemployed. The economy is in dire strait. With the economic crisis worsening, the people began to see the wrongs of the ‘corrupt’ Bouteflika regime. They took to the streets in February when Bouteflika announced his intention to go for a fifth term. As the aphorism goes, in the Arab world, presidents do not leave office, they have to be overthrown. Bouteflika is no exception.
But his resignation on Wednesday has not settled the crisis. Fearing that the military’s tough stand against Bouteflika was only a pretense, the young protesters want to end the military’s hold on politics; they want to overthrow, not just an elderly president, but the corrupt and elitist system.
They want free and fair elections, not a Bouteflika henchman to take over as president after the 90-day transition period. The people want a complete overhaul. They vowed on Wednesday to keep protesting until their objective was achieved.
The country cannot afford to plunge into another civil war. The Algerians want to see a change similar to what happened in neighbouring Tunisia, the only country where democracy has taken root after the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
In the 1990s, the West supported the Algerian junta’s crackdown on the Islamists. This policy had a disastrous consequence. It made some of the Islamists to turn towards extremism. An extremist group called al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIIM) is a big threat to the country and the region.
Therefore, the West is well advised to support the pro-reform and pro-democracy protesters and put pressure on the military to submit itself to the civilian authority. The United States, which has close military and security relations with Algeria, has said the future of the country “is for the Algerian people to decide”. Russia, meanwhile, has called for a transition without foreign “interference”. There appears to be some truth in the Russian statement.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)