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|2019 Algerian protests|
Protesters on 10 March 2019 in Blida
|Date||16 February 2019 – ongoing (61 days)|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
|Injuries||183 (112 police officers)|
The 2019 Algerian protests, also called the Smile Revolution, began on 16 February 2019, ten days after Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his candidacy for a fifth presidential term in a signed statement.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been president of the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria since 1999. Two amnesties (via referendum) for former combatants in the Algerian Civil War had taken place during his presidency (1999 and 2005). This "dirty war" between Islamic guerrillas and the government had claimed up to 200,000 lives from 1991–2002. Nearly half of the Algerian population was born after the end of the conflict, amidst the din of repeated corruption scandals.
With the accession to power of Bouteflika in 1999, he began a diplomatic mission to rehabilitate Algeria's image abroad, and especially after his reelection in 2004, to consolidate power. Over his tenure as president, the power center in Algerian politics shifted from the east to west, most particularly to Tlemcen, whose sons became highly placed media, political, and police figures. $10 billion of public funding flowed to the city for construction projects, including a university, hotels, museums and airports. €155m was spent on a state residence, which remains incomplete. Many of the public works contracts were accorded to Chinese companies by whom local contractors were allegedly not always paid.
The constitutional revision of 2016 limited the number of presidential terms that could be served to two, but nevertheless allowed Bouteflika to seek a fifth term, because the law was not retroactive.
Since 2005, and especially after his stroke in 2013, Bouteflika's ability to govern the country was called into question: rumors of his death were frequent as he was often hospitalized, no longer spoke and made very few written statements. In this context, some Algerians considered his announced candidacy for the presidential election, originally scheduled for 18 April 2019, to be humiliating.
Members of Bouteflika's administration have been accused of engaging in corrupt practices at several instances. In 2010, Sonatrach, the state-owned oil and gas company, suspended all of its senior management after two of the company's vice-presidents were imprisoned for corruption. Algeria's Energy Minister Chakib Khelil announced that the president of the company and several executives have been placed under judicial supervision. In 2013, Khelil was also accused of receiving a bribe from a subsidiary of the Italian energy company Eni. According to El Watan, overbilling for public works and misleading descriptions of imported goods are two common corrupt practices, facilitated by cronyism at the highest levels.
On 26 June 2018, Bouteflika dismissed Abdelghani Hamel as head of the national police (DGSN), despite the latter being part of his inner circle. This news came after one of Hamel's drivers had become a suspect in Cocainegate, which led a general of the gendarmerie, four judges and two public prosecutors to be tried for bribery.
Djamaa el Djazaïr, a large mosque under construction in Algiers, is nicknamed the Great Mosque of Bouteflika. Its minaret is 55m higher than the Hassan II Mosque in Morocco. Though its construction was touted as an Algerian job-creater, immigrant workers did most of the work for China State Construction Engineering while living in prefab shantytowns around the construction site. The project still came in 2.5 times over-budget. A doctor quoted in Le Monde complained that "with $4 billion, 200 hospitals could have been built." Converting the mosque into a hospital has been suggested. For the Algerian press, it became a symbol of the mis-management of public funds and of the "capricious megalomania" of the former President.
Broadly, cumulative demands, grievances and aspirations were at the heart of the protest movement. Decades long of economic stagnation, unemployment, labour market segmentation, chronic corruption fuelled discontent. Plummeting of oil and gas prices weakened the regime's capacity to continue buying off some sections of the lower classes and the youth and contain discontent.
The protest was at first limited geographically to northern Algeria. The first major demonstration took place on 16 February 2019 in Kherrata, at the eastern end of the wilaya of Bejaia. In Khenchela, on 19 February, a giant poster of the President of the Republic was torn down from city hall and trampled. Two days later, another suffered a similar fate in Annaba. This form of protest was related to the recent practice of offering gifts to a framed portrait of Bouteflika in the latter's absence.
Protests were organized via social media in major and mid-sized cities on 22 February. Those in Algiers—where street protests had been illegal since a demonstration on 14 June 2001, "when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from Kabylie converged on the capital"—were the biggest in nearly 18 years. Smaller protests, with slogans like "There is no president, there's a poster," had been taking place in Algiers since 11 February. On 22 February, the portrait of the President was torn down from the landmark central post office. There are no official government numbers published, but one expert put the number of demonstrators at 800,000 on 22 February 2019.
Another large-scale demonstration took place on 24 February at the call of the Mouwatana movement ("citizenship"), On 28 February, a dozen journalists were arrested during protests against press censorship.
Three million people were estimated to have demonstrated on 1 March 2019, though no official figures were given. The private channel Dzaïr News reported that one million people demonstrated across Algeria on 1 March, which was also the first time state television broadcast images of the protests.
183 people were injured and Hassan Benkhedda, son of former interim government president, Benyoucef Benkhedda, died of a heart attack. Speaking as Interior Minister, Noureddine Bedoui confirmed that it was related to police action against "thugs unrelated to the protestors."
On 2 March 2019, Abdelaziz Bouteflika replaced his campaign director, the former prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal, who had actively campaigned for the President since 2004, by the virtually unknown Abdelghani Zaalane , a career provincial administrator. Considered to be a response to the ongoing protests, this dismissal followed the disclosure of a recording between Sellal and Ali Haddad in which the former is heard making threats.
The deadline for submitting candidatures for the presidential election was 3 March 2019. The idea of postponing the election was put forward. On 3 March, the candidacy of Bouteflika was filed by his campaign director, though the law stipulates that the candidate must be physically present for this process. Another signed message announced that if re-elected, a national conference would be convened to adopt reforms as well as a new Constitution – to be approved by referendum – and that he would not take part in the next presidential election which he promised would be held early. After the confirmation of Bouteflika's candidacy on Sunday, 3 March, and the withdrawal of several opposition candidates, including Ali Benflis and Louisa Hanoune, an anonymous call to strike was made the next day, as well as a call to protest on 8 March.
Even before the candidacy was formalized, tens of thousands of protesters were out on the streets. From Sunday night to Monday morning, hundreds of protesters marched peacefully, calling his candidacy a "provocation", an "insult" and a "masquerade". The next day, many students boycotted their classes.
The opposition, meeting at the headquarters of the Justice and Development Front, called for candidates to withdraw from the election. On the same day, following the example of the resignation the day before of Khaled Tazaghart, an elected representative (député) from the El Moustakbal party, & former minister Sid Ahmed Ferroukhi (FLN), resigned from the party. Zahir Kherraz, FLN mayor of Oued Amizour, also said he did not support a fifth term. Amar Benadouda (1931), doyen of the mayors of the country, resigned from the town hall of Guenzet.
On Tuesday, protests and student strikes continued, thousands were in the streets of Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Annaba, Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Bouira, Blida, Setif, or Tlemcen. On Thursday, a thousand lawyers demonstrated in Algiers.
In reaction to the Friday demonstrations, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research moved the spring university holidays forward to the next day (10 March) and extended them by two weeks in an effort to calm matters down. On 10 March, the Army Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, close to Bouteflika, gave a speech to officer cadets saying the "army and the people had a common vision of the future". This speech was front-page news in El Khabar. A 5-day general strike was begun the same day.
The day after the announcement that Bouteflika would not seek a new term, that Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui had replaced Ahmed Ouyahia as prime minister, and that the presidential election was to be postposed sine die, university students protested for the third consecutive Tuesday across the country chanting "No Tricks, Bouteflika." On Wednesday, teachers protested. On Thursday, lawyers and judges were on the streets in several cities. On 14 March, Djamila Bouhired encouraged the younger generation demonstrating, saying: "Your elders liberated Algeria from colonial domination, and you are giving back to Algerians their liberties and their pride despoiled since independence"
The protests on 15 March were estimated to have been larger than those the previous Friday. The Guardian reported that hundreds of thousands were in the streets, La Croix put the number at over a million. Protesters carried a banner criticizing France's comments that the cancellation of elections should lead to a "transition of reasonable length" saying, "It's the people who decide, not France!". Other signs included "Macron, deal with your yellow vests" and "Elysée, stop ! It's 2019, not 1830."
On 17 March, the newly appointed Prime Minister announced the intention of forming a government of politically unaffiliated experts, which would "reflect the demographics of the Algerian society". Students were again in the streets on Tuesday, 18 March demanding that Bouteflika step down by the end of his term (28 April). The army chief of staff said that the army needed to deal with the crisis.
On 26 March, in a speech given in Ouargla and covered live on Algerian television, Ahmed Gaid Salah urged the Constitutional Council to declare Bouteflika unfit. The Council began deliberations the same day. If the sitting president is removed, the president of the Council of the Nation—currently Abdelkader Bensalah—becomes acting president for a maximum of 90 days while elections are organized. On 27 March, Ahmed Ouyahia called on Bouteflika to resign. The same day the Workers' Party announced the resignation of their elected members of the People's National Assembly.
On Friday 29 March, the Algerian authorities denied Reuters' reports that there were a million protesters in the capital, but did not put forward numbers of their own.
Bouteflika named a new government on 31 March 2019 two days before his resignation.
Investigations were opened into a dozen oligarchs who were prevented from leaving the country. Ali Haddad's resignation from the FCE—an employers federation, which had seen a wave of recent resignations over his remarks about the protests—and his subsequent arrest at the Tunisian border were widely reported.
Bouteflika made a statement promising to step down by the end of his term, but equivocating as to the actual date. The following day, the Army Chief of Staff (who had been appointed by Bouteflika to replace General Mohammed Lamari after his 2004 election) insisted both privately and publicly that he resign immediately, which he did. As provided for under Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution, Abdelkader Bensalah became acting interim President. His term can last for a maximum of 90 days while a presidential election is held. By law, he cannot participate in this election.
James McDougall wrote that the military had "recognized that radical measures were needed to save the system." Though it had regained some power at the expense of the "clan" centered around Saïd Bouteflika—including the Armed Forces chief of staff—McDougall added that "[s]ome observers and activists believe that the army as an institution now wants to stay out of politics and might even support the "clean-up" of corruption that protesters demand."
The streets were again exuberant and crowded with hundreds of thousands on Friday 5 April, with marchers carrying signs demanding further resignations, specifically mentioning the 3B: Noureddine Bedoui (prime minister), Abdelkader Bensalah (who was officially appointed acting interim president on 9 April), and Tayeb Belaiz (head of the constitutional council); as well as the Army Chief of Staff.
Tear gas and a water cannon were used repeatedly to prevent more than a thousand students chanting "Slimiya, Slimiya" (peaceful, peaceful) from going through the Tunnel des Facultés in Algiers on the 8th successive Tuesday of student demonstrations.
The Friday protests, of the same size as previous weeks, were more conflictual, with police blocking access to the city and parts of the city. On 16 April, the president of the constitutional council, Tayed Belaiz—one of the three Bs whose ouster protesters sought—informed the council that he had submitted his resignation.
These are the largest protests in Algeria since 2001. The demonstraters are primarily young people who did not experience the "Black Decade". One observer lauded the millennials' reappropriation of corporate branding to their own uses, as well as their respect for their living space through peaceful demonstrations, saying:
Algerian millennials thrive on positive messages. They flooded the web with images of young demonstrators kissing, handing flowers to police officers and women on international women’s day, distributing water bottles, volunteering for first aid or encouraging people to clean the streets after the demonstrations.
Women's active role in the protests was credited with minimizing violence, and marked a sharp contrast with the 1988 protests predominantly led by salafists. An old mother of five unemployed children told the BBC: "There's nothing for the young generation," she said. "No jobs and no houses. They can't get married. We want this whole system to go."
Originally the protesters wanted Abdelaziz Bouteflika to withdraw his candidacy for a fifth term and wanted Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia to step down. More generally, they called for massive housecleaning from the government of the ruling clans, known collectively as le pouvoir ("the power").
Some slogans referred to the incumbent president as "the Moroccan" because of his birthplace and his reputed membership in a shadowy second Oudja Clan. Others, such as "bring back the commandos of the army and the BIS, there will be no fifth term" alluded to the baltaguias. By April, common slogans, placards, chants and hashtags included: "Leave means Leave" and "Throw them all out". Protesters in the capital, Algiers, chanted: "Bouteflika get out, and take Gaid Salah with you."
Cachir, an emblematic Algerian sausage, was brandished and tossed around during demonstrations as a reminder of the 2014 elections when the press reported that Bouteflika's re-election committee was increasing attendance at their meetings by handing out free sandwiches filled with the sausage. In the protestor's eyes, cachir had become a "symbol of corruption and of the 'buying of votes and souls.'" The Algerians have also employed humour and comedy to express dissent and discontent.
Algerian activist Hamza Hamouchene captured the following on his iPhone:
“Algeria, country of heroes that is ruled by zeros”, “System change ... 99 percent loading”, “We need Detol to kill 99.99 percent of the gang” [referring to members of the regime] And this one from a medical student: “We are vaccinated and we have developed anti-system IgGs (antibodies) ... and we keep getting boosters every Friday” “The problem is the persistence of idolatry and not the replacement of the idol”
Some slogans were directly targeting French complicity and interferences: “France is scared that if Algeria takes its independence it would ask for compensation for the metal it used to build the Eiffel tower” “Allo Allo Macron, the grandchildren of November ’54 are back”
And in reaction to calls by the chief commander of armed forces, Gaid Salah, to apply article 102 of the constitution, which stipulates that the leader of the upper house takes over and elections are organised 90 days after the presidency is declared vacant by the constitutional council, people replied: “We want the application of article 2019 ... You are all going” “We asked for the departure of all the gang, not the promotion of some of its members” “Batteries are dead so no need to squeeze them” “Dear system, you are a piece of s*** and I can prove it mathematically” “Here Algeria: the voice of the people. The number 102 is no longer in service. Please call people’s service at 07” (in reference to article 07 stipulating that the people are the source of all sovereignty).
Although the rallies were generally peaceful, some vehicles were burned and shops were vandalized in the evening of demonstrations. On 1 March, clashes took place between the police and groups of young people throwing stones at them.
41 arrests were recorded on 23 February and 45 on 1 March including five men caught trying to haul away a safe. The police reported that "the majority of the people arrested were under the influence of psychotropic or hallucinogenic substances".
Until 1 March 2019, public television, radio, and press totally ignored the demonstrations, while private television channels linked to power dealt with them in a limited way. A boycott campaign was launched against the media. The editor-in-chief of Channel III , Meriem Abdou, resigned on 23 February as a protest against the treatment of the movement on the government-run radio station. Several journalists were arrested. A hundred journalists and the NGO Reporters Without Borders publicly denounced the censorship practiced by the Algerian executive. When state TV channels did begin mentioning the protests, they were critical of the protesters and did not refer to their motives. In contrast, the private print media and news sites reported widely on events from the beginning.
Despite the opening of the audiovisual media to competition in 2011, off-shore channels can be shut down at any time because of their precarious legal status. One foreign media outlet, Al Jazeera, has been banned from Algeria since 2004.
On 5 March, Echorouk and El Bilad were sanctioned by the Ministries of Communication for having covered the demonstrations, and were cut off from advertising by the ANEP (national publishing and advertising agency).
On 11 March, it was announced that the President would not seek re-election; that Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia had resigned and been replaced by Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui; and that the April 2019 presidential election was postponed indefinitely.
Inquiries were announced into "corruption and illicit overseas capital transfers" on 1 April 2019. Ali Haddad was arrested trying to cross the border into Tunisia after liquidating stock worth €38m. On the same day, Bouteflika promised to step down by the end of his term on 28 April.
Under Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution, he is to be succeeded as interim President by the current President of the Council of the Nation, Abdelkader Bensalah, who is however ineligible to run in the election for a permanent successor, which according to law must be held in the next 90 days.
The weekend after Bouteflika stepped down, protestors in Sudan called upon the army to take their side against sitting president Omar al-Bashir. Despite the state of emergency and the emergency courts the President created to treat the protests, demonstrators staged a sit-in in the public space outside the Khartoum headquarters of the Armed Forces.
On 28 February 2019, the economist Omar Benderra asserted that a deep separation exists between civil society and the Algerian government, which outlawed street protests twenty years ago, and which he wrote is controlled by "warlords". Public opinion, Benderra continues, is suspicious of official government communication and has also begun to show signs of frustration with spiritual leaders urging the people to stay off the streets.
In Le Figaro on 1 March 2019, the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal said: "Such demonstrations in all the cities of the country and even in the capital, not far from El Mouradia (the district of the presidential palace), the Tagarins (the district of the Ministry of Defense), of Alger Centre (the district of the palace of the government), is an unbearable humiliation for the president, his brothers, his army, his police, his deputies, his senators, his oligarchs, his officials, his extra militias, in short, the "revolutionary family" (that's the name they give themselves), whom no one has ever disrespected without paying for it with his life."
Writing on openDemocracy, Hamza Hamouchene, a founder of the London-based Algeria Solidairty Campaign, summed up the context of the revolt:
This decisive awakening on the part of the people and their growing political awareness are harbingers of good things to come and of the stormy days ahead for the profiteering caste and their foreign backers who have been scandalously enriching themselves. In the midst of increasing pauperization, unemployment, paralyzing austerity, the pillaging of resources, uneven development and corruption, the rationality of the current revolt and rebellion becomes absolutely clear.
Fahad Nabeel from the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research was less optimistic. For post-Bouteflika Algeria, Nabeel predicted two scenarios: either the political establishment would continue to rule or Algeria would "replicate modern day Egypt as the military leadership moves into the driving seat. In brief, a real change emerging in the Algerian political landscape seems far-sighted for now."
"The protests did emerge in part in response to elements of Algerian social life," wrote Amir Mohamed Aziz, "but they need to be situated in a broader context of African, Mediterranean and transnational political-economic dynamics."
Algerian journalist Ghada Hamrouche doubted whether it was even possible to hold elections as promised by the interim president. Hamrouche considered elections within the current constitutional set up a diversion. Army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah and "the ruling class," she wrote, "are counting on the lure of elections to divide and weaken protesters' calls for a transition outside the framework of a constitution that keeps the regime in the driver's seat."
International reactions were cautious: most countries and international organizations remained silent until 5 March.
Sa première prioité, rétablir la paix, alors que l'Algérie est plongée dans la guerre civile depuis 1992 contre le guérilla islamiste (quelque 200 000 morts en dix ans).
Quant aux entrepreneurs locaux qui ont bénéficié de projets en tant que sous-traitants des Chinois, ils attendent toujours d’être payés.
Elle symbolise [...] tous les ratés du « système » algérien, la « gestion calamiteuse » de l’argent public par le chef de l’Etat, comme l’avait décrit la presse algérienne, mais aussi sa « mégalomanie » et ses « caprices ».
Soit 55 m de plus que celui de la mosquée Hassan II de Casablanca, la grande rivale marocaine.
Selon Akram Kharief, fondateur du site Menadefense, spécialisé dans la défense et le renseignement qui cite de sources policières, ils étaient entre 800 000 et un million dans la rue.
le véritable révélateur sera vendredi, premier jour de week-end et traditionnelle journée de manifestation depuis bientôt trois semaines.
Pour le régime, il y a urgence. Après les étudiants et les enseignants, mardi et mercredi, les professions médicales, les avocats et les magistrats manifestaient jeudi dans plusieurs villes pour exiger le « départ immédiat » d’Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
A circle of Bouteflika allies — the influential lawmakers, relatives and business executives known as the “pouvoir,” or power — remains in control of the levers of the nation. They have become the protesters’ new targets.
Protests [...] have been reignited by the successful 3 April ouster of Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika [.]
Algerian opinion has long been beyond exasperation and it is only through the traditions of patience and rejection of violence that society has held itself together [...]. What the people contest and reject is not limited to extending the mandate of a president-zombie.
collusion entre et des parties influentes au sein du pouvoir et des hommes d’affaires véreux qui ont bénéficié de manière illicite de l’argent public »
Moscou refuse toute ingérence dans les affaires internes de l’Algérie [...] C’est au peuple algérien de décider de son destin en s’appuyant sur sa constitution et les lois internationales.