Over the last few days, demonstrations of historical proportions have been taking place across Algeria, in response to President Bouteflika’s announcement that he wants to continue in his position for a fifth term. The demonstrations are some of the biggest the country has seen in recent years and have been dubbed an ‘Algerian Spring’. “Y’en a marre!” (we’ve had enough), “dégage” (get out) cry out the protestors, reminiscent of the Tunisian Revolution of 2010-11.
Why have the Algerian people had enough of Bouteflika? Why have we heard so very little about it? It’s hard to find this information due to the corruption and silence of most media outlets on the issue, so I took to Twitter to find out what’s going on.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, of the National Liberation Front (FLN), has been in power since 1999. He was involved in the fight for independence from France in the 50s and 60s. He has been in politics since Algeria obtained its independence in 1962. He has a long history of some rather shady activities, but the most obvious (and largely incontestable issue) today is that he is 82 years old and wheelchair-bound, due to a stroke he suffered in 2013. He’s so ill he rarely makes public appearances and even needed assistance to cast his own ballot in 2017. Even while these protests are going on, he is in Geneva receiving treatment for some “health issues”.
Bouteflika has been described as the “living dead”, which tells us all we need to know about the state he is in. The Algerian people want the world to hear their cry: this man is not suitable to run their country any longer.
Another catalyst for protest has been the overwhelming silence of major Algerian media outlets regarding the demonstrations, and the fact that when they do report on the protests, they use language such as “chaos” or “violence”. To sum up the situation, one protest sign reads:
« le gouvernement nous pisse dessus, les médias nous disent qu’il pleut »
(That translates to “the government pisses on us and the media tells us it’s raining”).
Independent journalists are bravely speaking out about the truth and have made use of social media such as Twitter to get the message out and portray an accurate picture of what is going on in Algeria. One such journalist is Leila Beratto, who has been regularly tweeting about the situation from the outset, and has been involved in protests and sit-ins. She spoke out against articles which suggest Algeria is “falling into chaos”, stating that they are “not worth reading”. Beratto was arrested at a protest in Algiers but released soon after.
Journalists have gathered in the aptly-named ‘Place de la Liberté de la Presse’ (Freedom of Press Square) in Algiers to express their desire for freedom of speech. Students have marched against the media’s lack of reporting. They’re all calling for Bouteflika to step down. There have even been gatherings of young lycéens (students of 15-18 years old) concerned about their futures, notably in Bordj Bou Arreridk and Mostaganem. These are just a few examples of a country-wide movement for change.
Algerian Twitter users and independent journalists have expressed that the people are not only calling for Bouteflika to get out, but also his “gang” (العصابة) who keep him in his position. This is almost certainly not the opinion of all people protesting, but there have been chants of “the people want to change the regime” and “a free and democratic Algeria”.
We can also find a surge of images and videos posted across Twitter and elsewhere. The aim is to put a stop to the narrative that the protests are violent, chaotic and male-only. One can find photos in which police and protesters hold white roses, a symbol of peace. There are videos showing protesters cleaning up the streets after a demonstration and sharing vinegar with police officers, to help them with the effects of the very tear gas they used on the crowds just moments before.
News outlets fail to make Algerian women visible, presumably in an attempt to paint a negative and violent picture of protestors. Twitter has responded by showing Algerian women at the forefront: videos of Sabrina Rahmani shouting at police officers, demanding they look her in the eye, using the words “we are all brothers”; and footage of women waving flags and holding signs expressing their disapproval towards the fifth term. It all highlights that women are undoubtedly an important and visible part of this historical movement.
It is essential that we are aware of the struggle in Algeria and we support their fight for freedom of speech and democracy. We must avoid exoticist and stereotypical images of these demonstrations, and question why we hear nothing about it unless we actively seek information – and even still, why it is so difficult to come across in English.
Our governments are unlikely to officially support the protests, but there is no reason why we as individuals should be kept from the truth, and why we should not speak out in support of the Algerian people.
Maggie Nicoll, Foreign Affairs Editor