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In an epic standoff, unarmed Algerians get the Army to blink

A protest march in Algiers last month. So far, armored police vehicles are standing silently by. PHOTO: Ramzi Boudina/Reuters
A protest march in Algiers last month. So far, armored police vehicles are standing silently by. PHOTO: Ramzi Boudina/Reuters

The side with the guns – the army command – dares not spill blood, five months into a popular uprising that chased out Algeria’s autocratic president. The side without – the protesters – remains mobilized, still coursing through the capital’s sun-blasted streets twice a week.

The street has stared down the army, and the army has blinked. So the epic standoff in Algeria – Africa’s largest country, the oil-rich neighbor of Libya, strategically situated on the rim of the Mediterranean Sea, gateway to the deep Sahara – continues.

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That it does, even if Algeria is still far from the democracy the street wants, already signals an unusual victory, one making this unfolding and so far bloodless revolution perhaps unique in the Arab world, say the protesters and Algeria analysts.

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“What we’ve lived in five months, the Arab world hasn’t seen in 40 years,” said a former government minister and ambassador, Abdelaziz Rahabi, who heads one of the numerous citizen groups that have sprung up since the uprising began and pushed out President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in power.

“We’ve removed a president without exiling him,” as in Tunisia, Mr. Rahabi said. “Without imprisoning him,” as in Egypt. “And without killing him,” as in Libya, he added.

“So don’t tell me things are going badly,’’ he said. ‘‘And nobody has been killed. There’s nothing similar in the Arab world.”

The police and their armored vehicles line the marchers’ route, but stand silently by – wary of initiating a bloody confrontation – allowing the protests to continue marching the streets, chanting “No to a military state!” and “The people want it, tomorrow!”

What they want is a democratic government free of the military, devoid of even a taint of officials beholden to the old regime, and a full voice in laying out the road map on how to get there, even if the precise path is unclear.

Equally unclear – a relative triumph for the street – is who has the upper hand as the two sides circle each other cautiously. The protesters have already forced the cancellation of two projected elections, suspicious that the army would rig them.

The army alternately tightens the screws on the demonstrations and loosens them, unsure how much pressure to apply on a popular movement with broad support across classes and regions in this vast country.

“Who are the real holders of power in Algeria?” asked one opposition politician, Mustapha Hadni, at a sweaty political meeting in the heights of Algiers this month.

In a land of opaque politics the question is perpetual, but it now has new meaning. Those with the power, he and his colleagues believe, are on the street.

“There is no dialogue with them as long as they are trying to impose their own road map,” Mr. Hadni said, with all the confidence that it was the opposition calling the shots.

In interviews, opposition figures – current and former politicians, human rights advocates, and academics – expressed pride in what had been accomplished so far by Algeria’s low-key revolution.

So did the demonstrators in the streets. And, whether bluffing or not, the activists expressed relative serenity about the future.

“It’s a question of the balance of power,” said Mohcine Belabbas, head of the opposition RCD party. “And for now, the strength is on the side of those who want constitutional change in this country.”

“Our advantage is that we have a population that has an interest in defending the country,” he said.

At a Friday march down the dilapidated but still grand colonial-era Rue Didouche Mourad in Algiers, the capital, the crowd chanted, “Remember, we are the ones that got rid of Boutef!” referring to Mr. Bouteflika. “It’s us or you, and we’re not going to stop!” they yelled.

“The people are not dupes,” said one marcher, a 55-year-old shopkeeper, Kasdi M’hend. “Boutef was a facade president. It’s like a Russian doll,” he said, referring to the country’s concealed layers of power.

“They’re playing deaf-and-dumb, and they’re blocking the path,” said another man at the Friday march, Mohammed Akli, a lawyer. “This government has been illegitimate since July,” he said, referring to the constitutional departure date for the interim president, appointed after Mr. Bouteflika was kicked out.

Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah, the country’s rough-hewed de facto ruler since Mr. Bouteflika’s forced departure, makes Soviet-style speeches threatening “traitors” and denouncing “poisonous ideas” like the street’s insistence on a civilian government.

In a bid to appease the protesters, General Gaïd Salah has imprisoned the cream of the business and political elite that ran the country for decades under the deposed president. That appears not to be enough.

Yet the unschooled general has not pulled the trigger on the crowd.

“It would be very risky for them,” said Nacer Djabi, a leading political sociologist here, one of 13 Algerians put forward by a citizens’ group as potential negotiators with the authorities. “And then, they can’t be certain of the instruments of repression themselves,” he added, referring to rank-and-file soldiers in Algeria’s all-volunteer army.

“The military authority has all the powers, but it can’t exercise them,” said Moussaab Hammoudi, an Algerian political analyst at the Paris EHESS, the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.

“It’s the hirak that has power,” he added, using Algerians’ name for their protest movement. “Gaïd Salah is stuck.”

Government ministers, installed by Mr. Bouteflika shortly before he was forced to resign, have been harassed by angry citizens in rare sorties from their offices. They have been seen swiftly returning to their cars.

“They are afraid of their own people,” said Mostepha Bouchachi, a prominent human rights lawyer who is also one of the 13 potential civilian negotiators.

Mr. Belabbas, of the opposition RCD party, agreed. “They’ve lost their credibility with the population,” he said “They will be obligated to leave the country.”

Mr. Bouteflika’s handpicked prime minister, Noureddine Bedoui, is seen as particularly vulnerable because he organized rigged elections under the previous regime. He appeared nervous and uncertain in a recent appearance on state television.

Meanwhile, civic groups and opposition politicians hatch new plans every week, hoping to see Algeria through to hoped-for democracy, and setting out conditions for talks with the governing regime.

But for now no single personality or group has emerged to channel the energy and demands of the protest movement.

The common denominator for discussions about elections is an insistence that the 60-odd protesters who have been jailed – mainly for brandishing the flag of the Berber minority – be liberated, that gestures of harassment aimed at media outlets be stopped, and that Algerians’ newfound appetite for denouncing past abuses and demanding democracy not be interfered with.

If not willing to unleash a violent crackdown, the authorities have begun tiptoeing toward repression.

“The regime has begun to restrict the protest space,” said Abdelwahab Fersaoui, recalling the moment two weeks ago when dozens of police showed up to break up his meeting of a youth protest group, the RAJ or Youth Action Group.

After they had gathered at a symbolic spot in downtown Algiers, the neo-Moorish Grande Poste or central post office, “They said, ‘You can’t meet here.’ They told us, ‘You can’t organize this,’ ” he recalled.

Others have had similar episodes. “They are making preventive arrests in the mornings,” before the weekly marches, said Noureddine Benissad, head of the Algerian human rights league.

Mr. Bouchachi, the human rights lawyer, is no longer given authorization by the authorities to speak at the universities.

He and others in the protest movement have been infuriated by the imprisonment of a legendary figure from Algeria’s near-sacred war of independence against France 60 years ago, Lakhdar Bouregaâ. He is accused of making anti-army statements and all groups are demanding his release.

The interim president whose term expired earlier this month but who is still in office, the Bouteflika loyalist Abdelkader Bensalah, said he was “available” to “study” the demands of the protesters.

The protesters remain vigilant, wary that such gestures are merely a trap, a way to blunt their momentum or divide the opposition.

“I had hoped that this country would have changed, already. We are the future here,” said Yousra Nemouchi, a 20-year-old student who marched on a recent day. “We want to be heard by this government.”

“We’ve gotten rid of the president, but they are still arresting people for talking,’’ Ms. Nemouchi said. ‘‘But still, I think already we have achieved a lot.”

Source: www.nytimes.com

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