Riad Mostefai has marched through the capital of Algeria every Friday since February to demand a purge of the ruling hierarchy, an end to corruption and the army’s withdrawal from politics.
Though some demands have been met, Mostefai plans to keep on marching each week along with thousands of others who don’t believe an election in December will change anything, as long as an opaque ruling elite remains in charge.
“We’re continuing to protest because we don’t trust the system. It might regenerate,” said the 23-year-old apprentice hairdresser.
Since the popular protests started, Algeria’s veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika quit after two decades in power, many of his coterie have been arrested for corruption and his once all-powerful security chief is behind bars.
Now, the old guard, known by Algerians as “Le Pouvoir”, or “The Power”, hope the December 12 presidential election will end a state of constitutional limbo and create a government with sufficient legitimacy to wear down the demonstrators.
With six weeks to go, the election is increasingly regarded as a pivotal test of strength after the most sustained public demand for peaceful change in decades.
The nebulous, leaderless opposition movement known as Hirak in Arabic rejected the election, saying it won’t be free or fair under the ruling hierarchy and it hopes a low turnout will compel authorities to accept bigger changes.
Government has increased pressure on protesters since the summer by ramping up police presence at marches, arresting dozens of demonstrators and detaining prominent opposition figures.
An informal network of politicians, generals and security chiefs dominated Algeria since independence. In 1992they cancelled an election hard-line Islamists were on course to win, leading to a protracted civil war in which 200 000 were killed.
‘FINISH THE JOB’
For some of thousands who marched at the peak of protests in the spring, the departure of Bouteflika in April and jailing of his senior allies was enough for them to stop.
“I think Hirak has achieved most of its goals, now we need to move forward,” said Jalal Alalou.
Twenty-two candidates have registered for the presidential poll and, for the first time, none is from Algeria’s liberation movement, the FLN, that won independence from France in 1962 after a bloody eight-year guerrilla struggle.
The country’s army, long an influential political powerbroker, said it won’t back any specific candidate to convince voters the election will be fair.
That’s not enough for others still committed to protest.
“Those no longer marching with us are wrong because they think the departure of Bouteflika and his men is enough. They are wrong. We must finish the job,” said Chawki (23) a student at Blida University.
Abdou, a 21-year-old student at Algiers’ Bab Ezzouar University, agreed.
“Bouteflika was a cancer. He has been removed. Now we need chemotherapy to kill the cells. This is why we must continue the protests,” he said.
Both students said they want all senior figures associated with Bouteflika to leave office and the army to step back from politics, before they accept the December election.
“No one can be against elections to end the crisis and move forward but we believe conditions for free and fair elections are not secured,” said Chawki.
For Mostefai, the protests represent an opportunity for Algeria, the biggest country in Africa, to join the club of democracies, with civilian governments operating within the rule of law.
This Friday, the anniversary of the start of the uprising against French colonialism on November 1, 1954, the opposition is seeking a particularly big protest in an effort to seize the mantle of freedom from the old guard.
Corruption provoked much of the outrage behind this year’s protests as many Algerians believed it was getting worse in recent years as government economic reforms encouraged the private sector.
Economists said the changes were necessary to reduce the state’s reliance on oil, which accounts for 85% of Algeria’s exports. As members of the ruling elite, their relatives and friendly businessmen made fortunes, people grew angry.
Algeria came in at 105th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index last year with a score of 35 out of 100, below the average for the Middle East and North Africa.
To make matters worse, when global oil prices plunged in 2014, hitting Algeria’s foreign currency reserves, government responded by cutting back spending on social welfare programmes.
“Our rulers stole the country’s resources. Algeria is rich but Algerians are poor,” Mostefai said.