While uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East have been quelled by deadly force, Algerian authorities are becalming a powerful protest movement without a shot fired – for now.
Thousands still march, but protests are smaller than last year. Some prominent figures say the opposition should accept an offer of dialogue from government.
These changes suggest the secretive authorities, known to Algerians as le pouvoir – “the powers that be” – may have outmanoeuvred the biggest threat to their rule in decades.
Their strategy has been to place new faces in top government, while playing for time and proposing talks. The approach seems to be wearing down the opposition.
“I did not go to protests the past two Fridays,” said Hamdadou (51) a telecoms worker who attended previous marches and asked to keep his family name unpublished.
“I think we have done the maximum to push for change. Let’s cross fingers and see what happens.”
Protesters say the marches diminished in number since last month’s election of a new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, seen by the leaderless opposition as an establishment stalwart.
Protests began nearly a year ago, flooding cities with national flags and placards, demanding removal of the ruling elite, an end to graft and the army’s withdrawal from politics.
Le pouvoir jettisoned President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, threw top officials into prison on corruption charges and let protests continue, publicly hailing them as a patriotic renewal while detaining marchers and prominent dissidents.
Their strategy – pushed by army chief Ahmed Gaed Salah – was to use December’s election to restore legitimacy to a system remaining essentially unchanged.
Tebboune was elected on an official turnout of 40%, though protesters believe that figure was inflated. He freed prisoners and offered dialogue with protesters and reform of the constitution.
Gaed Salah died suddenly of a heart attack in December, meaning Algeria now has a new president, government and army chief and the most prominent figures associated with le pouvoir have been replaced.
FROM DEMONSTRATIONS TO DIALOGUE?
Some politicians who embraced the protest movement, known as “hirak”, say the struggle should now move from the street to the negotiating table, arguing further reforms can only be achieved through dialogue.
“It is the time for politics now. Hirak will continue to be pressure, but only politicians can talk with the regime to push demands including a change of the system,” said Soufiane Djilali, an opposition leader.
For the remaining protesters that viewpoint is anathema.
Maasum, a student at the Algiers Bab Ezouar university of technology acknowledged during last Friday’s protest there were fewer demonstrators, but said he remained committed to change.
“How can you talk with a president we do not recognise?” he said. “We said they must all go. So no dialogue until they go.”
Djilali was one of several opposition figures including Mouloud Hamrouche, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, Abdelaziz Rahabi and Ahmed Benbitour to meet Tebboune, a former prime minister under Bouteflika, drawing ire from Maasum and other protesters.
NO SET LEADERSHIP
Few deny the scope of the hirak’s achievements so far. In a region where leaders often use extreme violence to suppress dissent, it brought down a president, Bouteflika, entrenched for 20 years, without a gunshot.
Bouteflika’s brother and de facto regent during his illness, as well as the once all-powerful intelligence chief Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene, were sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“Many believe the hirak fulfilled its mission by sacking Bouteflika and clearing the country of its corrupt leaders,” said Algerian political analyst Farid Ferrahi.
In the Kabyle region outside Algiers, a stronghold of the hirak, “life is almost back to normal,” said Said Mezouane, a resident of Haizer.
But the thousands – down from hundreds of thousands last spring and tens of thousands before December’s election – who still protest believe there has been only cosmetic change.
Since the hirak has no leadership, official organisation or commonly agreed plans for effecting change there is no clear mechanism to agree a way forward.
Novelist Kamel Daoud, a fierce critic of the authorities, wrote: “Has the regime won? Yes, temporarily. It is also true to conclude the protest has temporarily been lost”.
Algeria faces a hard economic year with falling energy revenue eating into its budget and a planned public spending cut of nine percent – meaning government may find it hard to win public support.
Protesters in central Algiers seem unwilling to compromise.
“Morale is high. We will continue our struggle. We want the opposition to unite and push the regime to exit,” said Dahmani (25), a student at Dely Brahim university.