Since February, Algeria has witnessed regular massive protests (called “Hirak,” the Arabic word for “movement”) demanding political change. Under pressure from the street, ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been planning to run for a fifth term, withdrew his candidacy and later resigned. But demonstrators continue to call for the removal of other Bouteflika-era officials and for guarantees that elections, when they are held, will be free of interference from the government and the military.
Nacer Djabi is a renowned Algerian sociologist who has been both a supporter of the protests and a frequent commentator and analyst of their significance in the French and Arabic press. He spoke to Al-Fanar Media recently from Algiers.
Today, Djabi says, the main question is whether change will limit itself to side-lining some of the political figures of the old regime, or extend to a real transformation of the political system: “What’s mainly at stake is the question of whether we change the whole system or we just remove particular individuals. The youth and society want a radical political change, not just a change of some figures.” The message from the authorities is: “This individual has left, so you can go home. But we don’t want to stop where they want us to stop. The major question is how to change the system that created this corruption, all these ills?” (See a related article, “Algerian Students Thwart President Bouteflika’s Bid for Fifth Term.”)
Some of the groups that have called for change met recently in a national dialogue forum. The gathering, which was mostly comprised of nationalist, Islamist parties, nongovernmental organizations and unions, is just one avenue that opposition forces have pursued to try to hammer out their demands. There are other points of view and approaches, says Djabi, including those that are more radical or leftist, or that represent groups based on their Berber identity. These groups don’t want to move too quickly toward presidential elections, because they fear that process will bring back the old system.
In fact, one of the main points of contention today is how to structure a national dialogue with le pouvoir (as Algerians refer to the ruling regime) and what new independent structure will be created to oversee elections. “The demand of many is to keep government and the ministry of interior at a distance from the management of the elections, and to have the first free and honest elections in the country,” explains Djabi.
On the other hand, “le pouvoir wants to move very quickly towards elections,” says Djabi. The authorities say this is necessary in order to stay within the framework of the constitution, and to exit the crisis as soon as possible. But Djabi argues that the country has already gone outside of this framework. “Our constitution is not built to handle political conflicts, and we are in an exceptional situation. The population says this political problem requires a political solution, not a constitutional one.”
Meanwhile, huge street protests are the only way to maintain pressure for change, he says: “Our only guarantee is this popular mobilization. Without it, we will regress to the old methods. We need to stay in the street to impose this dialogue.”
And, adds Djabi, “there is a great political debate. There is a great politicization in Algeria, of young people especially.”
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This mobilization has included universities. The demonstrations that university students and professors continue to hold every Tuesday are mostly focused on general political demands for democracy, says Djabi, but they are also concerned with “democracy inside universities, how to free universities, how to fight corruption inside universities.” Students are demanding more transparency in how universities spend public funds. They are calling for new pedagogical approaches that are in line with international norms, and for more openness to the outside world. (See a related article, “Algeria’s Student Strikes Put Academic Year at Risk.”)
The question of university governance is directly connected to the political debate in the country, notes Djabi: “We can’t change universities without changing the political system. Only a legitimate political system, a parliament and president with the support of the people, can seriously face the problem of the university in Algeria, its financial management. We’ve never had a serious transparent debate on the role and future of the university, one that asks: What university do we want to have? Our leaders were afraid of facing these problems, and they never solved them. And this gave us ailing universities.”
Djabi says that he expected unrest and protests to break out in Algeria, given how frustrated people have been. But like many others, he was surprised and impressed by the form the mass mobilization has taken. “I didn’t expect this huge peaceful organized mobilization. We weren’t sure we would see a strong national movement that would remain peaceful for many months. This was a beautiful discovery. I wasn’t surprised by something happening, that things wouldn’t continue as they were, that Algerians were sick of it, especially the young. I am surprised by the determination of the Algerian population. They go out in 48 cities at a time, with the same demands, in this heat. It’s been going for five months.”
A positive resolution of this crisis will not be easy. “We are entering a very delicate, difficult period,” says Djabi. “There will be formal and informal negotiations. I believe the mobilization will impose itself. Algeria was the first country that had a civil war in the region. I hope we will be the first country that will change its political system through a peaceful mass movement.” He believes this could serve as a model for the region and offer hope to other Arab countries that they can overcome the trauma that followed the failure of the Arab Spring in countries such as Egypt and Syria.