Algerians take to streets in protest against cuts and ailing, ‘out of touch’ president

Borzou Daragahi

Life in the Algerian coastal city of Annaba grows harder by the year, with government austerity measures squeezing public services, such as healthcare and education, to make up for a collapse in oil and gas revenues.

But sunshine is plentiful in the city of 350,000. The beaches teem with youthful energy during the warm months, and daily life is not at all unbearable.

Yet for another week, 27-year-old high-school English teacher Djihed Sadaoui took to the streets with his friends and relatives to demand an end not just to the presidency of 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s ailing, wheelchair-bound leader, but the removal from power of all the obscure figures using the man as a front for ruling the country.

He was among hundreds of thousands of others demonstrating for a fifth week on Friday, despite the grey skies and cold rain biting at the south Mediterranean coast.

“They are ‘stupidising’ us, if this verb exists,” he tells The Independent.

“This is why we say in Arabic ‘don’t make donkeys of the people’.

Life is worse than before, but some feel that there are things more important than healthcare, money or food.

“We are not ‘hungry people’. We need ethical leaders, not corrupt ones.”

Live-streaming video feeds showed protests erupting in the capital, Algiers, and at least 12 other cities across the nation of 42 million.

The protests were initially sparked by the Mr Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek a fifth term after 20 years as president.

Algerians across the board were outraged – Mr Bouteflika has not delivered a public address since 2012, a year before he suffered a massive stroke.

He spends much of his time in hospitals in France and Switzerland, and many Algerians suspect his written statements and policy decisions are being managed by a shadowy clique that includes his brother, Said, a coterie of powerful and corrupt business leaders and the military officers who have dominated the country since its 1962 independence from France.

In fact, who actually runs Algeria – who is le pouvoir, or the power – is a question that few can answer, and that has been an Algerian frustration for more than six-and-a-half decades.

Now, protesters want them gone, preferably by 28 April, when Mr Bouteflika’s mandate officially ends.

“We want all the system to leave,” said Mr Sadaoui. “We don't need them.”

Mohamed Kirat, a professor of mass media at Qatar University who is Algerian, believes it is wealthy businessmen such as Ali Haddad who are le pouvoir – Haddad is the head of a influential business lobby. Then there are the close family of Mr Bouteflika and the army – General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the 79-year-old chief of staff, is particularly powerful.

“That is the pouvoir for the protesters,” he said. “They want to get rid of all of them. They want radical change. They don’t want to hear from Bouteflika or his brothers. They don’t want to hear from Haddad. And they don’t want to hear from the generals.”

Mr Sadaoui also pointed to the generational divide, describing Algeria’s leaders as octogenarians “who don’t want to retire and leave opportunities for younger people.”

But the protests and anger at the government cut across all Algeria’s social divides and appear to be unfolding in every region, drawing in Arabs, ethnic Amazigh or berbers, men and women, leftists, Islamists, and liberals.

“There is no difference between small towns and big cities,” said Mr Sadaoui. “We all want the same thing.”

In the past, Algerian authorities have managed to defuse protests with a combination of non-lethal force, payoffs, and promises.

But this time, protests have actually gotten larger and wider since Mr Bouteflika announced earlier this month he would step aside, in about a year, after overseeing the drawing up of a new constitution, a referendum and national elections.

We are not ‘hungry people.’ We need ethical leaders, not corrupt ones

Djihed Sadaoui

Few trust that Mr Bouteflika himself is coming up with the proposals, or that his clique will truly stand aside in accord with the roadmap it has designed.

The regime appears to be struggling. This week they sent envoys to Russia, China, and Germany – countries from which it buys weapons – to shore up support.

“They are trying to sell the roadmap of Bouteflika to these countries,” said Mr Kirat. “They’re trying to internationalise this issue.”

Protesters will not let up, and foreign countries – including Russia – appear to be hedging their bets, surprised and overwhelmed by a protest movement that seems to be growing in magnitude.

“The mobilisation is not letting up,” wrote journalist Nabila Amir in the newspaper El Watan on Thursday.

“On the contrary, Algerians are increasingly showing anger and impatience at the contempt shown by the Bouteflika clan and their supporters.”

When the protests first began, Algerian prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia warned that their demonstrations could lead the country into a bloody civil war.

That is the pouvoir for the protesters. They want to get rid of all of them. They want radical change

Mohamed Kirat, professor of mass media at Qatar University

Mr Ouyahia’s words were taken as an insult given he has been a fixture of the Bouteflika regime.

“The most important thing for us was that it wasn’t our president talking to us,” said Mr Sadaoui. “This is our problem – this is what the world does not understand. Can you, as a citizen who has rights, accept not to see or hear your president for more than five years?”