An iconic image of the 1960s shows a young American placing flowers in the barrels of soldiers’ rifles during protests against the Vietnam War. Such symbols of peace (“flower power”) helped turn events. Something like that is now happening in Algeria.
Since February, millions of pro-democracy protesters in the North African country have been purposefully peaceful, even joyful, in the streets. Their main chant is silmiya, silmiya (peaceful, peaceful). With a message of nonviolence, they aim to persuade the military to stop dictating who rules Algeria by the mere force of arms.
The size of the weekly demonstrations has shocked the army’s top brass. Since 1962 the military has picked or approved the nation’s rulers. This week, its powerful chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Gaïd Salah, was forced to bow to the protesters. He ousted the longtime president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Now, however, the army may be maneuvering to use a sheen of democracy to select a military-friendly successor as president.
The protesters have learned well from the 2011 Arab Spring as well as their own country’s long history of mass political killing. They know how easily generals can foment violence or use an instance of violence to claim only they can ensure order and, by the nature of military discipline, bring stable rule.
The protesters are offering an alternative, using values as “weapons” – values that are also the rock of democratic governance.
By sheer numbers alone, the protesters display a political legitimacy that counters the military’s claim to legitimacy for its role in the war for independence from France – six decades ago. Half of Algeria’s 40 million people are under 30. They are more aware of how neighboring Tunisia has returned its military to the barracks since 2011.
The protesters are also far more inclusive and representative of society, bringing out the old and young, men and women, and people across tribes and clans nationwide. In their show of equality and a nearly leaderless organization, they make a point about basic liberty and rights.
In essence, the protests are redefining Algeria’s national identity through a hirak, the Arabic word for movement. Even Islamist parties have been forced to bend to this desire for democracy.
The world has taken notice of these tactics. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, for example, praised what he called “the mature and calm nature in which the Algerian people have been expressing their desire for change.”
For nearly 70 years, the Arab world’s 360 million people have been stuck in a power dynamic between strong rulers and authoritarian Islamists. Each needed the other to draw support. This left little space for true democrats. The largely failed Arab Spring revealed the difficulty of liberating the region from dictators, many of whom only mimic democracy.
Algeria’s protesters still have a long way to go to overthrow what they call Le Pouvoir – “The Power” – the military-led elite that feels entitled to rule. Even criticizing the army is dangerous. Yet good ideas have been let loose by the protests. The army has already made one surprise retreat. A peace offensive could still win.