In Algeria, no taste for an uprising of their own

The violence and chaos of Algeria's civil war in the 1990s has left Algerians nervous about echoing the upheavals in other Arab countries – though many would like to strengthen democracy at home.

Paul Schemm/AP
Children play along the Algiers seaside by election posters and with the Notre Dame d'Afrique church in the distant background, while their schools are being used as voting stations, last month. Many Algerians would like to strengthen democracy at home, rather than echo the upheavals in other Arab countries.

Abdou Bendjoudi, a young pro-democracy campaigner in Algiers, has just drafted a novel about a woman’s decade of misery, including rape, kidnap, and betrayal.

“That woman is Algeria, violated both by the Islamists and the state,” Mr. Bendjoudi says.

His novel evokes the country’s civil war in the 1990s – a decade of chaos that left Algerians wary of joining the wave of Arab revolt that began last year in Tunisia. While many want to strengthen democracy and fight corruption, few are keen for a mass uprising.

“Algerians are generally angry,” says Jon Marks, chairman of Cross-Border Information, a risk-analysis firm in Hastings, England. He cites years of scattered riots, protests, and labor strikes – mainly over economic issues. “But no one wants to return to the 1990s.”

For many Algerians, the upheaval around them recalls that violent decade and highlights the risks of fomenting change from below.

In Egypt, which has remained relatively peaceful since Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February 2011, many citizens are upset that the revolution may not result in a free society. The presidential election run-off on June 16-17 will be contested by Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister and a member of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. For some Egyptians who rallied in Tahrir Square, neither represent the kind of change they were hoping for.

In Libya, the rebels who banded together to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi have since struggled to overcome factional, regional, and tribal differences. Such bickering, at times violent, looms over parliamentary elections scheduled for June 19. Yesterday gunman from one militia seized Tripoli's main airport after their leader was arrested.

Spiraling violence in Syria, including the recent massacre of 108 civilians in Houla that residents say was perpetrated by pro-government forces, has prompted the United Nations to warn that the country risks "a catastrophic civil war." While the uprising began as a peaceful protest movement, rebels have adopted increasingly violent methods in their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

For Bendjoudi, the activist, it's an example of how a revolution can go off the rails.

“Assad’s regime is authoritarian and criminal – that’s indisputable,” he says. “But the Syrian revolution began as a peaceful revolution. We condemn all violence, wherever it comes from.”

A quarter-century before the Arab Spring ...

In Algeria, relative prosperity and free speech compared to many Arab countries offer a release valve for discontent, says Louisa Dris Ait Hamadouche, a political science researcher at Algiers University. While authorities have banned and suppressed demonstrations in the capital, a small but feisty independent press offers a platform to critics of the government. Alleged public-sector corruption, high-handed governance, and creaking public services are common themes.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t problems,” says Mrs. Ait Hamadouche. “Just that they’re not bad enough for Algerians to revolt.”

Some Algerians say their revolt occurred in 1988, when riots over an economic slump and political cronyism prompted leaders to end the one-party system that was installed after independence from France in 1962.

In 1992 the Army cancelled parliamentary elections that an Islamist party looked set to win, and the country slid into civil war. At least 150,000 are believed to have been killed in a decade of firefights, bombings, assassinations and disappearances that tore Algerian society apart.

“Everyone in our neighborhood hated us because my brother was with the terrorists,” says Anis Mostefaoui, a recent university graduate who lost two brothers to the violence.

Abdelkader Mostefaoui was killed in 1996 while fighting with an Islamist militia, while Ismail was detained the following year by government forces.

“Ismail had nothing to do with the Islamists,” Anis Mostefaoui said, attending a weekly gathering near the National Human Rights Observatory of families of the disappeared. “He spent six weeks in jail, and since then we’ve heard nothing.”

In 2005 voters approved by referendum a peace deal proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that ended most violence by offering amnesty to repentant Islamists and guaranteeing immunity to security officers accused of torture or disappearances.

Young people left out of voting, political positions

While some Algerians credit Mr. Bouteflika with bringing stability, others question the political system that has kept him in power since 1999. In 2008 a parliament dominated by his party, the National Liberation Front, lifted presidential term limits, allowing him to win a third five-year term in 2009.

The government billed parliamentary elections last month as a step toward greater democracy, with new parties and Algeria’s first-ever international observers.

The coalition that backs Bouteflika strengthened its majority in a vote that saw an official turnout of 42 percent. Several opposition parties cried fraud, while European Union observers said the vote marked progress toward reform.

Analysts, however, say that Algeria’s military and security services curb the role of elected officials by wielding influence behind the scenes.

For many young Algerians, voting lacks meaning. Last month’s election appears not to have attracted the under-35s who make up three-quarters of the population and suffer 20 percent unemployment – double the national rate.

Some leaders cite a need to empower a generation that remains in the shadow of an aging political elite.

“We’re two generations from independence, and people in their 50s still haven’t risen to power,” says Seddik Chiheb, vice president of the 2007-12 parliament and a member of the National Rally for Democracy party, which backs the 75-year-old Bouteflika.

Grass-roots youth organization takes action

Mr. Chiheb sees presidential elections in 2014 as a chance for a younger political class to emerge.

Young people such as Bendjoudi are not waiting. His grass-roots organization, the Movement of Independent Youth for Change (MJIC), is trying to raise pressure for reform on Algeria’s leaders by coordinating the country’s many local protest groups.

“It’s true that many strikes and demonstrations don’t voice clear political demands,” he says. “But they make social demands that are related to politics.”

One partner of the MJIC is the National Autonomous Union of Public Administration Workers (SNAPAP), which helps represent public-sector employees.

On a warm night early last month, several days before elections, SNAPAP’s office in a dank suburb of Algiers was buzzing as activists tallied reported arrests nation-wide of workers’ rights demonstrators.

With them was Abdelkader Kherba, who was given a one-year suspended sentence and 20,000 Algerian dinar ($260) fine in May on charges of inciting an illegal gathering after he attended a sit-in by court clerks in Algiers.

The son of a builder, he left his hometown of Ksar el Boukhari to seek work in the capital. Last year he joined the newly formed Defense Committee for the Rights of the Unemployed.

“We’ve done demonstrations – in Skikda, Béjaia, Ouargla – always peaceful,” he says. Then he holds up a slip of paper like a protest placard. “This is our only weapon.”

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