As the waves of protest inspired by Tunisia continue to roll across the Middle East and North Africa, analysts have remained puzzled by the mysterious timing, incredible speed and cross-national snowballing of these uprisings or intifadas. In the six months following the electrifying scenes of thousands occupying Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, directing the imperative Dégage! (Get out!) at President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian “virus” has spread across the region, unleashing apparently similar moments of resistance and revolution. Yet a “back-door” view of the intifadas reveals wide variations.
In mid-February, with autocratic rulers deposed in Tunisia and Egypt, and another tottering in Libya, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy took to the streets in the capital of Algeria. The organization, which was created on January 21, following a series of riots in several cities across the country, is led by the Rally for Democracy and Culture (RCD), an opposition party whose narrow constituency includes mainly Berber-speaking people in Algiers and the nearby Kabylia region. The Coordination includes other small political parties, as well as the National League for the Defense of Human Rights, the National Association of Families of Missing Persons (those who “disappeared” during the internal war of the 1990s), an association of the unemployed and many other groups. It called for “change and democracy, the lifting of the state of emergency, the liberalization of the political and media fields, and the release of people who were jailed for having protested or for their opinions.”
Soon after the onset of protests which eventually toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, a wave of riots swept through Algeria as well, with many neighborhoods in the capital of Algiers and dozens of smaller cities overwhelmed by thousands of angry young men who closed down streets with burning tires, attacked police stations with rocks and paving stones, and set fire to public buildings. For Algerians a few years older than the rioters, these events recalled the uprising of October 1988, in which violent unrest upended the single-party state.
Nearly 50 years after independence, the North African states of Algeria and Morocco face challenges to their national unity and territorial integrity. In Algeria, a
Shoes and pants soaked with rain, I tagged along with a journalist from the popular Arabic daily Echorouk—his paper my umbrella—while he visited polling stations in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers on the day of local elections in November 2007. At the first site, disgruntled party officials quickly ejected us. We did not have the right papers, they said, and the police who looked on bored were inclined to agree. At the second station, we kept our distance. Watching for half an hour, we could count the voters who entered on two hands. Next to us stood four youths, escaping the rain under a shop awning. They laughed at us when we asked if they were going to vote. Down the road we saw an older gentleman on his way back from voting.
Across nearly the breadth of North Africa, the head of state enjoys a lifetime appointment. Morocco has a king. In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since 1987, pushed for a constitutional amendment removing term limits and has now announced a bid for a fifth term in office. President Husni Mubarak of Egypt, who assumed office in 1981, is already serving his fifth term. Libyan strongman Mu‘ammar Qaddafi, in power since September 1969, has never permitted a meaningful election.
Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
On May 9, 2002, Tony Judt, professor of history at New York University, began an essay on Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation with a quote from Raymond Aron’s book on the 1954-1962 Algerian War of Independence from French colonial rule.  France, Aron argued, could not impose its administration on the Algerians indefinitely nor was it willing to integrate them into French society. Until they left Algeria, Aron argued, the French were harming themselves more than the Algerians.
From May to early July 2001, massive protests rocked the Berber areas (Upper and Lower Kabylia) of Algeria, spreading on several occasions to Algiers and other major cities. On June 14, perhaps a million Kabyles “marched for democracy” in the capital, sparking clashes with police and leading the government to ban demonstrations. Middle East Report asked Daho Djerbal, editor of Naqd, an Algerian journal of critical inquiry, and a prominent intellectual, to comment on the portent of the unrest.
In the past ten years of political crisis, Algerians have been wary of public protest. Terrorized by relentless violence and impoverished by structural adjustment, they have repeatedly given the impression that what they want most is the chance to get on with their lives quietly. Despite the cancellation of one election and the staging of several fraudulent ones — not to mention wholesale public sector downsizings and devaluation of the currency — the streets remained calm and mass protest looked like an unlikely prospect.
A Kenza a yelli / D iseflan neghli /
F Lzzayer uzekka / A Kenza a yelli /
Ur tru ara
(O Kenza my daughter / We have sacrificed our lives / For the Algeria of tomorrow / O Kenza my daughter / Do not cry)
—"Kenza," written by Lounès Matoub in 1993 for the daughter of assassinated Kabyle journalist and playwright, Tahar Djaout
Hugh Roberts is a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a specialist on Algerian political history. Middle East Report recently asked him to give his view on the continuing violence in Algeria and what, if anything, western governments can do about the situation.
Selima Ghezali was born in Bouira, Algeria in 1958. After obtaining a degree in literature, she began working as a teacher of French at the Khemis el-Khechna high school, where she was active in the General Union of Algerian Workers. In the 1980s, Ghezali joined the Algerian feminist movement then fighting the implementation of Algeria’s repressive family code. She later became president of the Women’s Association of Europe and North Africa and chairwoman of the Association pour l’Emancipation des Femmes (Association for the Emancipation of Women).
The last four months in Algeria have left more than 650 civilians dead and significantly more wounded. During the month of Ramadan alone (January 10-February 7, 1997) the latest wave of car bombings and massacres killed more than 350. As many as 60,000 have died in the civil war triggered when the army seized control of the country in January 1992, canceled the upcoming legislative elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win, forced out the ostensibly constitutional regime of President Chadli Benjedid, banned the Islamic opposition groups (primarily the FIS and the Armed Islamic Group) and detained thousands of their sympathizers in Sahara desert camps.