Since late February, the large North African country of Algeria has been the site of a massive popular movement that every Friday brings millions of people into the streets demanding deepseated reform. The protests were sparked when the country’s ageing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he would be seeking a fifth term in office. Last week, Bouteflika announced that he would not run again, and also that he would immediately resign. The country’s very powerful army chief Gaid Salah also announced the postponement of the planned presidential elections until July.
These steps did not satisfy the demonstrators, who turned out in very large numbers again last Friday—and early reports from today (April 12) say that the demonstrations are once again nationwide and large.
Amin Khan, the guest on today’s episode, is an Algerian poet and thinker who was the author of a key article published April 5 in French that laid out a program for how Algeria might transition successfully from its current situation as a sclerotic quasi-dictatorship into a fully functioning democracy. You can read our English-language translation of Amin Khan's article-- and of another key document relating to the protests-- on the Just World Educational website, here.
Most of the weekly podcasts in this series are linked to written opinion columns that get published a couple of days earlier… This week, because of the groundbreaking nature of Algeria’s popular uprising-- which has been sadly under-reported in the English-language media-- we’re doing things a little differently. For the text portion of this week’s project, there’s an interview that I conducted earlier this week with veteran Algeria specialist William B. Quandt. And for the podcast portion, we have this interview that I conducted in English, on Wednesday April 10, with Amin Khan.
Today on Just World Podcasts: Algeria's popular movement making waves. Hi, I'm Helena Cobban, the president of Just World Educational. This week's podcast is the eighth in our Story-backstory project, which explores Washington's current policies in the Middle East and the Middle East itself in a broader historical perspective. Most of the weekly podcasts in this series are linked to written opinion columns that get published a couple of days earlier. This week, because of the ground-breaking nature of Algeria's amazing and sustained pro-reform, popular uprising, which has been so sadly under-reported in the English-language media, we're doing things a little differently. For the text portion of this week's project, there's an interview that I conducted earlier this week with veteran Algeria specialist William B Quandt, and for the podcast portion, I have an exclusive interview in English that I conducted last Wednesday with the Algerian poet and thinker Amin Khan. Just a little quick recap here about what's been happening in Algeria. Algeria was due to have presidential elections this month and earlier in the year the country's ageing and functionally-incapacitated President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced that he would be seeking a fifth-term in office. Upon hearing that announcement, on February 22nd, people and families throughout this large North-African country started taking to the streets in their millions. Unlike in the anti-authoritarian protests that erupted in Egypt and elsewhere in early 2011, the Algerian protesters have not yet sought to establish permanent or semi-permanent encampments in any of the country's cities, but rather they limit their large-all-encompassing protests to Fridays, while on the intervening days, smaller groups like students or nurses or lawyers, organized various actions within their own professions, workplaces, or schools. The Friday demonstrations have all been massive and notably they have received strong support from some of the remaining veterans of the hard-fought Independence War that Algerians waged against the French in the 1950s. People like the famous-female Independence Fighters, Jamila Bouhired and Zuhra Drif. Then last week on April 2nd, Bouteflika announced not just that he would not run again, but also that he would resign effective immediately. The country's very powerful army chief, Gaid Salah, who had almost certainly orchestrated Bouteflika's resignation, also announced the postponement of the elections until July. These steps did not satisfy the demonstrators who turned out in very large numbers again last Friday and early reports from today say that the demonstrations are once again nationwide and very well-attended. Amin Khan, who is my guest on today's episode was the author of a key article published April 5th on the French-language https://www.huffpostmaghreb.com/ website, in which he laid out a nine-step program, by which over the course of the coming year, Algeria might transition successfully from its current situation as a sclerotic quasi-dictatorship, in which the powerful military pulls all the real strings, into being a fully functioning democracy. I have translated this article into English and I posted it yesterday on our blog at our website, www.justworldeducational.org. If you go there, just click on the blog tab at the top of the homepage and it will be one of the top items, under the title "Algeria's amazing mass movement makes gains." On the homepage of the Just World Educational website, you'll also see a prominent button that will send you to all the content we have now produced in this multi-week Story-backstory project. And you'll find a handy tab on the website that tells you how you can donate to support our work. Please consider doing so. I urge you to explore all the resources that we make available through the website and through our lively Just World Ed accounts on Twitter and Facebook. I'm extremely grateful to Bill Quandt and Amin Kan for taking the time to engage in these two interviews on Algeria's popular movement that we are very happy to share with the worldwide English-speaking audience this week. So now, here's my conversation with Amin Khan, which we conducted on Wednesday April 10th, with Amin speaking to me from Algiers on a slightly-imperfect Skype connection I have on the phone with me Amin Khan, who is an Algerian poet, currently in Algiers, is that right, Amin?Amin Khan:
Well, what an interesting time for you to be there. So, it seems clear from what you've been writing in https://www.huffpostmaghreb.com/ and elsewhere that you're very much engaged with this amazing popular movement. And so, I'd love you to start out by just telling us a few points about the organization and philosophy of this protest movement.Amin Khan:
Well, I think that this popular movement has surprised everybody, including the people who wished that some-day the Algerians would arise against the very dire conditions they were living in. And a few months-- a few weeks still before the February 22nd-- most of the people were really... Well, I think that many people had lost hope that something positive would come about. There was this humiliation of the regime that wanted to extend itself through a fifth term of a president who had been unable to walk, to talk, to read or write for maybe six or seven years. And this was really difficult to live with... So, when this uprising started--and the way it started also-- I mean, throughout the territory, the vast territory of Algeria, involving all the categories of the population, all the political opinions and ideologies and so on. It was surprising to say the least. I mean, this was unprecedented and the quantity of it was extraordinary. I mean, it's a movement that shows intelligence of the situation, political consciousness and it was all done in a very peaceful way. There was a lot of anger as the source of this uprising. But the way the Algerians have expressed themselves is really extraordinary.Helena Cobban:
Could I just ask you a little bit more about the sources of the anger? And you talked about dire conditions. So are we talking about sort of the national humiliation of having this completely incapacitated-president, or are we talking about dire economic conditions? What kind of dire conditions led to this?Amin Khan:
What I have in mind, particularly what has been perceived by the Algerians as [in French] une atteinte a leur dignite. People felt humiliated and Bouteflika was only the top of the iceberg. This has been a regime that has really been a corrupt regime, and efficient. There was a series of missed-opportunities for development. And the result is that it has created a very difficult circumstances for the Algerian people. But I think that, if you like, the decisive factor of this protest has been the sense of dignity of the Algerians had been temper to it.Helena Cobban:
Interesting. So I saw from the French newspaper "Le Nouvel Observateur" that there was a piece of paper that's another, I guess one of your fellow poets put out, called the 18 commandments, which kind of gave some guidelines for how protesters should behave with dignity and with restraint. And even he said, you should smile at the police, and the gendarmes and the security forces. So, I was amazed to see this. Is that's sort of a general idea that people have had in all these demonstrations throughout, as you say, the very large country of Algeria?Amin Khan:
Oh, yes. It has been throughout, and has been the behavior of everybody, every demonstrator, and mighty people have been demonstrating by minions. Last Friday, they were over 20 million people in all the cities and towns and villages of Algeria, all behaving the same way, being friendly to each other, to the police. People have the feeling that it's a rebirth of Algerian society, because it runs completely against what the regime has created or attempted to create in terms of norms, social norms, behaviors or corruption. You see, and it's amazing that there has not been one single incident. Even people were demonstrating were families, you had old people, you had babies, you know, it's a whole people expressing itself in this very peaceful and civilized way. And in fact, this is a wonderful lesson that has been drawn from the decade of horrific violence that we have known in the 1990s. I think that the Algerians don't want to live that again, but at the same time they are determined to change the situation. So, they are not accepting anymore that this regime stays, but they want to throw it over in a peaceful and political way, in a civilized manner with no violence, but just with the strength of the will of a whole people expressing itself in that direction.Helena Cobban:
I think it's so inspiring, just the little that I know about it. So, in the article, the interview that I conducted with Bill Quandt, he said that a lot of energy is now going into discussing how to find some balance-point between everything must go and the idea that President Bouteflika's recent departure is the most that can be expected in the near term. And I think that sort of encapsulates what I imagine all of you people there in the cities and towns of Algeria are discussing. So, in the article that you had in https://www.huffpostmaghreb.com/ on April 5th. You actually laid out a fairly comprehensive list of things that need to happen, including for example, you called for the immediate dissolution of the NPC, which I guess is the, I'm using Google translate here, sorry, It's really terrible, but I think you're calling for the immediate dissolution of the Lower House of parliament, of the Senate and of the Constitutional Council. So that's pretty radical. It feels radical to me. And then, the formation of a democratic transition, government composed of persons recognized in society for their patriotism, integrity, independence, competence, and so forth. And then that democratic transition government would have a year basically to produce a new constitution and prepare for a new democratic election. So this seems very comprehensive to me. Have you received much positive feedback? Or are there other people thinking along these same lines? Or how do you characterize the debates that are happening inside Algeria over these kind of road-map-type issues right now?Amin Khan:
Well, you see. In this article I have expressed more or less what people within the Popular Movement think should happen. It may seem radical. In fact, it is just taking into account the reality. The reality is that all the so called institutions that we have or that of the regime are plain and simple-fictitious. The National Assembly has never been elected. The Constitutional Council is made of cronies of the president, and so on and so forth. I mean, all of this, this set of so-called institutions have just allowed the regime to put a good face on the situation that was not really a up to the standards that we in these times think a state should have. So, obviously, the political problem of regime change. And by the way, this is exactly what people have been expressing day after day, week after week, that the Algerian people want a total radical regime-change. They don't want any reform within the system or just changing some people by some people. This is what is expressed. What is needed is really is a change of the rules. People want to have the rule of law. They want to have real democracy. They want to have a real freedom of expression, of thinking and so on and so forth. I mean, people feel that they deserve the right to build a functioning-democracy. And you see, this is exactly the opposite of what we have now. What we have is ab authoritarian regime a corrupt regime that is not able to deliver on the basic decent conditions of human life.Helena Cobban:
You know, I actually did some studies about political transitions to democracy about 12 or 15 years ago. And there are a lot of interesting examples from East Europe, from Latin America, from post-Franco Spain and others, where you had a very, I think in many cases, a very similar situation of people with democratic longings in a country that had some of the trappings, some of the appearance of democracy, but actually everything was being manipulated from behind the scenes by the military. So, I wonder if you've been in touch with or if you studied some of these other examples.Amin Khan:
Of course, yes. And it is clear the case of Algeria that we have had a regime that since independence has been a regime, not only controlled by the army, but actually made by the army. And in that sense, it has been kind of hold off on the the independence of the Algerian people. And throughout the decades, the regime has tried to put up civilian face to it. But it was the real power of the army that was behind the choice of this or that president. And it goes way beyond the choice of president, because basically the whole government, the whole so called institutions are really chosen by this power in the Algerian society. One difference we have with Latin American experiences or former Soviet Union, or former Eastern European dictatorships, is that the Algerian people had the experience of liberating themselves by themselves against very fierce colonial system that has lasted in this country for 132 years, settlement colony, and a very oppressive system and so on and so forth. And the fact that we survived this, and not only we survived it, but we're able to gain our independence through armed struggle with the little means that we had shows that you have in this people, I would say mental-culture, resources, spiritual resources, that help us explain, maybe to some extent, what's happening now. People have been patient. I mean, the Algerian have been very patient and they can be patient. But comes a time when they feel that enough is enough. They react in a very powerful way. The struggling thing is that this expression is peaceful. And I strongly hope that it remains peaceful, because if it were, to change in this regard, that would be catastrophic in my sense.Helena Cobban:
Yes. I think the example of Syria in particular, but other of the examples from the Arab Spring show that when the popular movement resorts to arms, I mean, they can never actually overcome a repressive governmentAmin Khan:
Here, nobody's really is thinking in these terms or in violent or having to resort to violence. The problem is that some mafia-like groups may try to create incidents and fracture within this very peaceful movement. And you have maybe some sectors in government that may think that they in order to discredit the movement, they may use oppression, and we have seen that yesterday and today, by the way, where a very peaceful demonstrations by students and so on have been repressed by the police forces. But the reaction of the students and of the professors and citizens there was to respond to this with calm and dignity and certainly not to violence. People are very much aware that violence will not help in anyway the Algerian people. And people who think that they can use violence from the other side, to clamp the movement are just dreaming, because when you have basically a whole people rising up in this manner, showing a high level of consciousness, of political argument that determination, they have little maneuver and will not be of any use.Helena Cobban:
So, we had an interesting presentation last week from Professor Hugh Roberts from Tufts University and he pointed out that three of the main sort of civilian pillars of the regime have actually expressed support for the protest movement. And these are the political parties, and the professional organizations and the Association of Veterans of the Independence Struggle. I would say Mujahideen and Mujahidat, except in the American context those terms are a little loaded. So let's just call them Veterans of the Independence Struggle. So that seems to be, I would say a quite a positive thing that so many people, who were part of the civilian underpinnings of the military regime have come over in essence to the protest movement. Do you think you can somehow build on that and have a dialogue with the military or it's not the time for dialogue with the military?Amin Khan:
Where do you see, I think that more than what Hugh Roberts was saying you have actually, or we can sense that sympathy for the movement is really common, not only from those circles, but also from the police and the army itself. We can only see that there was no attempt by the army to crush the movement and I think this is a decision that has been made, a very wise one. You have also the magistrates, the people of the law, the lawyers and the judges and so on. Also that are basically the main civilian structure if you like of the regime that have expressed not only their support, but they are participating in the popular movement. So, it in a nutshell, you have on one side, basically all the Algerian people, except maybe some clients of the regime, but in terms of social and political forces, you have on one side all the Algerian people basically and on the other side, you have the regime. So, it's a very simple equation. And now how to move this situation where, of course, no political regime is going to offer its resignation and admit that it has been rejected even when the demonstrations are that big. But how to move from this to building democratic institutions? That's tricky because what we see now is that the army, although claiming its support for the popular movement, is still using bits and pieces of the constitution to really have a so called transition because it's not a real one, but in the sense that it will may be ensure the stability of the regime, not the country. Although the Constitution has been stepped on, when president Bouteflika has decided to cancel, pure and simple, the presidential elections that was due on paper. So, you see, the army still trying to refer to the constitution, even though it doesn't exist anymore and is hesitant to take the step of calling for a real transition that could take place only if very independent people representatives of popular the movement are really called to take charge of the government of the country, and to prepare in an independent way with the support of the population and of the army, the conditions for a new constitution and a new parliamentary and presidential elections.Helena Cobban:
Well, it actually sounds like very exciting spirit, and it sounds as if, you know, having this sort of wonderful spirits in the street that you're already building, you know, some kind of democratic ways of thinking and interacting with people. I'm sure you'll need a whole year, maybe more than a year to get the kind of institutions that you want. So, I hope that I can talk to you again and you can come onto the podcast again in a couple of months-time and tell us how it's going. But thank you very much Amin Khan for being with our listeners today. Thank you.