But this should not distract us from the fact that Algerians did come out to the streets. The riots of late December and early January were dismissed as incoherent outbursts from desolate youth who were even suspected of being manipulated by shadowy business interests. In late January, the march attempted by the RCD (Rally for Culture and Democracy) was viewed as a publicity stunt pulled by a political party losing its popularity (the coziness between its leader and the military suggested by Wikileaks did not help.) The laborious preparation of this march was marred by contradictions among its originators, with a few defections along the way. Yet, thousands of Algerians, undeterred by the overwhelming display of force by the police, took to the streets.
They were not allowed to march as planned, so they simply rallied in a few public squares in Algiers, Constantine, Oran, and a few other cities, including foreign cities with a high concentration of Algerians, such as Paris, Montreal and Marseilles. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, including Fodil Boumala, founder of Res Publica II , and blogger Amine Menadi who launched the facebook site “Algerie Pacifique.” The police also roughed up 90-year old Ali-Yahia Abdenour, the honorary leader of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH). Later in the day the minister of interior, Daho Ould Kablia, announced that all those arrested had been released. It should be noted that when Ali Belhadj, a former leader of the now-banned FIS, showed up at the rally he was booed by the crowd and asked to leave. The fear of 1988, when popular protests were quickly overtaken by Islamists, followed by 10 bloody years of civil war, has been on the mind of many Algerians in the lead up to yesterday’s march. While not happy with the current regime, the idea of an Iran-style Islamist republic acts as a frightening prospect that blocks many in their desire to dissent or protest. The reaction to Belhadj’s presence is symptomatic of those fears. The Islamist factor is probably the one aspect of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that many Algerians are likely to monitor closely.
The number of protesters may not impress those still mesmerized by the images of Tahrir square, but the fact that so many did come out, in so many different cities, should be viewed as the stirrings of somethings that has yet to come. The impressive police display is another indication that the regime is seriously concerned by this. The measures announced a couple of weeks ago, the lifting of the state of emergency and the opening of state television to the opposition, have yet to materialize and it will be interesting to see if the government decides to speed up the process to try and prevent a repeat of yesterday’s rally.
For the organizers the rally was a great success. They consider that the “wall of fear” has been broken and that this is only a beginning. They are scheduled to meet today to discuss their plans for further actions. For Mustapha Bouchachi, president of the LADDH and spokesperson for the National Coordination for Change and Democracy(CNCD in French), organizer of the event, 2011 will be the year of democratic changes in Algeria, but he added that this would not necessarily be through the form of marches and rallies. It is clear that a simple “cut and paste” from the Tunisian or Egyptian playbooks won’t do and Algerians will have to find their way to this elusive democracy they are all longing for. It will also be important for the CNCD to broaden its base by convincing the parties that abstained from this march to join future initiatives.
Whatever the path may be, these protesters in Constantine had it just about right when they borrowed 2Pac’s lyrics “It’s time for us as a people to start making some changes.”