Algerian Protesters Are Still in the Streets, Months After Pushing Out Longtime President Bouteflika

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In Algeria, protests against corruption, the jailing of opposition leaders and the army’s powerful role in national politics have entered their ninth month. Tens of thousands filled the streets of the capital Algiers last Friday to mark the 65th anniversary of the war of independence from France and to demand a “new revolution” rather than an upcoming election they say will be rigged. Over 100 student protesters were arrested last night as the Algerian government intensified its crackdown on demonstrators ahead of the upcoming polls. Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah announced the country will hold a presidential election on December 12. This comes after longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in April following weeks of protests. We speak with Mehdi Kaci, an Algerian-American activist who organized a protest last weekend in San Francisco in support of Algerians, and Daikha Dridi, a journalist based in Algiers. “There is a political uprising, but there is also a huge sense of pride, of self-love, that the Algerian people are experiencing,” Dridi says. “The Algerians are wanting a much, much deeper change, and they’re not going back home.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Algeria, where protests against corruption, the jailing of opposition leaders and the army’s powerful role in national politics have now entered their ninth month. Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of the capital Algiers last Friday to mark the 65th anniversary of the war of independence from France and to demand a new revolution. Demonstrators have denounced the upcoming December elections, saying they’ll be rigged.

YASMINE: [translated] For a second republic and to liberate Algeria from traitors’ hands. We are against the elections with the current government. We don’t want traitors anymore. We don’t want an Algeria like the one of today anymore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Last month, the Algerian government intensified its crackdown on demonstrators in advance of next month’s elections with over a hundred student protesters arrested. Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah announced the country will hold a presidential election on December 12th. Longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in April following weeks of protests.

AMY GOODMAN: Tens of thousands of mostly young people have marched every Friday demanding remaining members of the ruling elite also step down before any new elections. Elections planned for July were canceled after protesters said they would be controlled by the army and the ruling elite.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Mehdi Kaci is a Algerian-American activist who organized a protest last weekend in San Francisco in support of Algerians in Algeria. And Daikha Dridi is a journalist based in Algiers.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go directly to Algeria, to Algiers. Daikha, explain what’s happening in the streets, why the protests began, the forcing out of the president and what people are calling for right now.

DAIKHA DRIDI: It all began on February the 22nd. It came completely as a surprise to everybody. People just rushed out on the streets a Friday after the prayer. It was a week or so after President Bouteflika announced, through a letter, because he is actually sick. He’s paralyzed. He had a stroke in 2013 and has been unable to talk or move or actually govern since 2013 but kept on being president. So, after the announcement of Bouteflika running for a fifth term, after 20 years in ruling the country, so, like 10 — a week or 10 days after that, people poured out on the streets of Algeria everywhere, in the capital, in all the big cities, demanding that he step down, saying, “No more of you. We don’t want you anymore. This is the end of it.” And the storm was so big, but very, very peaceful, that it took everybody by surprise. And the people kept on demonstrating in a very peaceful manner every Friday. And the students actually decided that they will demonstrate — they will have their own demonstrations on Tuesdays. So it became a ritual ever since the 22nd of February. The Algerians are on the street every Tuesday, every Friday, by tens of thousands, demanding — first they were demanding that Bouteflika step down, and then they were demanding a radical change. They want democracy. And this is why people are still on the streets. This is why, even though President Bouteflika resigned on April the 2nd, the Algerians didn’t go back home and kept on demonstrating.

It is really important to understand that what’s happening in Algeria is there is something — there is like a political uprising, but there is also like a huge sense of pride, of self-love, that the Algerian people are experiencing. And that’s what I think — personally, I think that’s what’s keeping them on the streets. They were not answering the calls of political organizations. They were not calling the answers of any unions or political parties or opposition. They were just answering the call of what they call their dignity. And it’s still going on until now, because after the resignation of the president, the army decided to keep, through the chief of staff of the army, who is the General Ahmed Gaid Salah — to make as if the only issue was to remove Bouteflika and remove all the corrupt businessmen who were at the time of Bouteflika. But the Algerians are wanting a much, much deeper change, and they’re not going back home. So, the demonstrations are happening. And it’s pretty incredible to see how joyous, how fun they are and how — the proud of like people for being like peacefully determined, no matter how long it would take them to get rid of the entire system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Daikha, as you said, it was the army chief of staff, it was at his behest, that Bouteflika was forced to resign. Can you talk about the role of the military historically in Algeria and what role they’re playing now? Was the military responding to the protests, or were there internal reasons that they wanted Bouteflika out?

DAIKHA DRIDI: Oh, no, the military never wanted Bouteflika out. They were completely pressured by the uprising to take him out. Bouteflika actually came and saved the military. The military has a historic rule, that mostly the generals who are ruling Algeria since the independence are all veterans of the Algerian war of independence against the colonial France. So, but they’ve been ruling the country basically most of the time behind a civilian facade. And this is the first time in history where the civilian facade is gone.

They made Bouteflika resign, thinking that that will calm the people and make them go back to their homes and just get back to ordinary life. But they did not actually understand that the people who are on the streets want a real, a real change. They don’t just want like just a masquerade, what they usually do, like try to change a top level here and a top level there. They just want a real — they want the rule of law. They want free elections. They want free press. They want dignity back. That’s exactly what people are talking about on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Daikha, if you could talk about the crackdown on journalists — you yourself are a journalist —

DAIKHA DRIDI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — but also the effects of the protests in Lebanon, in Iraq, the mass uprising for a moment recently in Egypt, but what kind of effect this is having on Algeria? And what kind of effect did Algeria have, beginning these protests months ago, on the other countries?

DAIKHA DRIDI: Yes. As a matter of fact, the Algerian uprising happened long before the ones that are happening now in Lebanon, and the one that was hugely repressed in Egypt happened last month. What’s happening is, the Algerians did not think that — did not think, themselves, that this was possible to just like — to just go on the street, because it was always heavily repressed. But they discovered that there was a way for them to protest, to protest in a very clever and peaceful manner, just being on the streets twice a week and like also passively not accepting the ministers’ visits to their towns. All the representatives of the state are not welcome anymore. So, they discovered a new force. And they are like happy to use it, even though there is a repression. The repression is not bloody. The Algerian army did not — there were no orders to shoot the protesters. And until now, there was no — there was only one casualty, that happened on April the 2nd.

So, what’s happening in Algeria is just completely — is very, like, new to the Algerians themselves and new to what’s happening around them. So, they are also interested in — the Algerians were very curious about what was going on in Sudan. Sudan, the Sudanese protesters were on the streets at the same time, in February also and in March, as the Algerians. And now they are looking at what’s happening in Lebanon and Iraq. And the hopes is that actually to keep Algeria on the safe ground of peaceful protests and hoping that the repression never go into violent crackdowns against the demonstrators.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Daikha, are the protesters now calling — as you said, the army is now ruling more brazenly, more transparently, than ever before. Are the protesters making specific demands about the role of the military in Algerian politics? And could you also talk about the number of political prisoners that are now being held in Algeria who have been involved in these protests?

DAIKHA DRIDI: Yes. The slogans are very, very clear. There is no, like — there is nothing tacit or implicit in the protesters’ slogans. At the beginning, they were not — they trying to keep the army — how do you say? To give the army a chance not to be in a face-to-face with the population. But now they are just telling the chief of army, the chiefs of the army staff, the General Ahmed Gaid Salah, to step down, because they think it’s been eight months that they’ve been demanding democracy, and the only thing he’s been trying to impose is an election that is not — for which there are no guarantees for people. It’s not going to be democratic. It’s not going to be free. So, they want — the slogans are very, very nasty to the general. His name is in the protests. The generals, as a category, are in the slogans. There is a very famous slogan that is half in French, half in Arabic, the Algerian style, that says, ”Les généraux à la poubelle! El djazaïr teddi el istiklal!” “The generals to the trash bin! Algeria takes back its independence!” So, the Algerians are referring, actually, a lot to the history of the war of independence. I think, personally, it’s because, for them, it’s a matter of pride. They are telling those rulers, who, for them, cheated them, taking over the country, imposing a dictatorship — telling them, “We are the direct descendants of the heroes who got the country rid of colonial France, and we will get rid of you, too.”

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Daikha, the Committee to Protect Journalists calling on Algerian authorities to release journalist Bendjama Mustapha, to end the harassment of journalists covering anti-government protests; Mustapha arrested last month at the office of the French-language Le Provincial, where he served as editor-in-chief; CPJ saying it’s documented the arrest of at least four other journalists who were covering the national protests; their Middle East and North Africa coordinator, Sherif Mansour, saying in a statement, “Algerian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Bendjama Mustapha and all other journalists arrested in recent months. Millions of Algerians have taken to the streets to have their voices heard, and the press should be allowed to cover this period of national importance without fear of retaliation.” What about the crackdown on journalists? We just have 20 seconds before we move to our guest in San Francisco.

DAIKHA DRIDI: Yes, the crackdown on — they crack down on journalists who are very involved in the coverage of the protests. Mustapha has been released. He’s out of jail. But there are four others who are still in prison. And they are in prison because of their ongoing coverage of the protests and because of their involvement in defending human rights in Algeria.

AMY GOODMAN: And hundreds of others have been arrested, as well — right? — who are continuing to be held.

DAIKHA DRIDI: No, no. We — no, no, not hundreds —

AMY GOODMAN: Of protesters.

DAIKHA DRIDI: Not hundreds of — no, not —

AMY GOODMAN: Of protesters.

DAIKHA DRIDI: Not hundreds of others, no. There are, all in all, 200 — more or less, 200 political detainees. Most of them are protesters, but some of them are political figures and activists who were arrested at home. But most of them were grabbed during the demonstrations.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to bring in Mehdi Kaci. Mehdi, can you talk about the role of youth in these protests and why specifically they’ve been involved — levels of unemployment and inequality, etc.? What’s driving this huge youth participation in the protests?

MEHDI KACI: Yes. Hi, Nermeen and Amy. And thank you for having me.

So, the youth have definitely a different view on the situation in Algeria. What’s going on currently in Algeria is really due to a huge differential — difference in the generational gap between the two groups. And what I mean by the two groups is the rulers, who are basically, most of them, over 80 years old, and the youth, who represent demographically about 70% of the population, and those are groups who are basically under 35. Like you mentioned, they’re unemployed. And if they are students, they have no hope of finding a job after they graduate.

And then, with this revolution, what is interesting is that they’ve certainly — the Algerian people have certainly been, if you like, aware of what’s been going on in Algeria for the last 20 years under the Bouteflika regime. But what’s interesting this year is that the youth have actually used the technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter, and the mobile technology to take videos, pictures, and go online very quickly to basically unite and organize against the state.

AMY GOODMAN: The protests you’re holding in San Francisco, the Algerian diaspora, and what you’re calling for here?

MEHDI KACI: Yes. We’re — I think you mentioned some of the [inaudible], the Committee to Protect Journalists. As the diaspora here in California, in particular, but in general, we are actually working with different groups, collectives, not only in the United States, but also in Canada, in Ottawa and Montreal. There are also groups we’re working with in Paris, Brussels and London and other cities within France, where there is a diaspora.

And what we are asking is really — we’re in solidarity with the Algerian people. What we want is mainly the immediate release and unconditional release of all political prisoners. We also want the end of repression on the media, and particularly the activist journalists on the internet, such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. We also want the cancellation of the elections on December 12th, which we all think that they are illegally being scheduled. And then, finally, we want the initiation of a transitional period in order for Algeria to move to a better democratic process, so that Algerians can live in freedom and —

AMY GOODMAN: Well —

MEHDI KACI: — enjoy their liberties. Yes?

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Mehdi Kaci, Algerian-American activist, speaking to us from Berkeley, California, and Daikha Dridi, a journalist based in Algiers, Algeria.

MEHDI KACI: Thanks, Amy, for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Thank you so much for being with us. When we come back, we’re going to be talking about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, a new report out, this as the U.S. Justice Department goes after some employees at Twitter who were spying for the Saudi regime, the Justice Department says, against protesters. Stay with us.

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