- Sihem Mellah-SlikerAlgerian-born activist and founder of the group SandByMe, which promotes Algerian and North African culture. Adviser to Democratic New York state Senator Andrew Gounardes.
After two decades in power, longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on Tuesday following weeks of protest. The move came shortly after military leaders called for him to step down. The 82-year-old president has been in power for 20 years and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Algerians have gathered in mass protests for weeks demanding his resignation as well as an overhaul of the current political system, and more protests are scheduled Friday. We speak with Sihem Mellah-Sliker, an Algerian-born activist who moved to the U.S. in 2010 after winning the visa lottery. She founded the group SandByMe to promote Algerian and North African culture. She’s in close touch with her family members and protest leaders in Algeria. Mellah-Sliker is currently an adviser to Democratic New York state Senator Andrew Gounardes and serves on the board of the New York Progressive Action Network.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Algeria, where, after two decades in power, longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on Tuesday following weeks of protest. The move came shortly after military leaders called for him to step down. The 82-year-old president has been in power for 20 years and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Algerians have gathered in mass protests for weeks demanding his resignation as well as an overhaul of the current political system. On Tuesday, Algeria’s army chief of staff demanded the president’s removal. Within hours, Algerian state television broadcast images of Bouteflika handing his resignation letter to the Constitutional Council as an anchor read the news.
ANCHOR: [translated] The president of the republic, Mr. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, officially announces today the decision to end his role as president of the republic to the Constitutional Council, effective today.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Tuesday night, Algerians took to the streets of the capital Algiers to celebrate Bouteflika’s departure.
SELMAOUI SEDDIK: [translated] I went out to celebrate the resignation of Bouteflika. We have removed the biggest pimp. God willing, we will have a 100% democratic transition. This is very important. We need to remove the whole previous regime, and that is the hardest thing. It’s hard to do it peacefully, but I have huge trust in the Algerian people to keep it peaceful, to move to a country of institutions, not gangs, and everything will be good, God willing.
AMY GOODMAN: Protests against President Bouteflika began in February after he announced he would not run for a fifth term. He then withdrew his candidacy, under immense pressure, but postponed the upcoming election, sparking fear he would seek to remain in power through 2019 or beyond. Now that he’s resigned, student groups are calling for new protests Friday to demand an overhaul of Algeria’s political system and an end to the ruling class, which has been in power for decades.
For more, we’re joined right now by Sihem Mellah-Sliker, an Algerian-born activist who moved to the U.S. in 2010 after winning the visa lottery. She founded the group SandByMe to promote Algerian and North African culture. She’s in close touch with her family members and protest leaders in Algeria.
Mellah, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what has just taken place. Mass protests in the streets toss out the long-standing president.
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: Yes. So, the biggest thing, I think, about the protest was the resignation of the president was the first step, and not really what the protest started out to be and even the goal of the protest. This has been going on for—you know, this is about a party that has been in power since the independence in 1962 from the French colonization. This has been a party and a very close circle of people, where, while Bouteflika is, you know, the face of the government and his resignation is a good first step, it’s far more beyond that. And I think that’s what the Algerian people are fearing, you know, from the follow-up of his resignation. And most importantly, they don’t want just him to resign, but revamp the entire government and the entire constitution to make sure that this never happens again.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go back to some of the thousands of protesters who gathered in central Algiers to pressure the president to resign.
SABRINA: [translated] We came out today to show that all the people in the 48 cities reject this regime. I say to the regime that we came out here peacefully and in a civilized, democratic way. Twenty years is enough. So get out. Algeria has many candidates who are competent to take on the job. Why would you stifle them in their own country? Our youth deserve a better breath of fresh air. Algeria doesn’t deserve this. We deserve to live in peace.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s a protester, one of the many thousands demanding Bouteflika’s resignation. But you say that the protests weren’t just about that, or even principally about that. Can you explain?
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: Yeah, because—so, the president, as you mentioned, hasn’t been seen since 2013, when he had his stroke. And the entire Algerian—
AMY GOODMAN: When you say “hasn’t been seen,” we’re talking about six years.
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: No, he hasn’t been—hasn’t made any public appearance since 2013, before his election in 2014, and even—and barely any—there’s been kind of a loophole of pictures from the ’90s and pictures from the early 2000s, whenever they wanted to have, you know, an appearance.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, he’s paralyzed, right?
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: He’s paralyzed. He’s been in—on a wheelchair. And—
AMY GOODMAN: And we’ve seen video of him in a wheelchair.
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: Videos of him in a wheelchair, but he hasn’t been really conscious. You know, he’s been going back and forth to different countries, to Geneva and France, to make sure that—you know, that he has a follow-up with his medical condition. And there hasn’t really—he hasn’t really been in power. And I think the Algerian people really—we understand that. We know that the power is not really him. He might be the face, because of his—you know, he used to be popular in the '90s, early in—early of his terms, and he had the will of the people. But right now he's just the face of a corrupt government, of something that’s beyond him. And that’s why the Algerian people are not about—it’s not about the resignation. The protest is not about him, really. It’s about the circle of people under him.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you call what started in February a new Arab Spring? And is it true that protest is illegal in Algiers, in the capital?
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: Yes. So, the protests are illegal in Algiers, and it has been. This is not the first protest.
AMY GOODMAN: Is protest illegal throughout Algeria?
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: No, just Algiers, the capital.
But this new era of protest, the main thing that most people had shared with all the—on social media and everywhere, with the organizers and the Algerian people, was that the main thing, we need to be peaceful, not to be another Arab Spring, not to show any kind of pictures or any footage of people destroying property or anything like that. The main thing was silmiya, which means peaceful, throughout the entire protest, everywhere. It’s not just in Algiers, but this has been a solidarity between the entire—throughout the entire country, with Algiers, Oran, multiple cities. Everyone has been out in the streets since the end of February.
And the reason why I think it’s a little bit different than the Arab Spring is that it’s not just—you know, there’s no end of just one person. They’re trying to have an entire revamp on the constitution, an entire change of the power, but not just by having one person resign or even one party having to resign. It’s mainly—it’s a first step and the first kind of era for a much longer process that the people are asking for.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, elections are due to be held in 90 days. Now, many in Algeria have been talking about the “black decade” that followed the 1991 elections, which Islamist parties won, but the military canceled their victory, and then there were about several years, almost a decade, of civil war. So, if you could talk about whether—and 200,000—almost 200,000 people died in that violence. So, first of all, could you talk about whether people are concerned that the upcoming elections will not be fair or may result in a similar outcome, and what Bouteflika’s role was during that civil war?
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: So, this is exactly why the protest—the people are demanding for more than just the resignation of Bouteflika, because the main thing is that Bouteflika’s popularity was at the highest, because he came in after the decades. And during the civil war, there was—you know, the army canceled the election, and that was the—that’s the biggest fear with the people and these protests, which is why they want to have a complete different kind of outcome, which is, right now, after President Bouteflika resigns, Bensalah, who is the president of the Senate, is going to take power for the next 90 days, until there’s a new election. Now, Bensalah is the right—he’s Bouteflika’s right hand. He has been in power around the same time as the FLN and Bouteflika has been in power, as well. And also he’s kind of seen as one of the major players after Bouteflika’s stroke.
So, the main thing is that, as I said, after—Bouteflika’s role after the civil war was, he came out to, you know, unite the people. He changed the perception of the international community about Algeria. He started a lot of good things. And the irony is that if he came out, you know, after the two terms and didn’t change the constitution in 2009 to keep running as much as he wants and, most importantly, to give more power to the president and the Senate, this would have been—the protest would have been completely different for the messaging. It would have been about the FLN party. It would have been about a lot more than just one president, which is why the Algerian people are not stopping here.
There’s another protest that’s organized for Friday, and even more, every Friday, until Bensalah resigns. That’s what the people want. They also want an—because they know that since it’s not just one person, there’s multiple, for the entire party, they want to have—you know, in the constitution, it says that when the president resigns from the interim—the president of the Senate, yeah, resigns from the interim presidency, there is a clause that mentions that the committee needs to vote in a new person, by majority, to kind of oversee the 90 days and make sure that there’s a fair election and a democratic process. That’s the first step that the protesters are asking for, again, because the system has been so much—there’s been so much corruption throughout the different parties and different people in power for those since the '60s. Most importantly, it's older people. These protesters, you can see, are mainly organized on social media by younger generations. Algeria itself is—you know, 70% of the population is under 35. So, even though the first step to ask for, you know, the rest of the Senate to decide for a new president to oversee the new election in 90 days, it’s far more than that. It’s the first step to have an entire change.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you said that the protests—I mean, the younger generation, 75% of the population is below the age of 35. What are the demographics of the protesters? Where are they from? You know, what is their—what kind of work do they do? Are they principally students? How did they come together? Social media, you said?
SIHEM MELLAH-SLIKER: Yes. So, this is the beauty of this protest, and this is why it’s been so successful, is that they’re giving, you know, an example of civic engagement, of really a peaceful protest, and showing what the power of the people is, because it might have started out with younger generations and on social media and everything, but it kind of now became an overall protest for all the different generations, because the younger generations do not remember the '60s, do not remember mostly the civil war in the ’90s and don't have this admiration for the party and for Bouteflika himself. But also the older generation now is in solidarity with the younger generation, not because they forgot what happened or that the FLN party got them to the independence from the French, but mainly because they see that people 80 years old and over do not have the same idea as younger people. Like, they want a different economy. They have different ideologies. They want more freedom and technology and more than that. And mostly, there are doctors, there are farmers, every—you know, the entire protest is from different people.
And the good thing about that is that you can see that there’s been a lot of, you know, immigration throughout the years to France, and there was a lot of people who were trying to travel through the seas. There was a lot of deaths. And the amazing thing is that since the start of the protests, there has been no attempt to escape from Algeria, which shows that it’s beyond just the one person. It’s beyond just these protests. It’s kind of like trying to start a whole new life for Algeria and for Algerians.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sihem Mellah-Sliker, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Algerian-born activist who moved to the United States in 2010, founded the group SandByMe to promote Algerian and North African culture, in close touch with family members back home in Algeria, as well as protest leaders, currently an adviser to New York state Senator Andrew Gounardes and serves on the board of NYPAN, or the New York Progressive Action Network.
When we come back, yellow vest protesters take to the streets for the 20th straight week in France. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Free Algeria.” The song was recorded by Algerian artists in solidarity with demonstrations demanding an overhaul of the current political system, has become a protest anthem.