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The Throne Trembles in Algeria

Published on 15th March 2019

BY SARA HØYRUP

"This is a republic, not a kingdom!" chant the peaceful protesters in the cities of Africa's largest country. The despot Buteflika responded on Monday, refraining from a fifth mandate as president, but postponed the elections indefinetely and thus continues to rule the former French province without actually addressing his people. The aged and bedridden ruler is cornered and promises a new constitution and a younger leadership, as if that were enough to quell the loud dissident voices. And so, the protests resume today Friday.

Francis Ghilès from Barcelona-based think tank CIDOB explains that the youthful population in the Berber-Arab country on the bank of the Mediterranean Sea wants total change. The Maghreb expert underlines the long line of dissidence all the way back from the eight year long war for independence from the French rule. The end to colonization in 1962 and the consequent expulsion of the French-born /piés noirs/ from Algeria is a trauma never overcome by the French. On Algerian ground, the civil war in the nineties is a situation no-one wants to return to. In 1999, Buteflika managed the feat to "negotiate a truce to end the fighting and wrest power from the secretive military-based establishment," sums up Reuters reporter Lamine Chikhi. The military had taken power to keep fundamentalist Islam from coming to the fore.

The protests now are remarkably peaceful and "dignified", approves Danish journalist Niels Ivar Larsen. But so where the Syrian protests originally. "The protesters have given the police and the army no cause to repress them," believes Larsen. According to Ghilès, that is not the point. Rather, the members of the police corps and the armed forces sympathize with the demonstrators' demands.

"Islam is not the problem"

The point is not religion either. The fundamentalist Muslims still play a role, but believers and non-believers are not at odds:

"The non-believers go to pick up the believers at the mosque to march together," emphasizes Ghilès who was raised in Tunisia by French parents. "The Algerian youth is modern and well-prepared. They are politically mature. And they have a lot in common with young people on the European side of the Mediterranean. Like them, they want a chance."

But who can lead the opposition when all the opposition leaders stem from the regime itself? Spanish journalist Albert Garrido explains that they are all compromised in one way or another, and that the regime knows very well how to use this against them.

Like so many African leaders, Buteflika is an independence war veteran who has simply not been willng to rescind power at any point. He might very well have to now. The questions are whether whoever moves his strings since his stroke in 2013 will be toppled as well; and if the regime change can take place without bloody conflict.

"There is no way of knowing yet," emphasizes French expert Francis Ghilès in impeccable Oxbridge English with a hopeful expression on his face.//