Massive protests in Algeria demand sweeping reforms

July 5, 1830, was the day the Turkish-appointed ruler of Algiers surrendered to the invading French army. July 5, 1962, was the day Algeria declared independence from French imperialism.

July 5, 2019, was the day that many hundreds of thousands of Algerians came out in the streets in Algiers, as well as in other cities — Constantine, Bouira, Annaba, Chlef, Oran, Mostaganem, Béjaïa, Tizi-Ouzou, Bordj Bou Arreridj, M’Sila, Batna, Djelfa and El Tarf — to demand an end to the corrupt system running Algeria with the strong support of the army. 

What made the turnout more impressive was that July 5 was one of the hottest days in Africa’s history, hitting 124˚F. 

This was the 20th successive Friday since February when there were protest demonstrations in Algeria.

They were sparked by then President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announcing he intended to seek a fifth term. Even after Bouteflika resigned April 2, protests continued, fueled by blatant corruption of Algeria’s ruling elite and the dilapidation and mismanagement of its economy, which is completely tied to the production of oil and natural gas. 

The unemployment of youth, officially at 26.4 percent, was another burning issue.

Given that July 5 was a national holiday, many protesters carried pictures and mementos of the martyrs of the Revolution and sang patriotic songs. A particular target of the protesters was General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, head of the armed forces and considered to be the real power in the Algerian government. Chants about him ranged from “Gaïd Salah buzz off” to “The people and the army are brothers, but Gaïd Salah is with the traitors.” 

Basically the people demonstrating want the whole coterie of officials connected with Bouteflika gone before elections for president take place.

The protests at times grew very militant and forced cops to retreat when they tried to block marchers’ access to squares and streets. When the police used tear gas, people responded with empty glass water bottles.

Elections had been scheduled for July 4, but had to be postponed when only two relatively unknown candidates indicated they wanted to run. The political situation in Algeria is still murky.

Salah has decreed it illegal to carry an Amazigh (Berber) flag in demonstrations, claiming that promoting the flag is an attempt to break the unity of the Algerian state. The Amazighen are the original Indigenous inhabitants of Algeria and all of North Africa west of the Nile. In 2016, an overwhelming vote in a referendum gave their language constitutional  protection.

Salah obviously wants to sow division and confusion in the protest movement that has remained strong.

Another obvious maneuver by Salah was having Lakhdar Bouregaa, a revered veteran of Algeria’s 1954-62 War of Independence from France, arrested for criticizing him. He claimed such criticism “undermined the morale of the army,” especially since Bouregaa is a leader of the Front des Forces Socialistes (Front of Socialist Forces), the oldest opposition party in Algeria, which is affiliated with the Socialist International.

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