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Africa

Algeria's protesters tell army to stay out of politics

media Protesters in Algiers on March 15, 2019 REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

A new group of Algerian political leaders, opposition figures and activists are calling on Algeria’s powerful generals to stay out of politics.

It comes as protesters continue protesting in an effort to push President Abdelaziz Bouteflika out from power, despite his claim that he will no longer run in the upcoming presidential elections.

On Monday evening, the National Coordination for Change, a collective of leaders from the nearly month-long protests, released a statement entitled “Platform of Change” demanding that Bouteflika step down before the end of his mandate on April 28th and that his government resign immediately.

Shortly after Bouteflika confirmed his plans to stay in power after his mandate expires.

Foreign intervention

Meanwhile, Algerian deputy prime minister, Ramtane Lamamra wrapped up a visit on Tuesday in Moscow with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

Following on from Bouteflika’s comments on Monday, Lamamara said that Algiers would find a solution to the situation that would be “open and transparent”.

Lavrov added that any plans from the Algerian government would be supported.

The one element that has remained consistent between protesters and the current government is a refusal of foreign intervention.

Algeria still bears the scars from its French colonial past.

So any foreign help, no matter how measured it is, is looked on with suspicion.

“This issue is very sensitive in Algerian politics because of the legacy of colonialism” says Arthur Asseraf, lecturer at University of Cambridge with a specialty in the history of colonial Algeria.

In particular, any moves by France will be met with caution.

“Any attempt by the French government to do anything really, is very badly considered and they are accused of having propped up this regime for the past 20 years and then before. . .If they don't say anything against the regime, they will be badly seen by the demonstrators. But if they say something too intense, they will be accused of meddling in Algerian affairs, which is a very negative thing for Algeria”.

Role of military

On Tuesday morning, The National Coordination for Change said the military should “play its constitutional role without interfering in the people choice”.

To date, the Algerian army has not taken a major role in the protests.

But on Monday, the Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Ahmed Gaed Salah indicated that the military should take on the responsibility of finding a quick solution to the crisis.

Historically, Algeria’s military has played an important role in the country since independence.

Following the war of independence in 1962 against France, the army declared itself a legitimate force having defeated the French army, though Asseraf notes “this was not a strictly military victory, the Algerian army never defeated the French army.”

But it did participate in the war and it carved out a role for itself in the transition to Algerian rule post-France.

Asseraf stresses it’s misleading, however, to refer to Algeria as a military government, when compared to other countries such as Egypt or Syria, as “it’s always been a fairly mixed system with elements of the ruling party, the FLN, the other interest group” which has shifted a lot since independence.

In the context of today since the protests broke out on February 22nd, the army was called in to maintain order among the demonstrators.

But at most, it's used tear gas and pushed back against a few rowdy protesters.

Since day one, protesters have vowed to keep their marches peaceful.

So the army hasn’t done much to push-back against protesters as was the case in 1988 when demonstrations turned violent says Asseraf.

Added to that is the mere fact that the military is not entirely uniform. “There are different interest groups within the army itself, so it’s not clear that everyone is speaking with one voice” adds the historian.

Revolution?

“This is definitely its own social movement” says Asseraf. People on the ground have been referring to it as a social movement.

While the semantics don’t really change what’s going on in Algeria, the far-reaching effects it has cannot go unnoticed nor the scope of people taking part in the action.

“Never since the Algerian War of Independence have the Algerians risen in this way to unite all the people around a common goal” says the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt.

Prior to the eruption of protests, Algerians were often seen as “totally passive…there were never any complaints or protests” says Asseraf.

Facts that are untrue, given there were always small scale protests, but never to the level that we are currently seeing.

“The one comparison that people have made is the independence demonstrations in 1962. . . .lots of people flooded out into the streets, just joyfully and they danced, and they sang, and they remember this, so a lot of older people, have been coming out in to the streets in recent weeks on Friday and crying because they say this reminds them of the independent celebrations of July in 1962” adds the lecturer.

And as the thousands continue to flood the streets of the Algerian capital and other major cities across the country, the demand remains the same.

“The Algerian people will not accept any approach that will tend to extend the current system, whether from the ‘brother’ entourage or the ‘friend’,” say leaders from the protest.

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