The Algerian Revolution, or the War of Independence in the 1950s and the early 1960s, was a great inspiration for Arab revolutionaries and nationalists, including the Egyptian generation I belong to.
It was a golden era of fighting for independence, freedom and national dignity. For this, the Algerian people set an example in sacrifice rarely seen in modern Arab history.
The fierce struggle for independence from French rule that had spanned 130 years marked our imagination. It still does. Algeria, for my generation, has been known as the “country of one million martyrs”.
We have considered them ours, for both Egypt and Algeria were fighting for the same ideals and objectives back then in this epic era in the annals of an ascendant Arab nationalism.
Revolutionary leaders in the two countries were, in fact, brothers in arms. Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Cairo and Ahmed ben Bella, and later on Hawari Boumediene, in Algiers were the uncontested leaders of Arab nationalism in its heyday. Their power, appeal and reach went beyond the Arab world to the developing countries of the Third World.
That is why we follow with great concern developments unfolding in Algeria in reaction to the nomination of President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika for a fifth term in the next presidential elections scheduled for 18 April.
The demonstrations across Algeria Friday, 8 March, proved that popular mobilisation challenging Bouteflika’s nomination is not going to wither away. Time is not on the side of the governing elite in Algeria.
This nomination has unleashed a massive protest movement that has cut across all political parties, classes, professionals, genders and even the ranks of the ruling party, the National Liberation Front, that had led the fight for independence, thus gaining an unparallelled political and historical legitimacy.
Being one of the youngest leaders of the Algerian Revolution, Bouteflika was elected president in 1999 on the strength of this legitimacy. He is the last surviving symbol of the national struggle for independence and the last companion of Boumediene.
He succeeded in meeting two existential challenges that faced Algeria in the last 30 years. The first was leading Algeria out of what is known as the “black decade” (la decennie noire in French), 10 years from 1991 till 1999 that cost Algeria 200,000 dead at the hands of the precursor of the modern-day “Islamic State” terrorist organisation that carried the title of the Islamic Armed Group (or GIA in French).
He called for a national reconciliation that echoed throughout the country and rallied the Algerian people behind their historic president and the National Liberation Front.
The second challenge was how to protect Algeria from the devastating storms of the “Arab Spring” that almost destroyed all Arab republican regimes.
Sceptics have argued that the Algerian political establishment, because of the great financial resources at its disposal due to high oil prices on the international market, was successful in buying political stability and in shielding Algerian society from the havoc and upheaval seen in other Arab societies.
Such an argument misses the point. The fear of the return of the black decade was probably the reason why Algeria sailed through the turbulent period that struck the Arab world in the last eight years. In addition to the historic legitimacy that Bouteflika incarnated in the 20 years of his rule.
For many years this historic legitimacy translated into political legitimacy. But it seems that Algeria has reached a crossroads. The mass movement against a fifth term for the ailing Algerian president appears to signal the end of an important cycle in the political history of Algeria.
Those young men and women born in the last four decades have neither sentimental attachment to the national struggle of their fathers and forefathers nor do they connect with the political legacy of either the president or the National Liberation Front.
Their ambitions and aspirations lie somewhere else. They want to have a say in determining the future of their country and their own personal future. It should not have been like that. Quoted in the weekend edition of The Financial Times, dated 9-10 March 2019, an Algerian university student said: “We have to keep coming out demonstrating.
We have to keep coming out on the streets, because the authorities have shut down the media, broken political parties and banned independent trade unions. They repress all free expression, even on social media. Before these protests I had no hope, but now I see a chink of light.”
The fault lies with the ruling party that has failed to anticipate that times change in politics. You can’t freeze history for an indefinite period. Algeria is in search of a new political legitimacy that will reflect the ambitions of the rising Algerian youth.
In this search. Algerian political parties and forces should be conscious of the risky road ahead. Algeria, aside from the fact that terrorist groups have eyed the country and have been operating in those surrounding its borders, be that in Libya, Tunisia or sub-Saharan Africa, will not hesitate to regroup within Algeria if developments allow.
Needless to say, the stability and security of Algeria will greatly depend on how the present highly tense situation is managed, not only by the president and the National Liberation Front, but also by all political forces.
For the present struggle should not be seen as a fight for the highest office in the land, but rather a fight for the soul and the future of Algeria. It will set the stage for a new Algeria anchored in a glorious past of national independence, freedom and national dignity. In other words, to stabilise Algeria in the context of a continuity and change strategy.
The irony of the situation is that the only political figure who is able to steer Algeria on this road is President Bouteflika himself. I wish he could. He should have prepared his country for a smoother transition of power during his fourth term that began in 2014.
In fact, he promised, in a national message to the Algerian people, that if re-elected he would not complete his constitutional term of five years and would call for a national dialogue to prepare Algeria for the post-Bouteflika period.
Till further notice, the army has sided with Bouteflika. However, there is a question mark over how long the army will support the Algerian president if mass demonstrations continue unabated.
The Army Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, issued two statements prior to 8 March vowing to protect public order and stressing that the Algerian armed forces will not allow the return of terrorism.
Algeria is on the threshold of a new uncertain era if Bouteflika disappears suddenly from the scene. However, the Algerian people, in calling for new directions for their country, to take into account the changing of the times, inspire once again other Arab republics that the safest way to ensure the stability of their political systems is to respect the peaceful and orderly transfer of power. To perpetuate one-man rule leads nowhere but to instability and turmoil.
Enduring political legitimacy is only anchored in constitutional rule, scrupulously respected and upheld by rulers. This is the lesson of the Algerian popular protest against a fifth term for President Bouteflika.
The Arab republican regimes without a single exception should listen carefully to what the Algerian university student said, as quoted above. Otherwise, the political costs of not heeding his message are greater than any ruling elite and special interest groups could bear, anywhere across the Arab world.
A bon entendeur.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: From Algeria with love