Mohsen Abdelmoumen: How do you, as a sociologist, view recent events in Algeria? In your opinion, haven't the demonstrations that have taken place every Friday since February 22nd changed Algeria's history?
Dr. Nacer Djabi: What is happening in Algeria since February 22nd is unique and never happened before, not even in other Arab countries, for example during the Arab Spring in 2011-2012, taking into account the high level of mobilization and its national character, which includes in the case of Algeria, popular demonstrations by millions in more than thirty cities for the same political demands.
The demonstrations reflect Algerian sociology and demography characterized by a strong presence of youth, as can be expected in Algeria, but there are other characteristics such as the presence of the middle class and women, especially in the capital and in the major cities of Oran and Constantine. These categories were previously far removed from any political activity in a society whose political system had killed any public interest, but had destroyed too all signs of citizenship.
These are marches marked by a strong presence of elites of all kinds, like the demonstrations of lawyers, judges and the student movement, which surprised many observers who believed that the bureaucratic management and low educational level of the Algerian university removed all political interest from it, given its long domination by the political system and its bureaucratic and student institutions.
Therefore, I think that what is happening is an important step in the history of Algeria and Algerians and it will be a qualitative moment for those who have experienced it, especially young people, who are experiencing an important generational moment. This generational moment will mark the difference between Algeria before and after February 22, 2019. The Algerians came back to the course of history with these events, which they consider as an important moral moment, collective and individual at the same time, and not only as a political stage, to move towards building more legitimate political institutions instead of the existing illegitimate institutions that they want to change with their working mechanisms, their men and their culture of political management.
Do not you think that these demonstrations in Algeria will have an impact on other countries in Africa and elsewhere?
Certainly, because I believe that Algeria, which was the first country in the Arab and Maghreb region to experience political violence in the form of civil war in the early 1990s, may be the first country to achieve a process of peaceful political change based on strong popular mobilization, which is the closest to a peaceful popular revolution. This is a change that will inevitably affect its Maghreb environment in the first place, because Algeria, by succeeding in building a more legitimate political system and a truly democratic political life, will have a strong impact in the Maghreb countries, first and foremost Morocco, because of the political and psychological proximity between the Moroccan and Algerian peoples, and also because of the competition between the official political elites.
A new political situation in the Maghreb will be built on the Algerian situation, which could constitute a significant return to the project of unity in the Maghreb that the political elites have not succeeded in achieving since the countries' independence. It could also help to restore stability to Libya, through a strong and stable Maghreb area. This would not be welcomed by other political entities, namely some Gulf countries - I mean the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia - because they do not want successful and stable democratic experiences in the Arab region, as we have seen with the various interventions of these countries in Egypt, Libya, and even in Tunisia, where they were in the ranks of the counter-revolution and the army. Or as recently in Sudan, for example.
Can we say that a revolutionary process is going through Algeria right now?
The common word that Algerians use to describe what is happening is the "Hirak", when some prefer "peaceful revolution". They did not talk about "Algerian spring". This is truly a revolutionary situation if we take into account the strength of popular mobilization and its spread in various parts of the country and even abroad, as demonstrated by Algerian immigrants in Europe, Canada and the United States. This revolutionary situation can also be seen in the determination of the citizens who demonstrate every Friday and students every Tuesday, including during the month of Ramadan. Some in official political institutions believed that the movement would weaken and diminish on that occasion, but the opposite happened, as we saw with the last demonstrations during Ramadan, for example the one on May 31. This is a revolutionary situation if we also consider the quality of the demands that require a total break with the old regime - its men and institutions - that the Hirak or movement rejects and refuses to allow remaining, and with which it does not want to deal.
The demonstrations are not only taking place in the capital and Kabylia, the latter being known for its political dynamism, but in the different regions of the country, and show the same level of mobilization with the same slogans and demands that focus on the political aspect without economic, social or corporatist content. Despite the sociological diversity of the demonstrators, there are unemployed people, civil servants, housewives, employers, shopkeepers, all agree on the same political requirement, namely to change the political system. Finally, a high rate of mobilization is due to the vitality of the younger generation of Algerians who do not know the divisions and flaws of the partisan and political action of the single party and the clandestinity of yore. The influence of youth is evident in this movement and in the political debates that it engenders and which is characterized by the desire to see succeed the demands. We are facing a generation that is not experiencing the political failure of the past and that is insisting on success. These young people have not experienced the period of terrorism and the failure of the Islamist movement, unlike the older generations who want to benefit from the experience they are currently living with the Hirak and who aspire to see the Algeria of which they have dreamed so much.
How do you explain the attachment of demonstrators, young and old, to figures of the Algerian revolution at a time when there is a rejection of the ruling class?
The younger generations, whom the official political discourse described as far removed from patriotic values, have proved during this Hirak that they are still very close to Algerian patriotic values and symbols with their historically known popular and revolutionary character, but these values are not those of the political system that used them to perpetuate itself. This was expressed by the young people during the Hirak, when the inhabitants of Kherata, for example, organized the May 8 celebrations and refused the presence of the official authorities, and also when the students went out to celebrate the student's birthday on May 19 with national demonstrations in various university cities.
We are therefore, on the occasion of this peaceful revolution, in the process of a new appropriation led collectively by Algerians of their history and all their revolutionary symbols, with the presence of photos of martyrs such as Larbi Ben M'hidi, Didouche Mourad, Abane and others, in the protests throughout the national territory. Or as expressed by the hugs made with revolutionary personalities still alive such as Djamila Bouhired or Larbi Ben M'hidi's sister, Drifa, and the mujahid Lakhdar Bouregaa, characters who symbolize this national history that the political system has used to perpetuate itself. But Algerians have reclaimed their history as their own national history of which they are proud, not that of the regime.
Mrs. Djamila Bouhired and the sister of the great martyr Larbi Ben M'hidi are present in these demonstrations and are highly appreciated by the demonstrators. How do you see the symbolism of the commitment of these women fighters in this movement?
The political system has made an operation of massive marginalization of all political and revolutionary figures who have refused to follow its plans since independence. Among these figures were Djamila Bouhired and Drifa Ben M'hidi and some other historical figures still alive, to the point where Algerians, and especially young people, did not know that they were still alive. The Hirak has rediscovered these historical faces, notably Djamila Bouhired, who is received during the demonstrations as a national historic personality, and whose presence is celebrated by Algerian women in particular, because she represents for them an important image in their relationship with national history, whose political system had disgusted and distanced them.
What are, in your opinion, the prospects for this great movement that Algeria is experiencing?
So far, Algerians have managed to become a collective political actor and to break the barriers of fear through their strong mobilization. They are beginning to realize that some of their demands have been successful, such as the rejection of a fifth term for President Bouteflika. They have also succeeded in defeating all the political projects of the military command, which is trying to reproduce and recycle the same system, even after the departure of his leading figures, as was the case with the national dialogue conference advocated by Bensalah, the latter being rejected by citizens as well as the Prime Minister Bedoui. The Hirak, this popular movement, succeeded in having two elections cancelled in a short period of time, the April 19 and July 4 elections, which were rejected. Looking to the future, I am optimistic, as are many Algerians who believe in the strength of their national mobilization and its peaceful and popular character. At the end of the analysis, we will see that the balance of power will incline towards the Hirak.
How do you explain the transformation of the Algerian people from abstention to participation or even involvement in the political fact?
The Algerians did not participate in the elections because they knew they were rigged. The same applies to the adhesion to political parties that engage in corrupt practices and use dirty money. The refusal of political participation in the old regime is primarily moral, mainly on the part of young people, these ones having chosen the stadium instead of the political party to express their opinion and who have opted for protest movements in the streets instead of official political action.
Among the slogans that summarize the answer to this question, here is what the youth said: “We did not go out in demonstrations and we did not give our opinion before. We were silent because we were afraid for Algeria, but when we became certain that our silence would make us lose Algeria, we went out into the streets and we will not be silent in the future.”
It should be noted that the Hirak, which began in Algeria from 22 February, has had a strong participation of young people, women and urban educated middle classes, known for their low participation in the former political practice that was rejected.
Apart from the two major political players in Algeria, namely the people and the army, there is a political desert on the side of power and opposition. Do not you think that with these demonstrations and the collective awareness of the Algerian people, these parties and associations are completely out of date and there is a need for radical change? Did not the Algerian people save Algeria from collapse, knowing that the Bouteflika era almost dismantled the Algerian state?
If the popular Hirak manages to realize its demands and to enter a consensual transition phase that will lead to the establishment of legitimate institutions, at the head of the main beneficiaries will be the army and the political party. The army will gradually move away from its political roles, which it is traditionally used to lead in the shadows and at all stages of Algeria's political history. And this period will be an opportunity for the army to fulfill its constitutional commitments, such as border protection, and to leave to politicians the management of the national political thing by basing on consensual mechanisms. As the political party will also benefit from this transition period if it knows how to strengthen itself and open its doors to young people who did not wait for it and who have come out to express their interest in public affairs and political action.
Political parties have been fought by the political system in the field despite the fact that it has traditionally recognized them on paper.
The political party remained closed to the social transformations experienced by Algerian society, especially the most positive, especially the rapid spread of education among young people, particularly girls, even in rural areas.
We have witnessed a situation that has made the political system a danger for the national state and the Algerian society, as the last years of the Bouteflika regime have shown.
Are those who blame this movement for not having representatives at this time not mistaken? Does not the strength of this movement lie in the fact that it is totally independent and free? Should not we allow time for this young movement to structure itself?
It is not possible for any political force to represent the Hirak or popular movement with its national character and strong mobilization, especially in a society where a political system has fought all forms of political representation, as were fought the political and academic elites who could have competed with the official elites. It is also important to know that the former political management approached Algerian society on the basis of its weaknesses and not its strengths, and among these weaknesses is the fact that political elites do not know each other, especially older generations who have political experience acquired under the single party and in clandestinity, in a society where the city does not play its role as a political and cultural space, as do associations and trade unions.
From there, we can understand the question of political representation, the one that is used as an argument to reject dialogue and recognition of competing alternative elites that enjoy popular credibility, and that the Hirak has begun to generate at the political and associative level.
How do you explain the fact that the Algerian people wave the Palestinian flag at the same time as the Algerian flag during the demonstrations? Where does this attachment of the Algerian people to the Palestinian cause come from?
Because the Palestinian cause enjoys a great consensus in Algeria and has not been used as an internal political tool as it is the case in some Arab countries. Waving the flag is a form of solidarity with the Palestinian people of which Algerians feel the suffering, as they have felt the suffering of African peoples throughout their political history. Algerians were very close to the Vietnamese and South African peoples. The values of solidarity are rooted among Algerians.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Nacer Djabi?
Nacer Djabi is Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Algiers, author of “Les mouvements amazigh en Afrique du Nord” (2019) Chihab editions; “Ministres algériens, origines et parcours” (2012) Chihab editions.
Published in American Herald Tribune, June 16, 2019: https://ahtribune.com/interview/3232-nacer-djabi.html