Power of protest: Lessons from Algeria

Peace, togetherness and resilience can break the strongest of barriers.

In Summary

• Online humour became a central weapon of the protests, thanks to the hyperconnectivity of the millennial protestors.

The power of protest
ALGERIA: The power of protest

Algeria, Africa’s largest country, is embroiled in a political crisis that has pushed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of office after 20 years.

Coming right on the heels of Zimbabwe’s quandary is a similitude of issues; an ailing and aged president, overstay in power and a declining economy. It seems that time is ripe for life presidents to vacate office and the citizenry is taking matters into their own hands.

The protests, dubbed the ‘Smile Revolution’ were sparked by the decision of the 82-year-old Bouteflika to run for a fifth term after two decades in power. In just one and a half months, the protests have made great strides.

Starting with a renouncement of his presidential bid, to the postponement of elections; the protests culminated in the resignation of Bouteflika and an apology to the nation. In a continent where civil protests are quelled with a sledgehammer approach, why have Algeria’s protests borne such success? Here is a look at some of the success factors.

‘Those who love peace must learn to organise as effectively as those who love war,’ Martin Luther King Jr said. Peace, not violence, has been the factor most on the side of Algeria’s protests. “Peacefully and quietly I will walk” and “Not a stone I will throw” were among the “18 commandments” sent out to protestors by poet Lazhari Labter.

Those who love peace must learn to organise as effectively as those who love war
Martin Luther King Jr

The mass protests have largely been peaceful, adhering to a code of conduct widely disseminated on social media networks. The protestors behaved admirably, even cleaning up the streets after the demonstrations. Security forces also showed unusual restraint in dealing with the protestors.

Perhaps it is the memories of the Black Decade or the bloodshed of the Arab Spring that restrained Algerians from turning their nation into another Syria. The peaceful nature of the protests earned the praise of the UN secretary general who termed them ‘mature.’

One clear message has emerged; change through non-violent means is possible. Well aware of their past but spurred by the hope of a better future, Algerians have shown that peace is a medium for change.

The entrance of academic elites was a decisive factor. Hundreds of lawyers and judges joined the student-led protests. Chanting slogans such as ‘Yes to a judiciary free from corrupt dignitaries’ and ‘Republic, not a Kingdom’, the lawyers added momentum to the country’s most sustained protests in decades.

In a statement, the national association of lawyers demanded the postponement of the elections and setting up of a transitional government. At the same time, their colleagues on the bench refused to oversee the elections if Bouteflika vied.

Seeing the judiciary move in the same direction, Bouteflika’s regime blinked as it soon realised that it could not take cover in the third arm. Following closely as an advocate, I could not help but feel a sense of pride seeing the learned friends take to the streets to advance the cause of law and justice.

They are losing but we have not won yet

The role of social media as an agent of change came into play. Popular hashtags such as “No to a fifth term,” and “Algeria rises up” aroused thousands of Algerians. Activist groups mobilised people online. Amateur videos of the protests were widely circulated on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, galvanising support.

Online humour became a central weapon of the protests, thanks to the hyperconnectivity of the millennial protestors. Memes such as “Look at your Rolex, it’s time to go” flooded the internet. The virtual space helped to translate discontent aired online to the streets. In a case where traditional media outlets were initially barred from covering the protests, citizen-generated content played a crucial role in the awakening.

The relentlessness of the Algerians drew the world’s attention. Despite initial concessions of withdrawal from the elections, the protests grew. Even after Bouteflika's resignation, protestors have vowed to continue piling pressure until the entire cabal of military and political elites is overhauled. “They are losing but we have not won yet,” read a statement by the protest movement Mouwatana.

If there are any lessons worth learning, is that peace, togetherness and resilience can break the strongest of barriers. The air is full of hope and we can only pray this is the beginning of a brighter chapter for Algeria.

Advocate of the High Court of Kenya.