Will bright supporters of democracy win power in Algeria? Or will they be cut down by troops as a fearful majority stays home?

Algerians protest in Algiers, Algeria, 12 April 2019 (EPA-EFE/Mohamed Messara)

By Ben Barber

Algeria is boiling over as millions march to end six decades of military and strongman rule.

But how will it end?

The protests ousted longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but street protests continue, ignited by opposition to the military naming people of their own team to be interim leaders.

Surprisingly, the overthrow of Bouteflika in Algeria — an oil-rich yet impoverished North African nation of 40 million people — came just days before another giant of repression, President Omar al-Bashir, was ousted by the military in nearby Sudan.

As in Algeria, Sudanese protesters refused to accept the superficial changing of the face of authoritarian power and demanded real change in who holds the reins of power.

Meanwhile, another leader in the region, Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was being warmly received in the White House by President Donald Trump. The general, too, crushed calls for real freedom when he seized power in 2014, and has used imprisonment, torture, news controls and the other typical tools of autocrats while in office.

It was a long and bloody decade for many in Algeria.

Will things go differently in Algeria and Sudan?

Will the bright, educated supporters of democracy will win power in Algiers? Or will they be cut down by well-armed troops while an indifferent majority stays home in fear?

Generals and shadowy business leaders are well aware how el-Sisi tamed well-meaning but powerless advocates of democracy in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011.

Algerians have felt fear many times in past decades.

I interviewed Bouteflika several years ago in Washington, before an apparent stroke or similar illness left him voiceless and paralyzed.

The country was then fighting off bloodthirsty militants trained by Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Afghanistan and known as the Afghan Arabs. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1990, thousands of Afghan Arab mujahideen went to Algeria and other countries to continue the fight for an Islamic state.

But when Islamists won local elections, Algeria’s military stepped in and cancelled the vote. So militants took to the hills and deserts to duplicate the war they had fought against the Soviets. It was a long and bloody decade for many in Algeria.

Killing often began at night.

I asked Bouteflika how many Algerians had died in the 1990s during the guerrilla slaughter.

Some 200,000 Algerians died, Bouteflika told me, in the first estimate of losses to come from the president.

Villagers told reporters that killing often began at night while Algerian troops remained inside their posts, declining to intervene when the nightly screams began.

Never mind that the villagers were not actively opposing the Islamic terrorists. If you stayed at home and did not join the rebels, you were targeted.

Women and young girls were taken wholesale to supply zealots with sexual rewards.

Today’s protests remind me of the Arab Spring.

Algiers was at that time so unsafe that diplomats traveled from the airport to their embassies in helicopters, refusing to ride in surface vehicles.

Newspapers were written, edited and printed in offices surrounded by walls and guards. But the terrorists attacked them at home and in the street. One editor sat below a dramatic photo of a journalist who had been the previous editor and who had been shot dead in the street outside the news compound.

Angry protesters marching today in Algeria and Sudan remind me of the aborted Arab Spring, which spread like wildfire across Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Tunisia after 1991. U.S. and European aid groups encouraged liberals to form political parties and to campaign in elections. But when the reaction began, people voted for stability rather than change.

There is little we can do to change the culture that produces the fear we feel when there are no police or judges able to protect us.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. When and how did Algeria win independence?
  2. What was the Arab Spring?
  3. What happened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011?

Ben Barber has reported since 1980 from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America.  He has written for Foreign Affairs, Christian Science Monitor, USA TODAY, Baltimore Sun, Toronto Globe and Mail, American Legion Magazine, Huffington Post and others. He was State Department Bureau Chief for the Washington Times and editor of the newsletter of USAID for seven years.

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