Welcome to the new Algerian revolution: An interview with Hamza Hamouchene

In 2011, a wave of revolutionary struggle swept the Middle East and North Africa, often bringing down dictatorships that had governed for decades. Millions protested on the streets, occupied public spaces and demanded “bread, freedom and social justice”. Having broken through the fear produced by years of repression, the Arab Spring became an inspiration for activists across the world.

Predictably, the existing elites – the military, big business and the institutional Islamist groups – refused to accept the democratic aspirations of the people. Rather than subject their states to democratic reform, they used all their tricks, including cooptation and brutal repression, to defeat the revolutionary movements.

Yet the conditions that sparked the Arab Spring, notably the combination of extreme economy inequality and political authoritarianism, remained unchanged. While the first wave of the revolutions ended in defeat, it was sure to be back. In Sudan and now Algeria, enormous and persistent protest movements re-emerged late last year with all the same courage and dynamism. They have toppled their own military dictatorships, although in both cases the military remains in power despite the removal of the hated figurehead.

Omar Hassan speaks to Algerian scholar and activist Hamza Hamouchene, coordinator of Environmental Justice North Africa and co-founder of the Algeria Solidarity Campaign, about the mass movement sweeping the country.

What have the protests in Algeria been about?

The mass protest movement started just a few days after Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement of his intention to run for a fifth term as president. At first, the mobilisations were small and localised, but they became massive. Every Friday from 22 February, millions of Algerians (some estimates are as high as 17 and 22 million in a country of 42 millions) – young and old, men and women from different social classes – have taken to the streets in a momentous uprising, re-appropriating long confiscated public spaces. These historic Friday marches have been followed by protests by workers in education, health, the justice system, the petrochemical industry, and student and trade union mobilisations, making the contestation a daily matter.

What started as a rejection of the candidacy of a physically unfit octogenarian president has transformed in face of the obstinacy and deceptive ploys of the ruling elites into a united rejection of the ruling system, with demands for radical democratic change, freedom and justice. This revolt is an expression of the convergence of popular discontent from below with a deep internal crisis within the ruling classes. Basically, those from above can no longer rule in the old ways and those from below can no longer take it.

It is also the expression of decades of profound pain and anger and a rejection of the repressive authoritarianism, suppression of freedoms, economic and social exclusion, endemic corruption and nepotism, parasitic accumulation and impoverishment, growing social inequalities and uneven economic development in the country. There is a lack of horizons, especially for the unemployed youth risking their lives to reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean to escape the despair and the humiliation of being marginalised and relegated to being Hittiste – the unemployed who ceased to be stakeholders in post-colonial Algeria. And all of this taking place in a rich country like ours!

The Algerian uprising is a revolt against dispossession and plunder. The Algerian slogan, “The people want them all to go!” (or, more accurately, “The people want them to be all extirpated!”) is another version of “The people want to overthrow the system!” – the slogan of the Arab uprisings in 2010-11. In this respect, what is happening in Sudan and Algeria is the continuation of a revolutionary process in North Africa and West Asia, a process with ups and downs, gains and setbacks, which materialised in a neoliberal democratic transition in Tunisia and bloody counter-revolutions and imperialist interventions in the remaining countries.

The hope is that people in Algeria and Sudan will learn from the experiences of their brothers and sisters in other countries and push their revolutions even further to achieve their fundamental demands of dignity, justice, popular sovereignty and freedom, and end decades of political and economic oppression.

There have been several videos released online that demonstrate the creativity and solidarity of the revolutionary movement in Algeria and elsewhere. Are there any stories that have highlighted this for you?

The revolutionary movement in Algeria released the boundless creativity of the “popular genius”. When chanting, “We woke up and you will pay!”, the people are expressing their newly-discovered political will. The liberatory process is at the same time a transformative one. We can witness this in the euphoria, energy, confidence, wit, humour and joy this movement has inspired after decades of social and political suppression. Humour and satire can be very subversive. Algerians demonstrate this in their slogans, chants and placards reviving and emphasising popular culture. I have seen and heard so many online and in the streets in several towns in Algeria. Here are a few I captured with my phone camera:

“Algeria, country of heroes that is ruled by zeros”

“System change … 99 percent loading”

“We need Detol to kill 99.99 percent of the gang” [referring to members of the regime]

And this one from a medical student: “We are vaccinated and we have developed anti-system IgGs (antibodies) … and we keep getting boosters every Friday”

“The problem is the persistence of idolatry and not the replacement of the idol”

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