"This is a Republic not a Kingdom”: a dispatch from the street protests sweeping Algeria

Monday 11 March 201911:48 am
"They waited for people to come out of Friday prayers," everyone wrote after police arrested the few demonstrators who broke the silence on 9 am of Friday, February 22. The “First of May" square, linking the Beluzad al-Shaabi neighborhood to Husaybah ibn Bu'ali Street and going up to the Muradiya district where the presidential building is was streaked with the blue of the trucks and the helmets of the police. I followed the events from my home, because up until the morning I had not yet decided  whether to go out. Over the past few weeks I couldn’t write a single line about Abdelaziz Bouteflika's fifth term. I was angry and despondent  and tried to cover all this with sarcasm. How different from 2014 where I wanted to shatter everything. But the police had beat the ten people who dared to go out in the streets of the capital. I checked my friend's Facebook page. He said he had reached downtown and that security forces were everywhere. He would hide until after the prayers. I could not follow everything due to the government restricting the internet service, a new tactic they added that mimics the strategy of shutting down internet services during baccalaureate exams to prevent exam leaks. By midday I drove out, traversing the 20 kilometers that separated me from the center of the capital. The road was empty. I had no hope. I told myself the most I would do would be to stand at a distance and watch. I have never experienced a political demonstration in my life. I have lived a quarter of a century in this country, I was born in the civil war and I lived with the post-civil war trauma…. anyway The tunnel that passed under the "First of May" square was packed. I saw the crowds. I understood that the prayer was over. It was 2pm  I headed to Didosh Murad street and parked the car in front of Rahma Mosque. I ran down Victor Hugo Street, my chest felt heavy, and as I approached Hasiba Ben Bouali Street, I saw policemen running, specifically in front of the hideous press freedom square where hundreds of journalists have been arrested in recent years. I froze, thought about going down Hugo Street again, I did not understand why they were running. And then I heard the chanting: "This is a Republic not a Kingdom” and “Lord have mercy on the haraga(illegal immigrants).” I was encouraged and walked to the corner of the street and was surprised by a demonstration coming through Hassiba Street from the First of May square. "And the Harraaaqa God bless them." It was the chants of the ultras fans of the football club MC Algier. The police seemed bewildered. I didn’t retreat, I went forward and join the demonstration, though I didn’t understand why it was backing into the First of May square. There, in the square, I saw the scene that lifted the weight from my chest: thousands of demonstrators were occupying the square surrounded by blue helmets. The people were the majority and the police were lost among them. Then came the chanting "Peaceful ... Peaceful ... Peaceful" and “No to Bouteflika’s fifth term." I met a journalist friend in the crowd. It was the first coincidence: then several followed. Many  people I knew were walking among the demonstrators. Everyone oscillating between astonishment and joy, we waved at each other from afar and kept going. I checked  Facebook and found a video of the march of Bab al-Wadi, a huge march which started from Bab el Wadi and Martyrs Square which met the march of First of May square. I raised my head and found it had arrived, meaning that the police that I saw trying to close Hasiba Street had failed. The demonstrators of First of May square move to join the crowds of Bab El-Wadi. They chant and the others respond and a great gratitude wells up inside me for football fans. As we move away from First of May square, I hear people say that we will go to Parliament or the Governmental Palace. Several miles down Hasiba Street and I discover huge numbers of people, the street is black, a sea of ​​protesters advancing towards Parliament. I check out the Internet and write to my Algerian friend who lives in Cairo, who is anxiously following the events of February 22: " It’s incredible, there is nothing to fear, people went out with their families." She cheers up and sends me a link to the song "Hold Them Accountable“ by the late Rachid Taha. I find myself with a journalist friend moving towards Parliament. She tells me that it’s happening everywhere: Annaba, Oran, Burj Menayel Tower, Constantine and everywhere. So many feelings surged in my chest. Only hours before I couldn’t imagine that I would go out. Just a week ago it seemed impossible, though Bouteflika's picture was stripped down from a town hall in Khanshla [in eastern Algeria] and trampled by demonstrators. But the capital is something else. The capital is something else in a country the size of a continent is strangulated by centralization. Peaceful demonstration is theoretically allowed but laws and the police have repressed it in the capital since ... I ask my friend when was the last time there was such a demonstration in the capital. She says since before the civil war, probably 1991 or 1992. She says that in 2011 the protests were smaller and in 2009 there weren’t demonstrations but the celebrations of winning a match against Egypt and qualifiyng for the World Cup. Then she says: “Nothing like this has ever happened.” We hear chants of “peaceful” and we see that the police are hanging around the edges of the road, we imagine that they have received orders not to engage with protestors if they are peaceful. A chant of “FLN dégage" rises in front of the parliament. The street that leads to the sea and the port is filled with demonstrators, and the arches of the parliament building pick up the sound and amplify the demand of the people for the ruling party to leave. My friend tells me that the demonstration was divided, we came to parliament and the others went up to the moorings, towards the presidential palace! I found myself laughing, everything I tried to understand or write about the public sphere since the days of the Arab Spring suddenly became meaningless. The march of 22 February was in the streets and squares and I was near the presidential palace, had it not been for the tear gas and the rubber bullets fired by security who feared for the empty palace [the president is staying at another palace and going to Geneva on Sunday for a medical examination]. I leave the parliament and go to Al Maradiya to find the demonstrators coming back, waving  to the cars to reverse and drive back because the road is blocked and tear gas fills the air. I walk forward a little and then stop when I meet my friend Ramzi who was laughing despite his reddened eyes . I call Baidu and he says he inhaled a lot of gas but he is fine. I go back to the city center to join him. I find that the march of parliament drew back and returned through the tunnel of Udan Square to rise again and reinforce the remaining demonstrators standing in front of the tear gas. We stand in Udan Square to see that Mohammed V Street is swarming with people. It is unbelievable: all of these men, women, children, and families have joined the protest. Tens of thousands of people. The primary count says 20,000 demonstrators in the capital alone. We stay a little in Udan Square. It's about six. We start to laugh when we see a sign that the protesters put up that reads: ”No to the fifth term” in the heart of the capital. The police look and cannot do anything. I take a picture of the memory and hear a young man in front of me, trying to tie the national flag around his neck. He says to an old woman: "This is the flag I stole, does it look nice?” The old woman laughs and tells him that he shouldn’t steal. Friends light their cigarettes and relax a little. We hear reports of protests arriving at the People's Palace building and the dispersal of demonstrations here and there. But there is a general feeling of satisfaction, despite everything. No one knows who launched the call on February 22. Some say "the people" and others say security services, but they did not expect this turn out. Nobody knows who called for it to be peaceful and who was behind all the fear that it would devolve into riots and looting. I do not know who was behind the call for a march I did not intend to join. The only thing I know is that Algerians needed 20 years to break the barrier of fear and return to the street, 20 years to lift even a bit of the weight of humiliation which has become heavy on their backs. People here, in the capital and in the rest of the cities, needed time to recover from the past to destroy all illusions, especially the images of an absent president. What will happen after this? In my opinion, the answer does not matter now, what really matters is that the realm of the possible has expanded in Algeria today.
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