FILE- In this file photo dated Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune delivers a speech during an inauguration ceremony in the presidential palace, in Algiers, Algeria. Algeria's peaceful "smile revolution" unseated the long-time president of Africa's largest country along with his powerful entourage and struck hard at the corruption they bred, and the new president Tebboune, recently called the movement “blessed.” (AP Photo/Toufik Doudou, FILE)

Algeria on cusp of change as protest movement marks one year

February 21, 2020 - 4:08 am

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria's peaceful "smile revolution" unseated the long-time president of Africa's largest country along with his powerful entourage and struck hard at the corruption they bred. But a year later, the pro-democracy movement is still holding its weekly marches, hoping to make further dents in the establishment.

This North African nation, whose powerful army has shadowed its rulers — or ruled outright — in an opaque system of governance since independence from France in 1962, is on the cusp of a new era, with no certainty what the future will look like.

The unprecedented movement of young and old behind the nationwide protests is due to hold its 53rd consecutive week of marches Friday, marking the start of a second year of weekly events.

Authorities in Algeria, a gas-rich nation that has failed to adequately provide for its booming population of youth, know they can no longer ignore the citizens they represent.

New President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, once part and parcel of the old guard, recently referred to the “blessed and peaceful popular uprising,” and on Wednesday announced that Feb. 22 would be a national holiday. He has also promised deep reforms.

“I have decided to go far with radical change to break with bad practices, give political life morals and change the mode of governance,” Tebboune said in an interview with French Le Figaro daily published Thursday. He said a promised revamped constitution, with input from outside, would be put to a referendum and could be in place by this summer.

Pro-democracy movements have sprung up in other Arab countries, notably Lebanon and Egypt, but did not endure as long as Algeria's or were marked by violence.

Algeria, a strategic partner of the West in fighting terrorism, appears set on an inexorable path to change, analysts and activists say.

"Algeria has rediscovered its unity, its dignity," said Samir Belarbi, 48, who spent more than four months in jail for his involvement in the movement. "The system is collapsing, but the movement must go on, remaining peaceful and joyful until the end — which is a new Algeria."

Police arrested scores of march participants like Belarbi, drawing criticism from Amnesty International.

"They arrested me thinking they would weaken the (pro-democracy movement,) but it's made up of hundreds of thousands of Algerians ... and it continues," Belarbi said.

The spontaneous protests began with scattered demonstrations in several Algerian towns, filmed and posted on social media. These led to a large demonstration in Algiers, the capital, on Feb. 22,2019. The trigger was the announcement that then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would seek to extend his 20 years in office — despite a 2013 stroke that had left him a nearly invisible leader.

After Bouteflika's stroke the country was thought to be really run by the president's younger brother, Said Bouteflika, who served as special counselor and allegedly empowered oligarchs who enriched themselves through corrupt practices. The powerful army chief, Ahmed Gaid Salah, denounced Said Bouteflika and his cronies as “the gang.”

Said Bouteflika was convicted of plotting against the state and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Convicted with him were the nation's two top intelligence chiefs.

The clean-up, which included top industrialists, was ordered by Gaid Salah, the army chief who served as quasi-leader after Bouteflika stepped down in April — in the protest movement's first victory. Gaid Salah effectively ran the country, filling an authority vacuum and suggesting a Dec. 12 presidential election to replace a weak interim government in place for eight months.

Tebboune, once a Bouteflika faithful, was elected although protesters abstained. Gaid Salah died less than two weeks later. His funeral was that of a chief of state.

Some experts view the protest movement as a birthing station for a new generation of leaders to replace the old guard and an outmoded conception of governance. They see legislative elections at the end of the year as a prime forum for members of the pro-democracy movement to try to renew the political class from within.

"People know that to change the political scene, it's not only about protesting," said Louiza Ait Hammadouche, a political science professor at Algiers University.

"This movement has revolutionized Algerian society," said a commentator for the daily newspaper Liberte, Mustapha Hamouche. The marches have allowed youth "to discover peaceful debate, the exchange of ideas, everything forbidden by the system," he said. "These will be the future Algerian leaders. That's the enormous accomplishment of this movement."

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