Constantine, Algeria: “Makach al khamssa ya Bouteflika” — Photos by Habib Tengour

The demonstrations in Algeria are a breath of fresh air in & for the Maghreb. Women & children in the front rows. It looks like the country has finally woken up from a long, long sleep. During what came to be called the 2011 “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Libya, the “chape de plomb,” the leaden weight (the expression derives from a medieval instrument of torture) that lay over Algeria had kept the people of that country from revolting — although they had as many valid reasons to do so as the Tunisians or the Egyptians did.

But they were held back by their remembrances of the devastating civil war of the 90s that caused several hundred thousand deaths-by-assassination (indiscriminately perpetrated by islamists &/or the military) & that had followed the last attempt to democratize the country: in 1991 the first free-ish multi-party elections since independence were cancelled by a military coup after the first round when the military expressed concerns that the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front, was almost certain to win more than the two-thirds majority of seats required to change the constitution & would thus be able to democratically form an Islamic state. The civil war lasted a decade, after which the same crew(s) & clans (with the help of the military & the FLN’s single party formed after the end of the war of independence in 1962) came back to power.

Meanwhile via WhatsUp I have been in touch with Habib Tengour, the Algerian poet & novelist, who happens to be traveling in Algeria right now & happens to be in Constantine, the city we met in in 1976 when we were both teaching at the university there. Habib has been sending me the photos he takes as he walks the city among the citizens, men, women, children out on the streets, chanting: “Makach al khamssa ya Bouteflika — No Fifth for Bouteflika!” Here are some of these:

 

From left to write: poet Habib Tengour; Ahmed Benyahya a painter from Constantine; & Hachemi Zertal ex-co-director of the Constantine cinémathèque & now a film producer in Algeria.

So far, so good. But the gangsters who have hijacked the country will not simply hand over the keys to the government (or to their bank-accounts into which the wealth of the country has been drained). The mummified gerontocracy is perfectly represented/caricatured in the image of Bouteflika who hasn’t been see in public in years & is known simply as “the frame” given that a framed picture of him is paraded around when the apparatchiks summon the people to vote. But that gerontocracy also has not only the army but also the whole repressive police (secret & uniformed) apparatus at its disposal — & is very unlikely to give up its loot & power without a fight.

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