ALGIERS // A protest group, founded just two months ago when ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika controversially decided to seek re-election, has livened up a lacklustre campaign from which the incumbent has been entirely absent.
Activists of the Barakat (Enough) movement have made their mark by daring to argue publicly that the 77-year-old Mr Bouteflika, who is too sick to take to the campaign trail himself, is unfit to govern.
Around 40 of them were briefly detained by the security forces when they did so at a rally in central Algiers last month.
Cofounder Amina Bouraoui says the movement was born out of a desire to establish a genuine democracy in Algeria, and frustration at an “archaic” system that has shown “contempt for the people.”
“This year, we saw politicians calling on the president to seek a fourth term, even though he is very sick and has been in power for 15 years,” said Ms Bouraoui, a 38-year-old gynaecologist, in an interview with the openDemocracy website.
She said the same politicians had “violated” the constitution by controversially amending it to allow Mr Bouteflika to seek and win a third term in 2009.
“Both physically and mentally, he is in no condition to govern. So, we decided with activist friends to go out into the street and to say ‘no’.”
Barakat has branches in 20 of Algeria’s 48 provinces and has organised eight demonstrations since March 1, Ms Bouraoui says.
The movement is campaigning for a boycott of the April 17 election, which it describes as a “masquerade” and “another affront to the Algerian people.”
Made up mostly of activists in their 20s and 30s, the movement has so far failed to draw large crowds to its rallies, and is unlikely to prevent the expected re-election of the incumbent.
But it remains a surprise factor and an irritant for the president’s campaign team, who have responded with allegations that the new group is a tool of foreign powers.
Barakat has also attracted the suspicion of opposition parties, who see in it a possible rival, even though it has no detailed blueprint for a post-Bouteflika Algeria.
“We are a citizens’ movement... We do not want to be a political party,” said Bouraoui, whose youthful, feminine looks contrast with those of the country’s ageing, mostly male politicians.
Mr Bouteflika himself has rarely appeared in public at all since a minor stroke confined him to hospital in Paris for three months last year.
Growing up in the poor Algiers neighbourhood of Bab El Oued the daughter of a cardiology professor, Ms Bouraoui traces her political awareness back to the bloody riots of 1988, which some Algerians refer to as their “Arab Spring.”
“I was 12 years old in October 1988 when a young protest movement was violently suppressed,” Ms Bouraoui recalls.
The social unrest led the government to end Algeria’s single-party system and paved the way for multiparty elections in 1991, which Islamists were poised to win.
The army’s decision to cancel the poll triggered a devastating civil war, in which up to 200,000 people were killed as Islamist groups battled troops in the country’s “black decade”.
Mr Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999, is credited by his supporters with helping end the civil war through a policy of national reconciliation.
But Ms Bouraoui says his reputation as a peacemaker is undeserved, pointing to the “Black Spring” of 2001 in which security forces, acting on Mr Bouteflika’s orders, crushed Berber protests in the Kabylie region, east of the capital, at the cost of 126 lives.
Tensions boiled over in the Kabylie city of Bejaia on Saturday, when a crowd of demonstrators stormed a planned rally by Bouteflika representatives, attacking a television crew covering the event and torching portraits of the president.
Mr Bouteflika’s campaign team cancelled the rally, blaming the violence on “fascists” from the Barakat movement, accusations the group strongly rejected on Monday.
Mustapha Benfodil, another Barakat cofounder, insisted it was a non-violent movement committed to peaceful reform, after the experience of the civil war of the 1990s which left Algerians “profoundly traumatised”.
* Agence France-Presse