Every Friday since February 22nd this year, mass protests have taken place across Algeria. What started as a mobilisation against then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intention to run for a fifth term – despite both health and constitutional impediments – quickly became a momentous uprising, uniting the Algerian people in their demands for a radical, democratic change.
“What makes the present protests more valuable is the fact that we finally understood that our power is in our union,” says 34 year-old Finance and Cost controller Djamila. “If we believe that, at the end of the day, despite our differences, we are all Algerians and our demands are the same, we will end-up reaching our aim: a free Algeria.”
El Houria. Freedom. It’s also the name of the play that has been staged on the streets of Algiers, alongside the protesters, echoing their demand for change. Directed by comedian Leila Touchi, they ridicule crooked politicians in power, voicing the popular and long kept silenced discontent with the ruling elites.
One of the many politicians they played includes MP Naima Salhi, who, according to Leila, is unpopular in Algeria for her racism and conservative stance on women’s rights.
“Everybody laughed, everybody insulted her when we portrayed her on the streets” she says.
Leila is the first woman ever to have performed on the streets in Algeria. For the first time in a very long time, she says, Algerians are re-appropriating public spaces, both by protesting (forbidden in Algiers since 2001) and, in her case, with street theatre.
“We have to perform, we have to say what we want to say, what we’ve wanted to say for years. Because before, if we performed on the streets, we had to be careful, we couldn’t talk about the State. This time we are totally free, so we took the opportunity.”
“I walk for every Algerian who was forced to leave to strive for a better life outside, because they felt underrated in their country because of the rotten system”
Algeria has never seen such a broad and widespread movement since it celebrated its independence from French colonial rule in 1962. There have been many protests before, especially between 2010 and 2012, but this movement is unique. It’s massive, peaceful and nationwide. Algerians, says Leila, are ready for change. They all agreed to say no to the government, and they all have the same goals.
The resignation of President Bouteflika on April 2nd is a symbolic victory. After the president suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, a shadowy group of businessmen, politicians and military officials started running the country. Abdelkader Bensalah, who many view as being too close to the former leader, has taken over as interim president. Hundreds of demonstrators in Algiers called on him to quit last Friday, following his call for dialogue aimed at fixing a new date for the presidential elections, after the Constitutional Council cancelled the vote set for July 4th.
“The [ruling] system is still strong and holding to its ill-gotten gains,” says Chahrazed, 43, who works in telecommunications, and has participated in the protests a few times. “They refuse to accept people’s aspirations, even though they are quite clear.” Until this mafia-like small group still clings to power, Algerians will not achieve their desired objectives, she says. It’s the whole political regime that needs to be overhauled.
“I am fed up with the system,” she adds. “We’ve reached a point where we don’t have any hope to live with dignity in our country and we foresee a dark future ahead, without any opportunities for our children.”
With a rise in violence and pauperisation, Algerian society would have imploded if it hadn’t been for the marches, she says. “Instead, Algerians have taken to the streets peacefully and, I believe, have avoided the worst.”
An Algeria united and free
Protests have paved the way for change in Algeria, but there is a lot of work to be done before democracy is achieved. Real work, says Leila, starts now.
“We were shocked,” she says about President Bouteflika’s resignation. “We’ve been in the same situation for twenty years, so it’s hard for us to choose someone [to lead], to find people that can be trusted.” She believes people need to be prepared and trained before they can take over.
“It’s true that we cannot make things happen overnight,” Djamila says. “But at least, the fact of believing in what we are demanding is showing a new path to the new democracy and republic we want to build up.”
For Chahrazed, it’s important to work on a civil society project. “Algerians need to recover their identity, and regain their self-esteem and faith in the country,” she says. A sentiment also shared by Djamila.
“I walked and continue walking every Friday for every Algerian who was forced to leave his country to strive for a better life outside, because they felt underrated in their country because of the rotten system; for all those skilled Algerians who are shining abroad instead of shining here; for all those illegal immigrants who lost their lives trying to catch the dream of a decent life outside their country. I hope the coming generation will not live this nightmare.”
Algeria is a young country, with 1 in 4 people under the age of 15, and nearly 54% of the population is under 30. The youth unemployment rate has been increasing for the past few years, reaching 29% in 2018 . A lack of work opportunities means many Algerians seek a better future abroad, many risking their lives to reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean.
“I dream of an Algeria that will belong to all Algerians without any exception,” Djamila adds. “I dream of a generation that will no more hold the aim of leaving the country believing that the grass is greener on the other side. I dream of Algerians who will stick together and build our country.”
Women’s rights and gender equality
To be truly democratic and inclusive, Algeria has to establish policies and practices that will serve the interests of all its citizens – and that includes equality between men and women in all spheres of life.
“For me, women in Algeria have more rights than women in France,” Chahrazed says. “In the workplace, for example, we have equal wages, something that is not applied in France.”
Algeria’s Constitution enshrines the principle of non-discrimination based on gender and requires the state to take positive action to ensure equality of rights and duties of all citizens. In February 2016, parliament adopted amendments and introduced an article proclaiming that the “state works to attain parity between women and men in the job market.” It also “encourages the promotion of women to positions of responsibility in public institutions and in businesses.” According to the 2017 Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum, Algeria ranks 13th out of 144 countries for wage equality between women and men, whereas France is much lower at 129th place.
Although the 2016 reforms made great strives in some areas, Algeria still follows some patriarchal rules. The highly restrictive family code is still in place and subordinates women’s rights to men’s in matters relating to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.
“There is still a lot to do regarding the family code, and the customs and culture of the Algerian society, but these changes have to come softly, in accordance with religion, with dignity, and with the acknowledgement of the value of every person in this country,” Chahrazed says. It’s not by asking for their rights protesting on the streets that women will get equality, she thinks, but rather by integrating into society with knowledge and education.
“The Algerian woman is very brave. She is very strong in what she faces daily. She is making progress in all areas. I have faith in women”
“If we want to see gender equality, mothers need to stop giving this education that shows boys that they are superior and that girls are there to serve them,” says Djamila. “Girls don’t belong in the kitchen, cleaning and cooking! They are a big part of society and by dismissing their real role in building up a balanced society, we will end up with the same results for sure.”
Like in most parts of the world, law reforms might advance women’s rights but changing people’s mindset and attitudes is more challenging. “What is making things worse for women in the country are the traditions and the fact that some men are not ready to loose their position of king given by those same traditions,” Djamila explains. “So every time women want to revolt, they are considered to be nasty women.”
This is something that Leila has experienced. Unlike Chahrazed and Djamila who live in the capital, she lives in a town 35km away from Algiers. It’s a more conservative town and people haven’t accepted that she is an actress, she explains. She has been threatened and called names on the streets many times. “I have been told not to go back to the town, that I am tarnishing its image.”
“It’s painful for me to talk about it, but unfortunately it happened,” she recounts. “But I keep fighting. It tires me. It’s tiring because instead of creating, staging performances and advancing my artistic career, I have to deal with the mentalities of people in the neighbourhood. It’s not easy.”
“We need to build more cinemas, theatres, and cultural spaces, in every town,” she says. “I believe that culture is the solution.”
Chahrazed, Djamila and Leila share an undeniable love for and faith in their country and its potential.
“The Algerian woman is very brave. She is very strong in what she faces daily. She is making progress in all areas. I have faith in women. I also have faith in the men who support women in their success,” Leila adds. “I would like to tell Algerian women to remain hopeful. And keep fighting.”