President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement to run for a fourth period, despite 15 years in power, an age of 77 and a fragile health condition after suffering from a stroke last year, was the tipping point. On March 1 the grassroots movement Barakat was established by Algerians who were fed up with the old regime and craved democracy and political change.
“This fourth term, one too many, has been perceived as a great danger to the republic,” says Sidali Kouidri Filali, a 35-year-old blogger and member of Barakat. Protesting is banned in the capital of Algiers and the movement’s initial two sit-ins at the University of Algiers were broken up by police who arrested demonstrating members. “Outraged citizens gathered to protest, voicing a common demand for change but riot police broke the protests and arrested and detained a large number of demonstrators,” Kouidri Filali explained.
“The atmosphere was quite tense because policemen were arresting the protest's main figures, among them Bouraoui and some journalists,” said French-Algerian journalist Nejma Rondeleux. Bouraoui, who has become one of Barakat’s main figures, was arrested three times during the movement's first month. Since then demonstrations have been held with less disruptions from police.
Barakat was established by Algerians who were fed up with the old regimeBut this is not the movement's biggest challenge according to Kouidri Filali, rather, the key issues are citizens’ inaction and political disengagement. “Many have turned away from politics, intentionally demonized by the current regime,” he explained, “Add to that the collective trauma caused by Algeria's recent past. It is very difficult to get things moving when we just underwent war.”
Local analysts consider the movement a positive development, a symbol of change in the country’s static political landscape. The power has been tightly controlled by the National Liberation Front (FLN), and backed by the country’s military force, since independence from colonial power France in 1962.
Freedom of expression is strictly controlled and human rights groups have expressed concern ahead of elections, “There’s much the government needs to do to create an environment for credible elections, but one important step would be to allow Algerians to form associations, meet, and organize events without hindrance,” declared Eric Goldstein, deputy director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
Large-scale political demonstrations have been rare and the country was barely affected by the Arab Spring, which began in neighbouring Tunisia. Analysts believe this is in part due to the crackdown of the Islamist uprising in the 1990s, which left around 200.000 people dead and remains a haunting memory in people’s consciousness.
But some observers have still drawn parallels between Barakat and Egypt's Kifaya movement (also meaning ‘enough’), which contributed to the uprising against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
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“The movement is inspired by Kifaya in a limited way, but there are some distinct differences, including the fact that Kifaya was not only against Mubarak continuing but also against his son taking over, so the succession process was different from Algeria," explained William Lawrence, visiting professor at George Washington University and senior fellow at Project of Middle East democracy. "The comparison is good in some ways but it also differs when it comes to the political context. And Kifaya built up over time, Barakat is just getting started,” Lawrence added.
Despite that Internet penetration is relatively low in Algeria compared to other Arab states, the country only authorized 3G mobile Internet in the end of 2013, social media plays an important part in the movement’s mobilisation. Social media is not only connecting Barakat members internally, but the Facebook page, with around 32.000 fans, is constantly updating its followers on the movement’s latest, making it easy for the outside world to follow their every move. According to Ichalalene Bouzid, a marketing consultant and Barakat member, the movement also has an important amount of support from Algerians living abroad. For him, and the diaspora, Barakat is a long-term project; the objective is not Election Day, but a cause that will continue after April 17.
Despite the desire for change the painful collective memory from the so-called “dark decade” remains an open wound. “After having lived what some called ‘the dirty war’, Algerians realized that violence won't bring anything. Today, they want change and they will use pacific measures,” argued Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, a research Analyst at Carnegie Middle East Center. “Barakat is a good example of how people are reacting towards the fourth term of Bouteflika. Voting right now for an obedience that might bring violence back into the country is impossible.”
"Observers have drawn parallels between Barakat and Egypt's Kifaya movement" But according to Kouidri Filali the people are ready. "We are breaking the wall of fear to allow the re-engagement of the citizens in political life, we are showing them the way, fear doesn't hold us back anymore, this has to stop.”
However, the organization has received criticism for its lack of leadership and lose structure. “Barakat has a horizontal structure, a national coordination and no leader,” Kouidri Filali explained, “We are all leaders in Barakat, with the same commitment. Our leader is our cause.”
Five political opposition candidates are challenging Bouteflika in the election. But Barakat remains apolitical, only supporting democracy itself. Kouidri Filali is firm. “Barakat has no ideology. It is the framework in which the movement evolves that defines the affiliation and recognition of its members.
“The founding text clearly describes the guidelines, which promote democracy, progress, equality and respect for minorities and differences.”
Despite the movement's optimism, few believe it can have an immediate impact on the election results, which is expected to be an easy win for Bouteflika. However, “This type of demonstration is very rare in Algeria, and if successful as a voice of opposition it could increase the boycott against the elections, which in turn could affect the perceived legitimacy of the elections,” argued Lawrence.
“Could it have a greater impact on Algeria?” Lawrence asked, “Yes, but only time will tell.”