By Karima Bennnoune
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 17/02/2011
Sunday 13 February 13 – The Day After
Monday 14 February – Valentine's Day à l'AlgérienneIn the morning, I am stuck in the cement-like traffic of Algiers. A smiling young woman in hijab with elaborate eye makeup shares my taxi and we talk about how she would like to visit her relatives in the United States, and her hopes for Algeria. When she alights, she takes the rhinestone brooch off her headscarf and gives it to me, kissing me on both cheeks. This humbling generosity is one of Algeria's greatest natural resources; her broach one of the best Valentine's Day gifts I have ever received.
"There was an air of Tahrir Square, Cairo's heroic liberation site … Political and NGO activists, trade unionists, the unemployed, professionals, government workers, women, many women, artists, students, academics, the retired, adolescents, young girls, old people, secularists, Islamists, Communists, Facebookers and those with indeterminate opinions. The square … was sparkling, turbulent and full of that angry effervescence of proud cities." (Read the original in French if you can – it rhymes.)At twilight, I meet with a woman professional in her 40s whom I will call Zohra, in the swank Hotel Djazair, and am taken aback when she leans over and says quietly, "I would do anything to participate in bringing this government down, whatever the price." For Zohra, taghair el nitham (changing the system) also means ameliorating the condition of women, and challenging social conservatism. "Now you have to hide to have a drink, if you choose not to fast during Ramadan, if you go out with someone." She will attend the 19 February march, though she will conceal this from her family.
I want to walk to where I am staying but am reminded of the night before when the somber streets rapidly became male-only territory, so I hail a cab. The balding driver in his sixties explains that "In Arab and Islamic countries, we have only been given a choice between dictatorship and Islamism. What we need instead is a just middle." He doesn't think much of the fundamentalists and is very sympathetic to the demonstrators. When I ask if many people will attend next Saturday, he replies, "Why [would people go] when last time you had 2,000 protestors and 40,000 police?" And when we talk about last Saturday's young "hired" pro-government counter-demonstrators, he asks, "What did they leave for these youth? No dancing, no bars, no cafes, no cinemas, just the mosque."
Tuesday 15 February – Mouloud
Aware of their own limitations, Amine asks: "How can we have a demonstration where we are only a few thousand and say we are the people? There are 5 million Algérois; 5,000 people is not even a rock concert." However, he reminds us that friends in Tunis "said that Sidi Bouzid was just a little town, and then they found themselves in the street." They are frustrated with some aspects of the opposition leadership, like the involvement of political parties, but say they are drowning, and that a drowning person will grab onto a pencil if it might keep him afloat. "We want a better Algeria. We will march on the 19th."
Wednesday 16 February – Vodka in Bab el-OuedAt noon, I meet Samir Larabi, a young activist with the new National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed. This organisation held a demonstration in front of the labour ministry on 6 February that was suppressed by the police. An unemployed man tried to set himself on fire but was saved by a journalist from El Watan. Larabi explains that people are active now because security has improved since the 1990s, and indeed, the country is well-off economically – while its ordinary people suffer miserable living conditions. This is partly a revolt of raised expectations.
A major theme of my interviews is the disgust that ordinary people feel about what is called politics. Larabi says the young "vomit the politicians". Yet, he also understands that a credible political alternative will be necessary to actually improve conditions here.
I follow Fodil to a meeting of intellectuals. Everyone seems to be organising a committee or network, drafting a declaration or a set of principles. Still, these intellectuals are not overly optimistic. "It is not yet the turn of Algeria," one tells me. "We must worry about our Tunisian and Egyptian friends that they could have the same problems that we had [after October 1988 when protests led to brief democratisation, a flawed electoral process and a bloody civil war]."
Tired of explaining what reality can better illustrate, Nacer Meghenine, president of the association, leaps to his feet and tells me to follow. I end up touring Bab el-Oued by night. First, we visit a family of eight who live in one room. The grandmother holds an infant suffering from spina bifida with a large growth on her back and crossed eyes. They are waiting for an operation she needs. Despite their terrible situation, the grandmother is an ardent supporter of President Bouteflika whom she distinguishes from the government, and she opposes the marches because she is terrified of a return to violence – a fear the regime has capitalised on. "We are tired of blood after 10 years. Bezzef! [Too much!]" In response, Nacer says, "Don't tell them about democracy! They live day by day."
A 50-something fundamentalist in the street tells me there are lots of vultures here that only the will of God can chase away. When I ask about the marches, he says that as long as Bab el-Oued is not awakened, nothing will happen. Later, Nacer tells me that anyone who thinks fundamentalism is dead has not been to Bab el-Oued. He points out that the streets are full of bearded men, explaining that they have been a repeated obstacle in his work.
We head to a former parking garage turned into what one can only term so-called housing. There is garbage everywhere. Two young men stand inside the entrance, drinking vodka. What else is there to do in Bab el-Oued by night? I visit a young couple who live in two rooms with their infant. My friendly hostess tells me her husband works as a security guard. She lays out her daily difficulties. "My husband earns 10,000 dinars a month. My son's milk costs 300 dinars a can. It only lasts a few days. His diapers cost another 750 dinars. How can we feed ourselves?" She tells me there are women sleeping on cartons in the street. Ominously, she warns that things could explode. Then she shows me how she plugged the gaps around her windows to protect her son from tear gas during January's uprising. "It will be much worse than January, if it doesn't change peacefully."
In another home, a family of five live in one room. Some years ago, they made an official housing request but never received a response. The serious young father studied psychology and sociology, supports the marches and is desperate for change. He says, "I don't need a million dinars. I just need a job, housing and protection for my children." His wife was mugged a few days ago. As we walk back, I ask Nacer what the state should do for people here, and he says quite simply – we need a Marshall Plan.
Despite all the paradoxes, this Saturday, the marchers will again try to take a step toward a better future for this country, the future its older people fought for yesterday and its young people deserve today