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These three groups are pushing Algeria to change

They have a common denominator: A call for the rule of law.

- April 25, 2019

Algeria’s longtime ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down from the presidency this month after millions took to the streets against his proposed fifth term. While demonstrations for a new Algeria continue, here are three major themes the country will confront as it deals with its recent past: disappearances from the violence of the 1990s, the lives lost during the Black Spring of 2001 and women’s rights in the new Algeria.

Violence of the 1990s

Algeria’s relative quiet during the 2011 Arab uprisings traces its roots to the extreme violence that followed a genuine democratic opening in the early 1990s. The Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, seemed poised to gain a parliamentary majority, and the military stepped in. Remembered by many as “the dark decade,” one element of its legacy is the formation of key human rights groups by relatives of victims, such as the Collectif des Familles de Disparus en Algérie, which represents families of those disappeared by the military and government, and Djazairouna, representing families of the those killed by Islamist insurgents.

Organizations run by relatives of victims are important agents in processes of transition to peace or democracy and, according to comparative accounts, are key links in global networks for justice. Not only are these groups some of the most practiced protesters in Algeria, they also have been working in networks of civil society organizations for decades and confronting head-on the government’s policies regarding impunity for the violence of the 1990s. Since 2005, they have protested policies, including a blanket amnesty law passed that year. Their meticulous documentation of human-rights abuses make them central actors in processes of justice and reconciliation. When countries transition toward peace (but not democracy), exhumations and limited truth commissions are most likely. Neighboring Morocco is one example. However, if Algeria does transition to some form of genuine democratic government, more-complete truth commissions and prosecutions of perpetrators will likely be on the agenda. Tunisia has recently navigated these complex questions through their 2013 Basic Law on Transitional Law.

Identity-based claims and the 2001 Black Spring

On April 3, the day Bouteflika announced he was stepping down, the popular Algerian social media site Chouf Chouf posted an image of the former president in mosaic made from the individual images of those killed in the Black Spring, captioned “So that no one forgets.” In the Black Spring of 2001, major demonstrations broke out in the eastern Kabylie region after a Berber high school student died in police detention. The crackdown on demonstrations across the region resulted in 126 civilian deaths.

In 1980, Tafsut Imazighen (the Berber Spring) served as the first widespread moment of activism in support of the Berber population, the largest ethnic and linguistic minority in Algeria. The Berber cultural movement, which protests against the government’s homogenous narrative of Arab-Islamic national identity, provoked a massive crackdown specifically because of its strong networking with the diaspora, the international press, and human rights organizations. As is the case for the Berber in Morocco, demands for recognition of minority groups often increase when states attempt to control expressions of identity in everyday life. Algeria is no exception.

Although the Berber rights movement is a heterogeneous mix of actors, linguistic rights are one important point of contention. In January 2018 the government recognized Amazigh as an official language alongside Arabic, and declared the Amazigh New Year (Yanayer) a national holiday. Still, the debate remains salient. Today, in online discussions and on-the-ground debates, protesters are discussing the appropriateness of the Amazigh flag at protest sites. In recent days, protesters have hung posters with the images and names of those killed in the 2001 protests in front of the historic central Algiers post office. It is clear that national identity and questions of Amazigh belonging will continue to be central in the transition period either through demands for memorialization or more direct investigation of state violence.

Women’s rights

On April 4, an Algerian man posted a virulent video on social media warning Algerian women to stay at home or risk public attacks, triggering memories of public maiming by acid and the killing of young college women during the violence of the 1990s. But times have changed. The women’s rights group Femme Insoumises DZ quickly identified the man through his other online activities. Angry social media users revealed he is a British resident and reported him to the British police via an online system to report terrorist concerns. Within hours, the individual had sent a personal video to Femmes Insoumises DZ apologizing.

The quick response of women’s activists sent a powerful message. The British police took the man into custody while under investigation for inciting violence and support of terrorist activities. The Algerian public prosecutor’s office has also opened an investigation. Although women’s groups reported increased death threats around the time of the first posting, the original video prompted an outpouring of support for women’s rights from Algerian men and women on social media, the most prominent of whom was perhaps that of Kamel Daoud, a prominent Algerian writer.

Women’s rights are again on the agenda in this moment of national protest. Women have been participating widely in the protests, and a group of women’s rights organizations (Les Algériennes, Enough Algeria, Femmes Insoumises and Srabbles) are advocating, in particular, for the abrogation of the conservative and regressive Family Code, adopted in 1984. They are calling for the state to prioritize women’s equal rights as enshrined in the constitution.

Ready for what’s next

Each of these social movements confronts claims that it is not the moment for their agenda of change. However, as Algeria’s uncertain transition continues, these groups are some of the most organized, internationally well networked, and cohesive. The questions they raise continue to structure debate online and in the street in today’s climate of revolution, making them important actors to watch in the coming weeks and months.

Their agenda is essentially in support of the rule of law. If they are successful, the new Algerian government will be more democratically robust for facilitating access to justice, tackling issues of professionalization in the security forces, and for equal distribution of the benefits of Algerian citizenship.

Jessica Mecellem is visiting assistant professor of politics at the University of the South, Sewanee, specializing in human rights and post-conflict justice in the Middle East and North Africa.