Direct action gets results in Algeria

Algerians are discovering the power of non-violent direct action.

In the past few months, Algerians have become aware that people taking power for themselves, through sit-ins, protests and online campaigns, get far better results than Arab Spring-style uprisings or a brutal armed conflict – like the eight-year long Algerian civil war in the 1990s.

The first to exercise direct action has been Ain Salah, a town in Algeria’s southern desert region, where most of the country’s oil and gas reserves lie. 

Algerians in the town of Ain Salah staging an anti-fracking protest (Posted by the People's Committee against Shale Gas).

In December 2014, the government announced a $70bn investment in fracking technology in response to the country’s soaring domestic energy consumption and its declining production of oil and gas. This resulted in less hydrocarbon export sales, which contribute 98 percent of the country’s foreign earnings.

In the months since, Ain Salah, where the pilot well was sunk, has been the scene of almost daily, anti-fracking sit-ins and protests. The organizing committee went further to call for civil disobedience in the town planned for the very near future. 

The music video Samidoun, We are Steadfast in English, is collaboration between Algerian rapper Lotfi Double Kanon and Ain Salah's rappers, Desert Boys. The song tells the story of what the anti-fracking movement in the city is all about - a national cause. 

People fear that fracking may dry up limited groundwater resources in the region.

The protest spread to other marginalised regions in Algeria’s desert south, and even to the capital Algiers, partly thanks to an active online campaign on Facebook and Twitter and coverage by a corps of independent journalists.

One of several Facebook pages dedicated to the Ain Salah protest. 

One of several Facebook pages dedicated to the Ain Salah protest. 

Protests produced some results.  Even though the fracking plan will go ahead--Said Sahnoun, the head of state-owned energy company Sonatrach so declared--, it will not be a smooth operation given the sustained opposition and the threat of further sit-ins near the drilling site.

Protestors stopped and searched trucks delivering chemicals to the drilling site (Source: Sun and Power Group). 

Protestors stopped and searched trucks delivering chemicals to the drilling site (Source: Sun and Power Group). 

Such disruption could dent foreign investment confidence in Algeria. Equally important is that the protest movement in Ain Salah gave rise to a national anti-fracking committee and galvanised Algerian opposition parties from across the political spectrum as well as students and the unemployed.

Algerian politician Soufiane Djilali tweeted that the Coordination for Liberties and Democratic transition, an umbrella group of five main Algerian opposition groups, joined protestors at the main town square in Ain Salah, which has become known as Place Soumoud or Resistance Square.  

Algerian politician Soufiane Djilali tweeted that the Coordination for Liberties and Democratic transition, an umbrella group of five main Algerian opposition groups, joined protestors at the main town square in Ain Salah, which has become known as Place Soumoud or Resistance Square.  

The anti-fracking movement might have also inspired other Algerians to exercise people power to overturn government policies or decisions perceived to be disadvantageous to them.

One such decision was the trade minister’s move in mid-April to deregulate the sale of alcohol and to scrap licenses for the sale of alcoholic beverages through on-trade channels. The decision aimed to end a smuggling mafia and erode informal trade, which has been steadily growing to circumvent strict, religious-based legislation.

However, the stated aim of the decision did not sit well with devout Muslims in the country where alcohol consumption has a negative image.

In the past, under pressure from Islamists, alcohol sales and consumption had been driven underground with the help of an Islamist party, the Movement of Society for Peace, which was part of the ruling coalition from 2004 to 2012.

This time, Islamists, without any representation in the government, staged stand-up protests in many cities; more importantly they threatened to hold a “million-man” demonstration; and they launched a campaign on social media—all to ram one message home: Algeria’s Islamic identity is off limits.

A picture posted on Twitter of Islamists protesting against the decision to deregulate alcohol sales in Algeria.  

A picture posted on Twitter of Islamists protesting against the decision to deregulate alcohol sales in Algeria.  

The government buckled with Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal scrapping the trade minister’s decision a few days after it was announced.

In both cases--the fracking project and the alcohol sale decision—Sellal had to step in to allay public opposition.

The two incidents of intervention are telling. While there is a political will to appease the important Islamist constituency on the emotionally charged issue of alcohol sales, the government cannot afford to scrap a $70bn shale gas project to appease the nascent anti-fracking movement in the marginalised south.

Other displays of direct action have been recently seen here and there in Algeria, but less significant than the anti-fracking action or the Islamist-led push against the deregulation of alcohol sales.

In Constantine, a city in north-eastern Algeria known as a centre of Islamic learning, the local authority, under public pressure, was forced to remove a statue of a revered religious scholar, Abdelhamid Ben Badis, only 10 days after it adorned one of the city’s central squares.

The statue of Ben Badis before it was removed.

The granite sculpture, tailor-made for the celebrations of Constantine as the capital of Arab culture for 2015, stirred a controversy on social media.

In this case too, Islamists seem to have been the driving force behind the demand for the local government to remove the sculpture, in line with an Islamic prohibition of images and sculptures of human figures.

Complicating the religious issues, a wide variety of Algerians were incensed by pictures widely shared on social media of youths defiling the statue by giving it a cigarette to smoke.

In the two incidents, involving Islamists, authorities might have chosen to give in to pressure with memories still fresh of the civil war that pitted the regime against Islamist armed groups.

Nonetheless, one fact is clear: Algerians of all political and cultural hues are aware that writing letters to MPs and lobbying ministers do not work in their country.

Algeria has a multi-party system but one political actor: the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) that takes its legitimacy from the army.

The Algerian experience with a superficial multi-party system established in 1989 proves that elections are not the only index of democracy and do not necessarily lead to good governance.