2014-05-09 10:38:45

Barakat activists challenge Algeria's status quo

Algeria has been dominated by the ruling party, the military and the intelligence services for more than half a century. A new protest movement called Barakat - "enough" - is determined to challenge the status quo.
There was a sense of tension among the members of Barakat, as they were sitting huddled around a long table in a cellar in central Algiers.

That week the police had prevented some of them from protesting and detained those who resisted their orders several times.

Thirty minutes into the meeting, a message from the police telling the group to wrap up and leave caused a flurry of discussions and prompted some people to go, in fear of reprisals. Those who stayed were angry and agitated.

Among them was Idir Tazrout. The 34-year-old civil engineer turned journalist from Kabylie, in the north of the country, is one of the founding members of the group.

"The first time we came out in protest we were just a group of friends," recalls Tazrout. "We had decided between us to follow our conscience and do something against this masquerade."
ime to speak out

For Tazrout, like many of the other members, it's time to change the perception that there is no challenge to the permanent rule of the Algerian regime. The movement came into being ahead of the presidential election in April.

There, the incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika secured a landslide victory, despite his ailing health. Opposition parties had called for a boycott, and Bouteflika's main challenger had started crying foul on election day.

Barakat - which is Arabic for "enough" - is protesting what they say is a lack of democratic rights and the exclusion of Berbers like Tazrout from the political process. They are also concerned about the lack of economic foresight and reform.

"We have had enough of this system, these men and these methods," says Samir Benlarbi. The businessman and father of three is dressed in a smart suit.

"Algeria doesn't deserve this. We are one of the richest countries in the world. But we don't have any other economic resources: There is no industry, no tourism, no agriculture."

Economists have warned that Algeria's reliance on oil and gas for revenue is shortsighted. While it has flooded the government coffers with cash, the sector does not offer enough jobs to absorb the army of young unemployed Algerians. The so-called informal economy is the biggest employer for young Algerians.

Many believe that the system is corrupt and doesn't pay enough attention to their problems, like the lack of housing and employment. Most members of Barakat are better off, but still believe that the government has failed its people.
"All that income should be used to invest in human capital. It should be used to reduce unemployment," says Amira Bouraoui, a 38-year-old doctor. "There are pensioners who live on 100 euros ($138) a month, their children are unemployed, they live in misery."

Crackdown on dissent

But voicing dissent and publicly criticizing the government has come at a price. Human Rights Watch has criticized the Algerian government for cracking down against the group.

Members of the movement have been arrested several times while trying to stage sit-ins and protests. Their families have been threatened, and some Algerian media close to the regime have been broadcasting rather chilling messages.

"There are TV channels that are calling on people to lynch us. To assassinate us," says Idir Tazrout. "My family told me 'You are mad. You are risking being assassinated. The police follow us all the time. We are being monitored non-stop.'"

Barakat is accused of being run by foreign spies wanting to destabilize Algeria. It's a powerful message in a country, where the older generation still remembers the bloodshed of the war of independence from France and the civil war in the 1990s.

The movement rejects these accusations; they see themselves as being deeply rooted in contemporary Algerian history.

"My grandfather and other members of my family died in the fight for Algeria's independence," says Tazrout. "Others died in the 1990s fighting for democratic principles. I am from a family that has always pursued freedom and democracy."
The new opposition?

But they know that the images of violence and chaos in Syria, Libya and Egypt might make Algerians all the more cautious.

Despite the continuing threats and slander, the movement remains determined to pursue political change.

Everyone seems to agree that this might not come quickly and that they need to mobilize Algerians who seem to have given up hope that there could be a real alternative to the elderly men who have dominated and run the country since 1962. The opposition remains weak and divided.

"The opposition parties have no popular base, they have lost touch with the public," says Amel Boubekeur, a non-resident fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "The Algerian public is fed up with ideology and needs concrete solutions to face daily corruption and injustices."

"We are going out onto the streets, we are going to work with the unions, with other movements, with political parties, with civil society to bring about a change in the system," says Samir Benlarbi. "It's a long fight for democracy. I am not afraid of what could happen to me," he adds, "but I fear for the future of my children and the future of my country."

Indeed, the stakes are high: The regime is stubborn, and many here are comparing the challenge to the fight between David and Goliath.

(agencies, imedia)

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