First Tunisia, then Egypt. Now it could be Algeria's turn to free itself from autocratic rule. Fearing a full-blown uprising like those that have collapsed both the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes in one month, government officials in the huge North African country scrambled on Monday, Feb. 14, to short-circuit an accelerating movement of street protests, a display of antigovernment sentiment that would have been unthinkable until recently. Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci told France's Europe 1 radio station Monday morning that his country's 19-year state-of-emergency laws would be revoked within days, ending tight censorship and lifting a ban on political demonstrations. "In the coming days," Medelci said, the emergency regulations would be "a thing of the past," giving way to "complete freedom of expression within the limits of the law." He then added, "Algeria is not Tunisia or Egypt."
That statement might be wishful thinking on the part of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government. Exactly one month after mammoth protests drove Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia, ending 23 years of autocratic rule, and three days after the Egyptian revolt drove President Hosni Mubarak from office after nearly 30 years, some Algerian youth are primed for an uprising of their own.
About 2,000 demonstrated in the capital, Algiers, on Feb. 12, and another protest is planned for Saturday, Feb. 19. In an echo of Tunisia's revolution slogan, Saturday's Algerian protesters chanted, "Bouteflika dégage!" (Bouteflika, get out!), and some carried Egyptian and Tunisian flags, an unsubtle warning to the government that it might be unable to stop the protesters' momentum. Just as Cairo's Tahrir Square became the nexus of the Egyptian people's show of power, Algeria's protest movement has chosen as its gathering point the May 1 Square in the center of Algiers. Thousands of riot police scuffled with the protesters, and cell-phone videos like this one posted on YouTube show police dragging demonstrators away from the scene.
With Egypt and Tunisia having ousted their leaders, the similarities between those two countries and Algeria seem increasingly clear, and Bouteflika, 73, appears more isolated regionally, as one of North Africa's last remaining despots of his generation. Bouteflika has ruled Algeria for 11 years, and in 2008 he changed the constitution just as Mubarak and Ben Ali had done to allow himself to remain in power until he dies. The following year, he won his third term in a presidential election boycotted by many opposition parties with more than 90% of the votes, a figure similar to the reported landslide Mubarak won just six months later.
There are other parallels among the three countries. Just as Mubarak forged close ties with the U.S. and was rewarded with billions of dollars in U.S. military aid so too has Bouteflika cultivated relationships with European and American officials by waging a battle against Islamic militants and arguing that Algerian-based terrorist groups would be far more dangerous in his absence. The terrorism threat is real enough. Al-Qaeda's North African offshoot, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was founded in Algeria in 2007 as an outgrowth of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which has long fought against Bouteflika's secular policies. AQIM has kidnapped numerous foreigners around the region.
But none of that is of any interest to those Algerians rooting for the protesters, whose message is increasingly geared to unseating Bouteflika. After Mubarak resigned on Friday, Algeria's best-known cartoonist, Ali Dilem against whom Islamic militants once issued a fatwa calling for his execution posted on a blog a cartoon featuring an Algerian soccer fan standing under a scoreboard reading, "Egypte 1, Algerie 0," and holding a sign that says, "We have to equalize" a reference to the two nations' bitter soccer rivalry. For weeks, Algerian youth have been posting videos from Tahrir Square on Facebook and calling for similar protests at home.
Despite the fervor on the streets of Algeria, Western intelligence agencies believe that Algerians, exhausted from years of civil war, might be unwilling to face a potentially bloody assault should they revolt against their government. The country suffered massive losses in a war between Islamic groups and government forces that lasted from 1991 to 2002 and killed about 200,000 people. The conventional wisdom of intelligence agencies has proved of little use this past month, however: just a few weeks ago, Western intelligence agencies said there was only a small chance that Mubarak would be driven from office by the huge protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Now we know how wrong they were.