Algeria: voices for democratic transition cannot be silenced
In the six weeks since the citizens Barakat movement for a free and democratic Algeria was founded it has moved from cyberspace onto the streets. Ahead of this week's election, the voices calling for democratic transition are being heard. Pro-democracy activist Louiza Chennoub spoke to Karima Bennoune
Louiza (red t-shirt) and Amira (black t-shirt) protest at ENTVAs Algeria prepares for presidential elections on 17 April, the Barakat movement leads small but determined protests across the country against the seemingly endless rule of ailing 77 year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who is running for a fourth term after fifteen years in office. When Louiza Chennoub’s picture was taken as a policewoman tried to silence her at a demonstration in Algiers, she became a symbol of the Barakat movement’s efforts to make citizen voices heard in Algeria. Karima Bennoune spoke with her in Algiers on 22 March.
Karima Bennoune: What are the goals of the Barakat movement?
Louiza Chennoub: The Barakat movement is a much-needed cry from the heart, and also from the spirit, against what has been happening in Algeria for a while now. It is true that there has been defiance among the Algerian people for some years. But the opportunity to say what we were thinking only arose when we found out that a fourth presidential term for Abdelaziz Bouteflika was in the works, and that this gravely ill man would remain on the throne he has claimed for himself ad vitam aeternam, that is, until his very death. We said, ‘it is not possible that we are unable to say what we think, once and for all.’ That is where the name Barakat comes from - it means, ‘that’s enough!’ Personally, I came into contact with the Barakat movement and the other members through the Internet, on Facebook pages. We have had discussions for years amongst ourselves, but suddenly we said, ‘we must go out to say what we think because we are fed up with only being present in cyberspace.’ We must make our voices heard beyond that sphere, in the street. Thereafter, we were joined by many others who had been thinking the same things, and who had been wondering how they could express their views. In the beginning, it all came together spontaneously, because Barakat is a citizen movement. Now, we need to create a structure to be able to go forward beyond the 17 April elections.
KB: You are the woman who appears with a police officer’s hand over her mouth in the famous photo from the 6 March Barakat demonstration in front of the University of Algiers. This image of a very physical form of censorship galvanized support for the Barakat movement. What happened before, during and after the photo was taken?
LC: We were being arrested in a very violent manner. This violence was designed to dissuade those not yet in the movement by showing that this is what could happen to them. It was shocking. The second time I was arrested, I did not expect it. We were in a group, shouting our slogans: ‘Barakat! la repression.’ Enough repression! ‘We demand the rule of law. We want a democratic state.’ Then, I was surrounded by seven or eight people. There was nothing I could do. If they were going to take me away, they were going to take me away. There were three people behind me whom you can see in the photo, undercover police in civilian clothes, who were trying to form a barrier between my arrest and the arrests of others - and the ordinary citizens around us. A policewoman wanted to muzzle me so I would not scream and she put her hand over my mouth. People interpret her gesture to mean that the state had given the order to silence us, and had insisted that we must not be heard. The police were arresting us to deprive us of the right to speak. When the policewoman put her hand over my face, I was almost suffocated, because I have asthma and she covered my nose and my mouth and I could not breathe. However, I saw in the woman’s eyes that when I chanted ‘Djazaïr Horra Democratiya,’ a free, independent and democratic Algeria, she would perhaps like to have been in my place, to have done so herself. So, for her to not have to hear me anymore, I must be made to shut up. That was how I understood it. I did not take it badly. When she is not in uniform, she is simply a citizen. She has children, a husband. She has the same problems: school, health care. Salaries are not very high. Life is very expensive. This is how I understood this photo.
KB: Did the policewoman say anything to you before she covered your mouth in the gesture that became a symbol of Barakat’s struggle to be heard?
LC: No. Beforehand, she simply repeated, “Shut up!” It was as though I was voicing a truth she did not want to hear. She was afraid, precisely because she knew what I was saying was true. But she is paid to do her job, so my voice must be silenced. This was how I interpreted what she did. On the way to the police station, she sat next to me. She asked, ‘Do you think I was glad to do this to you?’ I said, ‘But, you did it.’ She replied, ‘yes, I am under oath to do my job, and I am paid for this.’ Then she explained her own situation, saying, ‘Actually, I am pregnant and I am not even supposed to be here on active duty. What you are doing, you are doing for yourselves, but also for us.’
KB: In spite of this difficult experience, you went out to protest again.
LC: I went out again to take part in the demonstration of 15 March. I will also go out to protest in front of the ENTV (the national TV station) on March 14th to say that this television station that we pay for with our taxes should be in the service of the people, and not just of one caste. I will go out again this Thursday, March 27, just the same in front of central campus where I was previously arrested, to say loud and clear that this system must go, and that citizens must take action to re-occupy the democratic field.
KB: The Barakat movement appeals for a democratic transition in Algeria. What does that mean for you?
LC: For me personally, the main reason I am in this movement is because we do not recognize these elections. These are biased elections. We cannot endorse them. Even boycotting the elections gives them a certain legitimacy. The fact of saying, ‘no, I do not recognize these elections,’ means we must have a transition. We must call on all democratic forces to be involved and to put the country on a better path so we do not simply continue with the same policies, but instead make a real break, perhaps by reviewing the constitution, among other things.
KB: What is the strategy of the movement from here to the April 17 elections, and afterwards?
LC: April 17 is not very far off at all. But, the fact that people are hearing about us now is already a good thing, as is the fact that we now have a platform with general demands so that people feel that their interests are implicated – whether this is because they are sick and are not receiving adequate care, or because they are in school but are not being well educated, or because they are working for private companies but have low salaries, etc. After April 17, we can be the echo of the popular masses of people who are deprived of everything. I hope we can try to articulate our demands so as to promote solutions and so as to be a positive force, a kind of intermediary between an oppressed class and an oppressive ruling class.
KB: The photos from yesterday’s rally in Harcha Hall ( March 21st) of the diverse coalition of political parties that are boycotting the elections have worried some observers – including some victims of the terrorism of the 1990s. Many fundamentalists were visible among the crowd. While the Barakat movement, which is not a political party, has no relationship to the boycotters, how do you assess this concern?
LC: I do not endorse what happened yesterday in Harcha Hall. Maybe not everyone in Barakat shares my view, but I think most do. I want to live in a country where we separate religion and state. Religion must be a private matter whether you are Muslim, Christian, atheist or Buddhist. The laws must be republican. We should not put God in the constitution. I am against this. The separation of religion and state is part of any democratic transition. This is only my personal view, of course. But, I would not endorse a movement that did not take such a position.
Karima Bennoune writes: several days after this interview was conducted, on March 24, I watched Louiza Chennoub protest at ENTV, along with Barakat founders Mustapha Benfodil and Amira Bouraoui. All had symbolically taped their mouths shut. This time police officers kept them backed up against a wall but did not arrest them or stop their demonstration which was extensively covered by the local press. Regardless of the outcome of the 17 April elections, they have already made an important step forward for the rights to freedom of expression and assembly in Algeria simply by refusing to yield. In any case, it is clear that election day will mark not an end of Barakat’s struggle but the beginning of the next phase of its work for the “free and democratic Algeria” Chennoub was appealing for when gagged and arrested on 6 March.