19 March 2019

Algeria: Envoy Seeks to Explain Unrest at Home to U.S. Authorities

Photo: allafrica.com
This is just the latest march by Algerians against the current regime, and protesters say that Bouteflika (bottom-right) needs to stand down and not run in the upcoming 18 April elections.

Diplomacy always involves delicate balancing acts, but seldom more so than for Algeria's ambassador to the United States, Madjid Bouguerra.

As ever-larger crowds march through the streets of his homeland demanding an end to the rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the veteran diplomat — who has served in Washington since 2015 — finds himself trying to reconcile his role as the president's envoy with his feelings as a self-declared Algerian patriot.

“I am ambassador of Algeria in the U.S. But most importantly, I am an Algerian citizen and certainly part and parcel of my people. And I wish as an Algerian to see my country succeeding in this transition,” Bouguerra told VOA in an interview, adding that his diplomatic duty dictates that he explain the happenings back home to the host country.

Huge crowds filled the streets of Algiers on Friday for a fourth consecutive week to demand Bouteflika's immediate resignation, despite his promise earlier in the week to drop plans to seek a fifth term in elections that had been scheduled for next month.

Bouguerra applauded the president's decision in the email interview, calling it “a clear testimony that he heard the call of the people for necessary changes.”

The ambassador described the situation in Algeria as “another historical phase in the life of our young nation,” and expressed confidence that the country will find solutions to its problems through “common effort.”

Asked if he agreed with protesters that “Algeria can do better,” the ambassador said, “If people went on the street to call for change, that certainly means that Algeria can do better. The specifics of that should belong to the Algerian people to decide on.”

While most outsiders have been surprised by the massive protests demanding the exit of establishment figures — known collectively in the country as "le pouvoir" ("the poweful") — longtime observers say the unrest has been brewing for more than a decade.

“Since the late 2000s, the Algerian press has become openly critical of le pouvoir," said Osama Abi-Mershed, a historian who specializes in North Africa at Georgetown University. "Over the last several months, there have been a number of labor and student strikes across the country, in addition to growing political rallies at football (soccer) matches.”

Michaël Béchir Ayari, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told VOA the feeling that the Bouteflika government is out of step with the majority of the society is widely shared among Algerian citizens, ranging from the old guard who fought to end French colonial control in the early 1960s to the numerous youths who have taken to the streets.

According to Ayari, who is in Algeria monitoring the situation, the protest movement reflects a “national humiliation” felt by many Algerians. He said they compare the 82-year-old fourth-term president’s seemingly feeble physical condition to the vitality of a society whose median age is 28, and ask, “How can such a person represent a country full of such life and energy?”

Until now, Ayari observed, individuals and groups hoping to replace Bouteflika have largely chosen to not give speeches or lead marches, out of concernthat they might be seen as hijacking a popular movement and alienating the protesters.

“The only voice shouting was that of ordinary citizens,” he said.

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