“Bouteflika should be put on trial,” says novelist and activist Kamel Daoud
Four months after the start of the Algerian revolution, the award-winning Algerian novelist castigates the generation of founding fathers who have clung to power and calls for the prosecution of Algeria’s deposed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
In the lounge of a Parisian hotel, Algerian journalist and writer Kamel Daoud takes a break to discuss the current events in his country. Returning from a trip to Norway at the beginning of June to promote his latest book, he is back in Paris where he received the 2019 Cino Del Duca World Prize in early June.
Daoud is travelling with his wife and two of his children. The eldest had to stay back in Algeria due to visa constraints. Two years previously, in July 2017, bitter and disillusioned, Daoud had seriously considered leaving the country with his family because the situation in Algeria under Bouteflika and his clan was so dire.
But after the February 2019 revolution, which ousted the president, Daoud says he no longer thinks about leaving. Certainly, he says, there is a real political impasse after four months of revolution but Algerians could now hope to establish a new republic.
What do you think now, more than two months after Bouteflika’s departure, and with the country in political deadlock?
Kamel Daoud: In Algeria and abroad, I am often asked this question: “What will happen to this country?” For the first time, we have a right to the unknown. Over the past 50 years, we knew who would be president, with what turnout and what percentage of votes. For once, nothing is set in advance and the unknown is frightening, it is terrorising and full of anguish. Are we, this intermediate generation, capable of burying fathers? The regime is criticised for being conservative, but we are [conservative] too somewhere – even among the progressive elites – in our family lives, our beliefs, our traditions. We wanted the past because we had no future. And because this past is rich, we believe it is our only fortune. We have a cult of seeking group unanimity, of collegiality and of the past. It’s hard to move forward with that. The future is scary.
Fathers like Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who refuses to die in the political sense of the word. When we refuse death, we refuse to pass the baton on to those coming after. This [protest] movement expresses a political demand for justice, that of a new order, a deep rupture. But beyond politics, I also believe that the crisis is philosophical. Algeria is one of the museums of decolonisation. It has remained fixed in the position of a country at the forefront of the epic history of decolonisation, with a generation of “founding” fathers who refuse transmission, transition and filiation. What is striking in this revolution is the revolt of the sons, of the younger generation. The demographic aspect is extraordinary in this uprising! The children who are protesting are those who have been denied the right to political birth and the right to ownership. How is this a revolution? It has not been concocted, prepared or anticipated. No one was expecting it.
Is it not also a revolution born out of humiliation and indignation?
Certainly, Algerians rose up because they refused to be governed by the “constitutional framework”. This is not the cause in itself, but rather what triggered it. Indignity has been pushed to the point of contempt, beyond a scandal. We were all the more humiliated because we are an educated people with pride. We walk around with our noses in the air: it’s a mixture of dignity and honour. The image we have of ourselves was tampered with.
So, talking about the revolt against the “framework”…
Before the revolution, people did not like to be photographed. Some could be violent when they were photographed because the picture captures an image we were refusing to accept of ourselves. Now, for once, we are proud to be photographed in a honourable posture. We are photographed as the owners of this country. Before, we were photographed in our humiliation, our despair, our defeat, our submission. I had asked one of the deposed president’s closest collaborators whether Bouteflika would run for a fifth term. His answer: “Of course!” Another told me: “You know, we can even get them to elect a horse.” Such contempt!
Is this revolution a bit like a pregnancy coming to an end?
I remember the day when there were two protests in Algiers. One by the communal guards, the other by lawyers. When the first ones finished their demonstration, they crossed paths with the second ones, who were about to begin. The elements for a revolution were there [but] we lacked synchronisation – something common between classes, regions, social categories, generations. Rejecting the indignity of the fifth term was the common factor.
From what you say, it seems that Bouteflika’s candidacy for a fifth term was a blessing…
The fifth term united and brought Algerians together. Before, people protested, railed or opposed in their own corner. Bouteflika’s [constitutional] “framework” was a moment of national convergence. The magnitude of a revolution is measured by the first slogan. If it goes in all directions, then the movement will go in all directions, even towards failure. But when it has one or two powerful and unifying slogans, it will be profound. “Yatna7aw Ga3” (“Go away all of you”), “FLN [Algeria’s ruling party] go away” and “No 5th mandate” were all unifying.
Do you adhere to the slogan “Yatna7aw Ga3“?
It is magnificent in its radicalism, but impossible in its practice. I am against the “Yatna7aw Ga3” and “We want total change now”. This is neither possible nor feasible. As journalist Adlène Meddi said: “When regimes fall, they fall on our heads.” I don’t want a collapse of the state, a dislocation of the administration. We are aiming for the collapse of the regime, not the collapse of the state. Revolution is a beautiful passion, but then you have to do politics.
In what way?
We must help this old generation leave and transfer power to upcoming generations. There needs to be a successful transition. If we do it by means of a radical and sudden disruption, we will pay a high price. The regime could even rebuild itself by presenting itself as a solution when faced with the alternative – between security and chaos. As a cry out, this slogan is all the more magnificent because it is expressed in Algerian Arabic. It was chanted not by an activist, an intellectual or an old politician but by a normal citizen. It’s like the trademark song of this revolution, La Casa del Mouradia. It’s beautiful but there’s no political agenda.
Since the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, the Algerian authorities used blackmail, playing on the fear of chaos to remain in power. But this revolution is currently taking place without violence. Are the millions of Algerians who have taken to the streets more mature than their leaders?
The failure of revolutions in Arab countries has taught us a lesson. On 8 March, I was in Oran to demonstrate. At first, there were about 50 of us. I was afraid that the regime would win again. And, if it had won, it would not only have been a fifth term but no more elections at all. And then I saw a young man questioning people, to urge them not to resort to violence, to clashes. It is because the regime has frightened us so much that it has provoked the opposite of what it wanted. Fear gave birth to the revolution.
How do you explain the millions of people on the street every Friday without a single bullet being fired, without destruction or damage?
Excessive propaganda eventually pushed people out to solve this equation: how do you claim your rights without creating chaos? It was this contradiction that paralysed us. When I protested in 2014 against the fourth term, readers told me that it was not right, that it was better to let Bouteflika end his life in the presidential palace, that this would be the only way to end him, once and for all.
On the streets we also see that Algerians have embraced their flag once again.
They had been dispossessed of it. The flag did not belong to the most legitimate but to the strongest. People have reclaimed their bodies, the street, public space, emblems and languages. Algerians were forbidden to occupy public space. They have become owners again. We had been robbed of our national history, our memory, the FLN acronym and the flag. The regime has always behaved according to the classic coloniser’s scheme – ‘I am here to arbitrate conflicts, I am here to put on your shoes, to give you food, to think and decide for you…’
So today’s revolution echoes the independence struggle of 1962?
It was necessary to remake and relive the liberation of this country. We needed a new beginning, a new independence. Our independence was confiscated by the decolonisers, of which Bouteflika was one of the last survivors. They did not want time to pass; they did not want democracy or transition. Bouteflika embodied this tragedy with his body. He’s a man who has no children. With him, it was the incarnation of an impossible transfer of power.
You wrote in one of your columns that Bouteflika hated his people.
As a journalist, at Le Quotidien d’Oran in 1999, I accompanied Bouteflika on his election tour. I then wrote that this man had come back for himself, not for Algerians. One of the newspaper’s shareholders told me: “You’re young and for once we have a civilian president from the West, we must respect and help him.” I replied that I might not be a great journalist, but that I had a peasant instinct. This man never came for us, but [came] out of spite, out of a spirit of revenge. Bouteflika had no physical connection with the land of Algeria or with its people. Moreover, he once said that he was not in charge of making Algerians happy against their will and that he could go home. This is enough proof that Algeria is not his country.
Should Bouteflika be put on trial?
Yes, at the beginning of the revolution I believed that no trials should be started that could lead to the establishment of a people’s court. In the hope of a non-violent transition, this should not be the case. But then on 3 June, I cried when I saw blogger Abdellah Benaoum released after almost three months in prison. Without this revolution, he would have remained there and could even have died – because this man had been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for insulting the president. Bouteflika has a political and human responsibility in terms of what happened in Algeria. The worst insult he’s ever meted out to us was the destruction of the notion of justice. Criminals quietly walk the streets, while a blogger finds himself in jail for daring to criticise the president. To build a state – because the idea is not just to settle scores with the regime – we must establish free, fair and impartial justice that restores this broken link between our actions and the responsibilities that flow from them. A Bouteflika trial will be the beginning of a real break with the old system.
How can we ensure that another Bouteflika does not come to power and rule for another 20 years?
First, we must get rid of the hyper-presidential regime, rebalance powers, create an independent judicial council, a free press, free up public spaces and elect real representatives of the people. As in Spain after Franco’s death in 1975, there are possibilities for a controlled transition. We need someone who has the courage to look to the future without opening a cycle of people’s courts. What did King Juan Carlos do when Franco died? He appointed a young politician, Adolfo Suárez, who managed to ensure a transition from a relentless dictatorship to democracy.
This article was first published in Jeune Afrique.