Massive protests that have gripped Algeria might resemble another Arab Spring but those seeking democratic change are mindful of history and want to avoid more upheaval, analysts say.
The winds of freedom that are blowing over Algiers have revived memories of January 14, 2011 in Tunis, when thousands marched on the Tunisian capital and forced president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to flee.
After a rally of solidarity with the protests in Algeria was stopped by police in Tunis, civil society groups demanded Algerians be allowed “to finally establish a democratic regime supported by the rule of law”.
But Algeria, which was barely touched by the Arab Spring in 2011, has already experienced uprisings.
“Algeria in some ways already went through its spring 15 years before everyone else,” said Tunisian political scientist Hamza Meddeb.
After bloody riots in October 1988, a new constitution opened the way for a multi-party political system.
“The experience of 1988, with a popular uprising that pushed the regime to a democratic opening leading to an Islamist victory followed by a (military) coup, echoes the Egyptian experience of 2011-2013,” said Meddeb.
The trauma of the devastating 1992-2002 civil war in Algeria that followed has helped to limit the domino effect of the Arab Spring in the country in 2011.
But now “a brick wall of fear has fallen”, said Algerian political scientist Cherif Dris.
“Algerians have thrown themselves back into the political and public spheres,” he told AFP, as students took to the streets of Algiers where protests had been banned since 2001.
– ‘Detention’ –
The demonstrations ahead of April elections are calling for a more open democracy, taking aim at ageing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term despite chronic health problems.
“We hoped that, like the Egyptians and Tunisians, those who govern us… would sacrifice their ‘leader’ to save a nation… rather than destroy it,” Algerian journalist Ghania Mouffok wrote this week.
Since the uprisings that swept away regimes previously considered irremovable, only Tunisia has stayed on the path of democratisation, while some countries have descended into chaos.
The Algerian protesters are well aware of this.
“Algeria is not Syria!” and “peaceful, peaceful,” they have chanted in response to leaders who have raised the spectre of Syria in an effort to discourage them.
“This restraint in enthusiasm is remarkable,” historian Malika Rahal wrote in a blog.
“These hopes, which are possible and reasonable yet contained in a bid to avoid the dangers of the past, reflect their (good grasp) of experience from history,” she said.
– ‘Force of change’ –
For Meddeb, the main similarity to the uprisings in Libya, Syria, Yemen or Egypt is the rediscovery of “the people as a force for change” to finally stand up to authoritarianism.
But Dris said Algeria’s rulers are not as harsh as other Arab autocrats have been.
“It is hybrid authoritarianism which marginalises the opposition without stifling it or repressing it systematically,” he said.
The situation is heading towards a “groundswell” that has yet to chart its course, falling between fears of violence and a desire for change.
“Everyone wants the movement to keep its peaceful nature,” he said. “It remains to be seen if this continues and in what form.”
The restrained approach of the Algerian police in dealing with the protesters contrasts with repression seen elsewhere.
“It’s a sign that the ruling alliance is cracking,” said Meddeb.
Michael Ayari, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said it was difficult to predict what would happen next.
Algerians, he said, were “torn by the memory of their failed democratic spring” of 1988-1991 and “their hopes for freedom”.
To avoid violence, he said the movement for change would have to “respect the constitutional order while at the same time remaining substantial, gradual and negotiated”.