An Algerian Activist Speaks Out: It's Time for Change

Article Summary
In this impassioned essay, Mustafa Hemeissi responds to those who have told him to satisfy himself with criticism of the Algerian regime through the country’s media outlets. But for Hemeissi, freedom is more than the right to complain; it is the ability to achieve meaningful changes in government and society - and it is this freedom, he argues, which is still virulently opposed by the Algerian government.

Someone once wrote to me saying, "How much more freedom do you really want? You criticize the president and the government in all your work, and yet you're not in jail." To this I responded: It is normal for me to hear a reproach, criticism or even a rebuke because of what I write. And it is more than normal for the president, his supporters or other government officials to be irritated by what I write. But the freedom to "blame" the government means nothing if the government controls all state instruments, money and the apparatuses of repression. [Criticism means nothing when the government] is free to determine who enters the political arena and who doesn't; who can access the media and who can’t; when certain political parties are allowed to be active and when they are not; who gets to make a quick billion and who doesn't; and who gets to sit in on the various councils. The problem is that the government doing these things has questionable representative credentials. Its actions are often against the law and defy the constitution. Is this normal? No. That kind of behavior is authoritarian and only defined by the government's calculations and interests. So what kind of freedom are we talking about here?

I will not go on to highlight Algeria’s rank international reports on corruption, transparency and human rights or how much it has regressed in these areas. I will simply say that most aspects of the government infuriate us [the Algerian people]. Yes, [the government] infuriates most Algerians because their children are not receiving the education they should be; because the workers are not receiving the salaries they are entitled to; because the Algerians do not receive the dignity they are owed given the country’s potential; because the Algerians' wealth is not being properly invested and is not producing the expected benefits; because the institutions are empty shells; because competent people have been marginalized after they rejected the pathetic logic of being loyal [to a politician]; and because the president monopolizes all government power leaving the councils with nothing to do. All the while corruption is spreading within the administrative bureaucracies and those of the security apparatus.

I am one of those who notices the fury of the Algerians. I am infuriated too. But believe me, the government is corrupt not because the president's name is [Abdelaziz] Bouteflika, but rather because the mechanisms and the mentality [of the government] are corrupt. [There is corruption because] we have a government without institutions and an authority without oversight, and because after [politicians] acquire power they want to acquire wealth and there are no political or legal restraints in their way. What makes matters worse is that the government not only thinks that that is the only way to govern, but that it is also the best!

There is nobody [in government] who cares about the Algerian people’s fury over the spread of corruption, and there is no one who tries to reform the system by calling upon the people to help. This reflects an authoritarian mentality which considers the government to be right by definition. [In this mentality], those who are angry can either put up or shut up, commit suicide or live according to the whims of the government.

This state of affairs is disastrous and is wasting the potential of the government and the country. In reality, it is destroying them. Algerians need a more intelligent government, a better political life, more serious political parties, more effective councils and a more vibrant civil society.

If the groups that dominate the government and wealth were more effective in running the country's affairs, and if they were more effective in investing the wealth and reaping the benefits of the country's enormous resources, then [the country would only need an ordinary opposition party]. If [the government] was distributing the nation's wealth fairly and with a vision geared toward development, then things would be easy and an ordinary opposition would do. But things are not ordinary and we need more than just media outlets [to complain]. We need a full awakening.

Freedom is not only about giving Algerians and journalists permission to say what they want. It is about having oversight over the state. It is about strengthening institutions and the rule of law, and protecting the Algerians' wealth from theft and multiple forms of waste. Is that impossible to achieve? Is my ability to complain considered proof that there is freedom and that the government is democratic? Of course not.

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