NEWSLETTER: Volume 2, Issue 2

THE RESILIENCE OF ALGERIA’S PROTEST MOVEMENT

This is part of the MENA Politics Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 2, Fall 2019. Download the PDF of the full issue here.

By Sharan Grewal, College of William & Mary

Seven months after overthrowing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algerians are still in the streets. Mass protests have continued every Friday since Bouteflika’s ouster in April, urging authorities to not just reshuffle the leadership but initiate a complete change of the political system.

Most scholars and observers agree that continued protests after the ouster of a dictator can put pressure on elites to follow through on commitments to democratize.[1] However, seven months in, the Algerian regime has yet to budge, seemingly hoping for the protests to fizzle out and for non-protesters to grow tired of the protests. Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that continued protests can be a double-edged sword, potentially driving non-protesters to grow frustrated not only with protests but with democracy more generally.[2]

This discussion raises the question: to what extent have we seen protest fatigue in Algeria, both among protesters and non-protesters? Are each of these groups just as committed to the cause as they were back in April when Bouteflika fell?

Surveying Algeria’s uprising

An online survey of Algerians that has been ongoing since April can help to answer these questions.[3] Since April 1, my colleagues M.Tahir Kilavuz, Robert Kubinec, and I have been fielding a survey in Algeria through advertisements on Facebook.[4] The advertisements have been shown to all Algerian Facebook users over 18 years old and living in Algeria. Clicking on the advertisement takes users to Qualtrics, where they complete a consent form and then fill out the survey.[5] (You can read more about the methodology, and how we screen for bots or other irregularities, here).

The Facebook sample is of course not nationally representative. Only about 45 percent of Algerians (about 19 million) are on Facebook.[6] As Table 1 indicates, compared to the general population, the Facebook sample skews more urban and better educated, among other biases.[7] However, on key political attitudes, such as support for democracy, frustration with the economy, and trust in the police, the Facebook survey obtains relatively similar results to the most recent wave of the Arab Barometer. Despite that, there are likely unmeasured psychological differences between the general population and the subset active on Facebook and willing to take surveys advertised there.

Table 1: Representativeness of Facebook Survey in Algeria

While not nationally representative, surveying the Facebook population offers several advantages over traditional surveys. First, as an online survey, it does not put any survey team in danger, a real concern in a repressive state like Algeria. Second, we were able to ask more sensitive questions than would be permitted in traditional surveys requiring government approval. The Arab Barometer, for instance, could not ask about trust in the government or parliament let alone the military. Third, Facebook allows us to target advertisements to users with specific interests. We targeted one set of ads to Algerians with an interest in the military in order to oversample military personnel (excluded in this paper).

This long-term survey permits us, cross-sectionally, to trace changes over time within the Algerian Facebook population

Perhaps the most important advantage is that it is significantly cheaper than traditional surveys, allowing us to generate a much larger sample and field the survey for a much longer period of time. We have fielded the survey continuously since April 1, generating a sample of more than 14,000 Algerians (including the oversampling of military personnel, excluded in this piece). This long-term survey permits us, cross-sectionally, to trace changes over time within the Algerian Facebook population.

Measuring “protest fatigue” in Algeria

The survey therefore allows us to explore the question at hand: to what extent are Algerians still committed to the goals and tactics of the “hirak” – the protest movement? We begin by examining attitudes toward the over-arching goal of the protest movement: a complete change of the political system. Figure 1 plots the percent who support or strongly support a complete change among two subsets: protesters, defined as those who self-report participating in at least one protest since February, and non-protesters, who have not.

As can be seen, the vast majority of protesters and non-protesters continue to support systemic change. In fact, support for a complete change of the political system has grown over time among both protesters (78 to 89 percent) and non-protesters (64 to 74 percent). Nine months into the protests, there has been little if any fatigue in support for the goals of the movement.

However, while the Algerian Facebook population remains committed to the hirak’s goals, there appears to be some disillusionment with the particular tactic of protests. Figures 2 and 3 plot the percent of respondents who support the protests and want protests to continue, respectively. As can be seen, support for the protests has slightly fallen from 94 to 80 percent among those who have protested, and from 67 to 58 percent among non-protesters. Similarly, those who want the protests to continue has fallen from 93 to 71 percent among those who have protested, and from 76 to 58 percent among non-protesters. It is important to reiterate that a majority of each group continues to support the protests; but there has been a slight decline over time, particularly since August.

Dwindling concessions for protesters

One way to make sense of these seemingly disparate trends is to distinguish between the goals and tactics of the protest movement. While Algerians remain committed to the goal of systemic change, there may be growing doubt over whether protests will be able to achieve that goal.

At first, the weekly Friday protests were regularly met with additional concessions.[viii] Between April and July, the protests succeeded in toppling not just President Bouteflika, but also his brother and advisor Said, two former prime ministers, a legendary spymaster,[ix] several prominent businessmen, and other ministers and politicians. The protests, at first, seemed to be producing systemic change.

Since August, however, these concessions have become fewer and farther between. The regime has been unwilling to concede to one of the protesters’ most vocal demands: the removal of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, both of whom are remnants of the Bouteflika regime. Instead, the regime has tried to reimpose a roadmap by once again calling for presidential elections, currently slated for December with a line-up of five Bouteflika-era officials. Meanwhile, the regime has stepped up its repression of the protest movement, arresting both opposition leaders and demonstrators.

With protests winning fewer concessions, support for the tactic of protesting may have dimmed, even while support for systemic change has increased. If this trend continues, it may set the stage for some in the movement to adopt new tactics. Calls began in August for civil disobedience,[x] potentially encompassing strikes and sit-ins beyond the transitory marches and protests. Late October then saw strikes by various labor unions and judges, while rumors have begun circulating for a general, nationwide strike as well.

In short, the protest movement shows no signs of abating. Nine months in, demands for systemic change have only grown. However, as protests struggle to achieve that goal, support may grow for complementing protests with strikes or sit-ins. But what remains clear is that the regime has been unable to appease, repress, or tire out the protesters.

Beyond addressing these substantive questions, this piece has also highlighted one potential benefit of conducting surveys through Facebook advertisements. While not nationally representative, the lower cost of these surveys allows one to keep the survey running for longer, permitting us, cross-sectionally, to track change over time. Especially when examining questions like protest fatigue, such surveys can be particularly useful.

Notes:

[1] See, e.g., Nancy Bermeo, “Myths of Moderation: Confrontation and Conflict during Democratic Transitions,” Comparative Politics 29(3), 305-322; Adel Abdel Ghafar and Anna Jacobs, “Lessons for Algeria from the 2011 Egyptian uprising,” Washington Post, Monkey Cage, March 14, 2019.

[2] Neil Ketchley and Thoraya El-Rayyes, “Unpopular Protest: Mass Mobilization and Attitudes to Democracy in Post-Mubarak Egypt,” Journal of Politics, forthcoming. See also El-Rayyes and Ketchley, “In 2011, Egyptians quickly tired of protest. Here’s why that matters for Sudan and Algeria,” Washington Post, Monkey Cage, September 5, 2019.

[3] A report based on data from April 1 to July 1 was published by Brookings: see Sharan Grewal, M.Tahir Kilavuz, and Robert Kubinec, “Algeria’s Uprising: A Survey of Protesters and the Military,” Brookings, July 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/algerias-uprising-a-survey-of-protesters-and-the-military/.

[4] Our survey methodology and questionnaire were approved by the ethics boards at both Princeton University (IRB # 11581) and the College of William & Mary (PHSC-2019-03-11-13532), and have been funded by both universities.

[5] There are important ethical questions about the data Facebook collects on its users. Since our survey is conducted on a separate platform, Qualtrics, Facebook only learns whether a user engaged with or clicked on the advertisement – not whether they took the survey let alone their answers.

[6] See: https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm

[7] There are two other known biases in the Algerian Facebook population, but these are correctable. The first is gender: men represent 50.6% of the population, but 64% of Facebook users.[7] Second, Facebook users tend to be younger than average: 64% of the overall population are less than 35, but 76% of Algerian Facebook users are less than 35. We corrected for age and gender biases by creating separate Facebook advertisements for each age-gender demographic (i.e., women aged 25-34). We then increased the number of ads shown to demographic groups under-represented on Facebook, such as older women, in order to create a more balanced sample.

[viii] For a list of those arrested, see: https://www.tsa-algerie.com/les-personnalites-mises-en-detention-depuis-le-depart-de-bouteflika/

[ix] See Bruce Riedel, “Unveiling Algeria’s Dark Side: The Fall of the Butcher of Algiers,” Brookings, May 8, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/05/08/unveiling-algerias-dark-side/

[x] See https://www.france24.com/en/20190802-algeria-protest-civil-disobedience.

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