March 2, 2021

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Is Algeria’s Hirak dead?

8 min read

The Hirak, the peaceful uprising that led to the fall of former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is celebrating its second anniversary. In February 2019, hundreds of thousands of Algerians took to the streets to protest against the upcoming presidential election, which they anticipated would be rigged.

Bouteflika was forced to resign, but for most protesters, that was not enough. They demanded the departure of all figures associated with the regime and the end of military interference in politics. Weekly demonstrations continued and were met with growing repression.

A new president, Abdelmajid Tebboune, was elected in December 2019 with the support of the army. A former prime minister who served under Bouteflika, Tebboune rapidly reneged on his promises to initiate a dialogue with the protesters and instead supported the crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and forced the Hirakists to suspend their marches. The repression extended to the internet. The security apparatus harassed those who continued to criticise the government; people who administered critical Facebook pages were arrested, while news websites were blocked. According to the National Committee for the Liberation of the Detainees, dozens of people are in detention for political dissent.

Despite the repression and the pandemic, the movement has not died out. In recent conversations I had with Algerian activists in the country and in the diaspora, it emerged that the Hirak is facing quite a few challenges, but its spirit is still alive. With Algeria facing an unprecedented political and economic crisis, the pull of the movement will likely only get stronger. This much is also obvious from the crowds that gathered on February 22 in Algiers.

Is the Hirak ‘dead’?

On February 7, despite the cold weather, about 200 Algerian protesters gathered at Place de la République in central Paris to express their support for the Hirak. Almost every Sunday since February 22, 2019, these members of the diaspora have demonstrated their solidarity with their fellow citizens in Algeria.

On that day, their indignation was fuelled by the revelations that Walid Nekkiche, a student arrested in Algiers in November 2019, had been tortured and assaulted sexually by the Algerian security services. At the protest, one man took the microphone and proclaimed in Arabic: “The Hirak is not dead. What they did to Walid, they’ve done since independence. So we will continue to fight for our dignity and the dignity of Algeria.” The notion of dignity (karama) was central during the Arab uprising of 2010-11, and it is a fundamental part of the Algerian Hirak, too.

Like other revolutionary movements in the region, the Algerian Hirak is a longstanding transformative effort that stems from a profound feeling of injustice. In addition to the resistance of local ruling elites, it is confronted with the efforts of Arab counter-revolutionary forces, the cynicism of foreign powers and the short attention span of mass media outlets.

Many have hastened to proclaim its “death” prematurely, just as they did with other Arab uprisings. This orientalist approach, which perceives the absence of quick democratic results as a sign of failure and considers local populations unable to emancipate themselves without foreign assistance, is quite flawed. For one, it misses the big picture.

From Algiers to Oran to Paris, all activists I talked to agreed that a return to the status quo ante is unthinkable. They demand the establishment of the rule of law, the replacement of political elites and the immediate release of all political prisoners. These are the prerequisites to achieve a genuine democratic transformation and liberate the state from military interference and corruption. As long as these demands are not met, the Hirak – in one form or another – is unlikely to disappear.

One of the lasting effects of the Hirak is that it mobilised a whole generation which up until recently had avoided politics. According to Maroua Gendouz, a former member of a student movement in Oran and co-founder of the Hirakist coalition Nida-22, the Hirak is “a revolution that educated the people, especially the youth”. In addition to the indignation resulting from arbitrary violence and corruption, this youthful energy keeps the movement going and gives hope that it will help achieve lasting transformation in Algeria.

Ideological depolarisation

Despite the optimism in the ranks of the Hirak, there is also growing recognition that it faces quite a few internal and external challenges. The bloody civil war of the 1990s, which was triggered by a military coup against the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1992, has left the country profoundly divided. In addition to the discord between secularists and Islamists, tensions also exist between those who are willing to work with Islamist actors, and those who consider that Islamists represent a bigger threat than the regime itself.

Some of the main forces within the Hirak have tried to address these divisions by calling for society-wide unity. Aldja, who requested that her real name is not used in this article out of security considerations, told me that the movement has been driven by a “universal set of values” rather than ideology.

She is a member of the strategic bureau of Ibtykar – an organisation that promotes individual freedom and social justice, which played a key role in the creation of Nida-22, a pluralist and non-partisan coalition that aims to bring together progressives, feminists, as well as Islamists. By working together, Aldja said, these actors can “strengthen the Hirak, by facilitating dialogue and providing it with logistical tools, as well as a common platform based a consensus among Hirakists”.

Others also agree that only a non-ideological approach can succeed in navigating Algeria’s charged political environment. “The regime wants us divided; this is why I will talk to those who were for the eradication of the Islamists as well as with the Islamists,” said Hichem, a founding member of the France-based For A New Algeria (Pour Une Nouvelle Algérie, PUNA), who also requested that his real name is not mentioned.

Some activists argue that “ideological depolarisation” is the only way to overcome the political fragmentation inherited from the past and preserve the possibility of a peaceful revolution. This depolarisation is not synonymous with depoliticisation; rather, it is articulated through the idea of unity in opposition to the “issaba” (ruling gang).

Of course, there are also those who resist unity out of anti-Islamist sentiment. On the left, some consider that negating ideological conflicts might make way for an Islamist takeover in the future. For example, the political forces that called in December 2020 for a “congress for citizenship” that will bring together progressive parties and unions to promote a project of democratic transformation, also reject the influence of Rachad, which they view as an Islamist Trojan horse.

Rachad is a political movement founded in the mid-2000s by former FIS members living in exile, a former member of the secret services and human rights activists. Although it advocates for a peaceful revolution and has the potential to join a cross-ideological alliance with progressive forces, the influence of the movement has sparked fears of an Islamist takeover.

Echoing the regime’s talking points, the Algerian mainstream media have also increasingly cast Rachad as a neo-FIS, a new Islamist boogeyman that is manipulating the Hirak. Overcoming distrust, the legacy of the 1990s and regime propaganda will be one of the biggest challenges the Hirak will face in the near future.

Negotiating with the regime

In addition to the place of Islamist actors in the movement, another question that divides the Hirak is the need to negotiate with the regime. Debates pit those who support a solution within the pre-existing institutional framework against those who advocate for a consensual yet radical institutional makeover, which they claim is the only way to establish the rule of law.

Meriem Belkacemi, one of the founders of al-Massar al-Jadid (The New Path), told me she does not believe that the Hirak can result in a revolution, ie a complete overhaul of the political order. She sees such a development as both unrealistic and dangerous.

Al-Massar al-Jadid was not conceived as an opposition movement but rather as a forum that could bring together Hirakists and actors who have historically worked within the system. According to Belkacemi, this strategy is the most effective to “promote a modern and progressive discourse” and help competent individuals access positions of responsibility at the local and national level.

Critics argue that such a strategy has already been adopted in the past, and merely resulted in the integration of new accomplices into the power structure. Bouteflika and his cronies co-opted countless “opponents” who ended up politically discredited and tarnished by corruption scandals.

Participation in institutional politics was a divisive topic long before the Hirak, which resulted in multiple splits among opposition movements. Yet, after two years of mobilisation, even members of collectives that currently refuse any kind of discussion with the regime agree that dialogue must happen eventually. They maintain, however, that members of the Hirak must first come together to create a unified platform. As Gendouz told me: “The negotiation will be based on what we want.”

The problem inherent to the issue of negotiation with the regime is that it requires a good deal of trust. Yet, while regime officials pay lip service to democratic practices and the demands of the Hirak, they also allow military interference in politics and launch crackdowns on peaceful protests. Thus, a discussion in good faith seems hardly possible as long as the current limits on political freedoms remain worse than they were under Bouteflika.

Dialogue with the regime seems almost inevitable given the movement’s commitment to non-violence; what form this will take remains to be seen. As activists from different ideological backgrounds, like Hichem and Belkacemi, argue, the country is currently confronting a profound and multifaceted crisis that cannot be solved by the current ruling elites and their superficial reforms.

The last two elections – the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 referendum – had extremely low participation rates. Indeed, Algerian institutions are discredited and President Tebboune, whose election was far from convincing, has suffered from health problems. Meanwhile, the budget deficit is at a record high and the hardships faced by the general population are exacerbated by the pandemic. In this context, the government’s conciliatory gesture to release 60 political prisoners announced in mid-February is too little, too late.

Today, two years after the birth of the Hirak, the regime might still be in place, but this does not mean the movement is dead. Revolutions do not fail or succeed in two years. Algerian activists know that they have a long path to walk, riddled with major challenges. Algeria stands at a crossroad, with a regime that can no longer lead it. It is up to the Hirak to steer the country in the right direction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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