The Algerian Hirak

The Algerian Hirak

By Samia Kouider

Every Tuesday and Friday, Algiers, Béjaïa Bordj Bou Arreridj, Constantine, Ghardaia, Sétif, Oran, Tizi-Ouzou, Tlemcen, as well as other big cities from North to South of Algeria are the scene of massive demonstrations. On Sunday, it is the turn of Algerians abroad to mobilize. This peaceful movement was born on February 16, 2019, when several hundreds of demonstrators had gathered in Kherrata, a small town in the north, to oppose the fifth term of Algerian president Bouteflika, very ill, hospitalized in Geneva and absent from the public scene for several years.

On Friday, February 22, the protest spread across the country. Hundreds of thousands of women and men of all ages and from all walks of life were organizing via social and other networks and after the weekly prayer. They invaded the streets and marched peacefully to demand their constitutional rights. The watchwords were, “Only one power, the people” and “for a civil state, not a military state. Algerians demand the establishment of the rule of law.”

Since February 2019, Algeria is experiencing a new era in its history. It is an indisputable break from the political, social and cultural sclerosis that has dominated the country since the 1990s, since the dark decade of terrorism. Civil society, that majority hitherto silent and resigned, has been wresting the freedoms that had been confiscated from it:

  • the freedom to demonstrate in all cities, including Algiers where it was forbidden to demonstrate in public places
  • the freedom of expression and the re-appropriation of confiscated speech despite the existence of several opposition political parties and dozens of newspapers and private television.

Algerians across the nation and beyond are united by countrywide demands. All of the cities and communes of this vast country share the same problems: discrimination, clientelism, corruption, unemployment, etc. without any distinction.

“The Hirak is the fruit of an accumulation of painful experiences, often tragic but always sordid, imposed by the regime on the Algerians for at least 30 years. Since the military coup of January 11, 1992,” according to journalist Rafik Lebdjaou*, Algeria-Watch, May 28, 2019

Indeed, at each weekly demonstration, Algerians express, often with humor and great creativity, the categorical refusal to see their country administered by the military and managed in a despotic, authoritarian manner – with no vision for the future. They reject a “gang in power” that has produced nothing but exclusion, despair, waste and the squandering of public money. Added to this is the total loss of credibility of state institutions, including those that should protect their constitutional rights.

The Hirak Continues

In the 55th week of protest – notwithstanding all kinds of attempts to undermine it from within and the hundreds of arbitrary arrests – the Hirak continues and is fast-moving. Very often, the regime has used the old farrek tassoud (divide to rule). As an example, before the presidential elections of December 2019, the pseudo-antagonism between Arabic-speaking and Berber-speaking was reintroduced in public debates.

This strategy was used to justify a brutal crackdown on protesters who wore the Amazigh emblem, which was declared banned by the army chief. Dozens of young people have been sent to prison and the courts have been forced to decide on a crime that does not exist in the country's legal system.

This action failed miserably. Never before has the Amazigh emblem been brandished in all corners of the country. It is clear that this regime has completely lost touch with the country’s reality for a long time now and is in rupture with society.

However, during the year of constant mobilization, the protest movement also suffered setbacks. It succeeded in pushing Abdelaziz Bouteflika, as well as several of his relatives, to resign or even. It also succeeded in forcing the cancellation of the disputed presidential election of April 18 and July 4, 2019. However, it failed to force the authorities to establish a transition period and to form a constituent assembly that would rebuild the Algerian political system.

Civil society, in its majority, demands the full application of articles 7 and 8 of the constitution. The first stipulates that “the people are the source of all power [and that] national sovereignty belongs exclusively to the people.” The second, that “the constituent power belongs to the people, [that it] exercises its sovereignty through its institutions [and] also by way of a referendum and through its elected representatives.” A claim to which Abdelkader Bensalah and Gaïd Salah, then respectively interim president and chief of the army, opposed.

On December 12, 2019, despite vast popular opposition, the presidential election was finally held and ended with the victory of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a person from the nomenklatura and a favorite of General Gaid Salah and former prime minister of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the ousted president. According to the collective feeling “the gang” is sticking to power and continues to ignore the street.

Media Invisibility, a Challenge for the Hirak

“The protests in Algeria are massive, disciplined, persistent, nonviolent, 38 weeks already so it is not understandable that they receive almost no attention in the international media especially being the largest country in Africa and the second most populous in the Arab world, one-third of eastern United States,” wrote David D. Pearce, former U.S. ambassador to Algiers, in a Tweet on November 10, 2019, the 38th Friday in protest. Algerians did not need the ambassador's tweet to understand this media boycott. They have experienced it every day since the beginning of the Hirak. For the most part, foreign journalists are absent.

The movement is covered by national journalists and photojournalists, including several correspondents from a few international and Arab media who often rank it at the bottom of international news. The rare international media visibility is often the work of Algerian journalists and intellectuals established and working abroad who relay to their colleagues in the field.

The government understands this and the arbitrary arrests of journalists and activists of the movement are regularly denounced by human rights organizations. The most recent is that of Khaled Drareni, freelance journalist founder of CasbahTribune, RadioM and correspondent for TV5 Monde. He was brutally assaulted and arrested while on the job.

Journalists and activists face extreme, to the point of the ridiculous, criticism and harassment, as in the case of Said Boudour, an independent journalist and activist of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH). As reported by the LADDH and the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD), Boudour was forced to appear at the Court of Oran (350 km west of Algiers) “for a writing on Facebook.”

Censorship of Social Media

Social networks are part of the alternative media, used to counter conventional media lock-outs (radio, television). And Algerians have continually denounced the censorship suffered from social media platforms, in particular Facebook, suspected of allegiance to the regime. Many Facebook accounts of activists, whistleblowers, opposition members and even ordinary citizens have been closed. Algerian expatriates demonstrated outside Facebook headquarters in Paris, Brussels, London, Madrid and in Silicon Valley to express their indignation at the restrictions imposed on the opposition in Algeria. Saïd Salhi, vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, confirming that his account has been blocked several times, told EL WATAN, “These are targeted attacks against anyone who carries the voice of the Hirak or any other discordant voice.”

It is clear that the objective of the regime is to stifle the voices that relay the movement. This electronic information warfare is a systematic practice. Indeed, according to Ali Kahlane, vice president of the CARE think tank, out of a population of 42,450,000, Algeria has more than 22 million Facebook accounts. More than 52% of Algeria’s Internet users follow the news on Facebook, 36.73% on YouTube and 5.2% on Twitter. Since the beginning of the popular movement, Facebook has become a platform for exchanges between activists in Hirak, then a veritable political arena where political positions clash.  [1]

The Diaspora Hirak 

Thanks to calls widely shared on social networks, the Algerian diaspora supports Hirak and its demands. Cities across the world are the scene of weekly sit-ins to participate in the fight for law and the reinstitution of a modern Algerian state. At the call of the collective “Liberons l’Algérie (let’s free Algeria),” a group of associations and political organizations formed by Algerians living abroad, demonstrators mobilized in France and issued a joint declaration:

… It is immediately underlined that “our country is living in an unprecedented moment; it is even historic because all categories of the Algerian society, including our diaspora, are mobilizing in the street to force the departure of the whole regime. It is a popular insurrection that covers the whole of the Algerian territory, and it is fundamentally patriotic and particularly peaceful. “

As underlined by Didier Le Saout, who gathered several testimonies from Algerian immigrants in Paris, “The protest in the public square is also a response to the policy of the Algerian state with regard to its nationals. … They are constitutionally from the diaspora …. They are not allowed to run for president or take a ministerial post.” And the rising price of a ticket home is seen as a measure to push the emigrant into the ranks of the unwanted: "It is a way,” continues Amar, “to prevent, to punish the diaspora for its mobilization and support.

During the electoral campaign, no presidential candidate made any concrete promises to the Algerian diaspora or even mentioned their issues. And yet, since the advent of political pluralism in the nation 30 years ago, the vote of expatriates is coveted, perceived as a barometer of what will happen next. This includes the general rate of participation.

In 1995, during the presidential election which brought General Liamine Zeroual to power, the images of thousands of Algerian voters in France rushing to polling stations contributed to the credibility internationally of the vote. As in 1995, the presidential elections of December 12, 2019, were presented by the ruling class and its international allies as the only solution to the crisis. But Algeria of 2019 was nothing like that of 1995, which was hit head-on by blind terrorism.

In addition, the socio-demographic characteristics of the Algerian diaspora have changed in 25 years. The country is in the third generation for old emigration. Its scattered diaspora is made up of young women and educated men – fleeing brains often out of the best schools – driven to leave by any means and to anywhere for lack of opportunities and future in the country. Between 2000 and 2013 under the Bouteflika regime, 840,000 Algerians left the country compared to 110,000 during the 1990s’ dark years of terrorism.

A Change in Thinking

A psychologist living in France, Professor M’hamed Benkherouf, president of the International Alliance of Algerian Skills established abroad, knows the Algerian community in France well. In an interview with magazine he said, “The Algerian community established in France, in Europe and everywhere else, has not left their country wholeheartedly. Often, it was a programmed policy to encourage Algerian skills, the intelligentsia, the graduates, to leave the country, obstructing them from all avenues to have a decent living. … But there is a change in mentality. Suddenly, the Algerian realizes that this country is his country and that he now has the right to oversee political and economic decisions, that he can change the course of things, and that he can help improve his situation and that of his country.”

Convergence for Democratic Change in Algeria (CCDA), a group of Algerians in and outside of the country and in support of the Hirak, emphasizes on its platform that:
The Algerian community abroad ... is there, especially every Sunday, to give its unwavering support to this revolution through the tracking of oligarchs fleeing abroad with their ill-gotten gains before the judicial authorities of the host countries. This community felt affected in the foreground by the policy of exclusion from the existing mafia system. Fleeing abroad is a direct consequence of systemic patronage and the systematic marginalization of competence within Algeria. The greatest contempt for the diaspora was constitutionalized in 2016 with article 51 of the constitution which violates the right to equality of Algerians before the law.”

This time the system in power no longer has the same supports abroad, and no candidate has waged an electoral campaign with Algerians abroad. In addition, during electoral meetings, the diaspora was completely ignored.

No surprise then if the majority of Algerian emigrants participate in the boycott of the presidential elections, and organize protest sit-ins in front of many consulates. The pacifist nature of the mobilizations and an effective public order service are the rule to send a clear message to the country where they live and to the world which often discriminates against them. The message is we are civilized people and civic spirit is also manifested by the green armbands and orange vests, those who organize street clean up, collecting waste after the end of the event.

Emblematic is the video published on the official page of the Belgian Police which, after a demonstration against the elections, thanks and congratulates the Algerians for their pacifism and their civic spirit. The Independent National Authority, an organization created by the former interim president for the presidential elections, declares the rate of 7.52% of participation in voting abroad, the rate is only double digits in Tunisia (15.81 %) and in Abu Dhabi (14.42) and Lyon in France (11.63).

Never since the war for the independence of the country have Algerians, whether they live in Algeria or where they live abroad, had known such unity.

Towards a New Algeria

The achievements of the Algerian Hirak today are not in the politics of the “palace.” The Hirak did not participate in the last presidential elections and has no responsibility in the arrests of former ministers, generals, party leaders and other senior officials accused of corruption and misappropriation of public property. That was more of a war within the ruling elite.  The Hirak had no involvement in shaping the program of the new government.

The achievements of this constant, peaceful national revolution are impressive. The Hirak has brought together people of all socio-demographic categories, regardless of gender or age, ethnicity and geography. in its demands for justice, freedom and dignity, as evidenced by all the slogans shouted or sung every Tuesday and every Friday, and before the courts.

Similarly, the Hirak has spurred debates, discussions, in schools, universities and cafes, at the hairdresser or at the market, in the hammam or at home. Algerians speak and confront each other peacefully, the memory of the years of violence is there; they no longer want it. The protagonism of civil society, therefore, exists today. Whatever its visibility elsewhere and its future outcome, the country will have finally found its voice. It will have experienced a new way of political action, of thinking of future generations based on reality and needs as well as regional, national and international issues.

The Hirak strongly re-proposed the centrality of democratic issues, such as the matter of inequality not only in the sharing of the country's resources but also in environmental questions, etc. It only recalls the inspiring principles of the founding fathers of the Algerian Republic and of the war of independence: The slogans are emblematic: “Free and democratic Algeria,” “Freedom,” “We will not bow,” and “You betrayed the revolution.”

On Friday, March 13, 2020, the 55th Friday, thousands of Algerians took to the street in several cities of the country defying the ban on rallies decreed by the president to prevent the epidemic of the coronavirus. The stakes are high. Many are calling for the suspension of the demonstrations. In an editorial in the online journal RadioM, Said Djaafer, a renowned journalist and active member of the movement, writes, “We must stop the demonstrations and rallies. The coronavirus pandemic is serious. Ending the demonstration is not a defeat. It is not conceding victory, far from it.”

The Hirak has already exposed the corruption of the regime and set in motion irreversible change. Just as demonstrators say, “Netrabaou gaa” and “Ntwa3aw ga3,” we must educate ourselves and become aware.

Let Algerians organize themselves differently, remain vigilant, make maximum use of social networks, continue to inform each other about attacks on freedoms, and, without waiting, decide to take every chance to win the long peaceful political battle that they began to wage on 22 February 2019. " [2]





Samia Kouider is an independent sociologist specializing in Human Rights and social development issues.

Guy Hunter translated the article from its original French.

Caption: February 22, 2019 – February 22, 2020: Happy Birthday Hirak (movement in Arabic)

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