Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune returned to Algiers on February 12 after a one-month stay in Germany for surgery due to post-COVID-19 complications. Since then, he has made some swift changes following bilateral meetings with various political actors, who are both supporting and opposing him.
In a highly anticipated address to the nation on February 18, Tebboune announced the dissolution of the lower house of parliament, called for early legislative elections, and issued a pardon for dozens of jailed activists of the Hirak protest movement (Hirak is Arabic for “movement”). In the same speech, the head of state promised a government reshuffle within 48 hours, purportedly to improve its performance and meet the citizens’ needs.
The President’s move came only days before the February 22, two-year anniversary of the launch of the Hirak, which initiated the first nation-wide protests and forced former long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power on April 2, 2019. The unprecedented popular movement demanded an overhaul of the ruling system that has been in place since Algeria gained independence from France in 1962 and the establishment of a rule of law state. It had to suspend its weekly demonstrations in March of last year with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Street protests resumed in the weeks building up to the second-year commemoration of the opposition campaign and further rallies have been staged since. The authorities have reportedly used unnecessary or excessive force and arbitrary arrests in response, echoing the same modus operandi seen in the two previous years.
The authorities have reportedly used unnecessary or excessive force and arbitrary arrests in response, echoing the same modus operandi seen in the two previous years.
“The Hirak has come back in a hardly anticipated way. It is just going back to its path thanks to its pacificism and the determination of the Algerian people to fight for their rights until the end,” Rabah Arkam, a US-based Algerian human rights activist, told Inside Arabia.
According to the Justice Ministry, 59 detainees were released by presidential pardon, as part of a new initiative to ease the tension on the streets. Among those pardoned was high-profile journalist Khaled Drareni, a correspondent for press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who was serving a two-year prison sentence for his coverage of the Hirak protests.
But as of March 7, there were still 35 people in prison over their links to the Hirak or other peaceful opposition activity, the prisoners’ rights group National Committee for the Liberation of detainees (CNLD) reported on its Facebook page.
Despite the recent releases, arbitrary arrests and violence against activists and peaceful protesters continue through security services and court rulings. Several Algerian and international organizations have expressed concern about the suppression of the right to freedom of expression.
In a statement released in early March, the United Nations’ rights office said to be “very concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Algeria and the continued and increasing crackdown on members of the pro-democracy Hirak movement.”
The spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, stated that the rights office had received credible reports that some 1,000 people had been prosecuted for participating in the Hirak movement or for social media posts critical of the government. He added that the office had also collected allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention, including sexual violence.
Early this month, the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) shared on its Facebook account that several testimonies by Hirak detainees denounced the security services for allegedly torturing at least five activists while in police custody, with more revelations expected to emerge.
Similar to what happened in 2019 and 2020, prosecution of activists, human rights advocates, journalists, students, and critics went on during the first two months of this year.
What was expected to be a limited yet promising ministerial reshuffle did not succeed in reassuring the demonstrators of the prospect for change.
What was expected to be a limited yet promising ministerial reshuffle did not succeed in reassuring the demonstrators of the prospect for change. Instead, the cabinet line-up that saw individuals in key ministries keep their positions, and the appointment of personalities associated with the old regime, left the public unimpressed.
Among those maintaining their posts are Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad and Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati, who have become a symbol of the judicial crackdown on protesters and political opponents. New Tourism Minister Mohamed Ali Boughazi and Environment Minister Dalila Boujemaa previously worked with the former president, representing two prominent figures from the Bouteflika’s “structure.”
The dissolution of the parliament’s lower chamber and holding of early parliamentary elections, as announced by President Tebboune, will likely not address the protester’s demands either.
Neither the elections of December 2019 that made Tebboune president – with a significantly low turnout in a poll boycotted by the protest movement – nor the adoption of a new constitution or successive cabinet reshuffles have given the Algerian street enough guarantees of real change. Many demonstrators deem President Tebboune a product of the long-time ruling system, rejecting the legitimacy of his election.
The renewed protests marked a resumption of the two-year-old street movement calling for the old political establishment to exit and the army to quit politics.
After nearly a year of no public demonstrations, despite the repression and the pandemic, it appears the Hirak is back. The protests may be smaller, but the movement has revived its spirit and taken hold.
Yet, the movement’s renewed fervor and presence has led many observers to wonder: What’s next?
Algeria seems to be back to square one with, on one hand, the street continuing to call for the dismantling of the entire “system” (or “Le Pouvoir,” French for “The Power”) and a transition to democracy; and, on the other, the authorities who have been unable to convince demonstrators to support the post-Bouteflika political course since 2019 and are not ready to make real concessions.
There is a trust gap between the people and the authorities, and civilians and the military. Regime officials use a mix of repression and appeasement, cracking down on dissidents while offering conciliatory gestures to preserve the grip on power. The protesters do not receive the state’s maneuverings well, as they see their popular demands sidestepped and no genuine openness to dialogue from the authorities.
The Hirak lacks a detailed roadmap which can arguably explain why it has not managed to exert more influence on the decision-makers.
Still, the Hirak lacks a detailed roadmap which can arguably explain why it has not managed to exert more influence on the decision-makers. Moreover, it appears the Algerian opposition is not capable of uniting around an alternative roadmap while Tebboune is keen to continue to implement his administration’s plans.
There is no consensus among Hirak members on whether it should move to organize as a structured group and create a political platform with a list of specific demands. The absence of a leadership construct has also left the Hirak unable to make critical shifts when needed.
The other divisive question within the movement is whether it should negotiate with the regime. Those against it are afraid of co-optation by the “Pouvoir” while those in favor agree that, after two years of mobilization, dialogue seems almost inevitable if Hirakists want to achieve meaningful concessions.
In Arkam’s opinion, the Hirak needs to redefine itself in a “well-organized” fashion and with a leadership to guide its path forward in the face of a ruling elite that is trying to suppress the grassroots movement by any means. He suggested the first step would be to select clusters of four to five individuals of “integrity” and “without political ambitions” in all regions of the country, representing the different segments of society. These representatives, he went on saying, would then hold meetings to discuss and draw a transitional roadmap with the sole objective of heading toward a free and democratic Algeria.
“It’s no longer enough to hold Tuesday and Friday protests, we now need to see organizing and a roadmap. It will take time, but it’s the only way we can succeed,” the activist told Inside Arabia, arguing that a downfall of the whole system would be too unrealistic to happen in the near future.
Thomas M. Hill, Senior Program Officer for North Africa at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), wrote in an analysis that Hirak’s tactics have not evolved beyond the twice weekly demonstrations, therefore failing to adjust their pressure on the ruling power. He also noted that leaders should be allowed to emerge. “It’s possible to have a leaderless movement, but not a movement without leaders,” Hill commented in his piece.
With its resurgence, the Hirak has reignited hope among Algerians, showing resilience and steadfastness while the ruling system keeps maneuvering to stay in power. How the protest movement will evolve, whether the long-running regime will be ready to listen to the demonstrators and how much it will concede, remain to be seen. Thus, major challenges lie ahead for the nation and the popular pro-democracy campaign.