You are here
Algeria’s Hirak: The question of political reforms has returned
On February 22, 2019, mass protests, termed the Hirak, poured out into the streets of Algeria against former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his intention to run for a fifth term of office. Tens of thousands protested youth unemployment, corruption, and elderly politicians’ dominance in Algeria’s political order.
In the face of sustained popular unrest, Bouteflika was asked by Algeria's army chief, General Ahmed Gaid Salah to step down from office. Bouteflika resigned on April 2, 2019, after 20-years in power. Justifying his departure, he said he made this decision “to ensure the protection of persons and property”.
Thousands cheered Bouteflika’s departure, but that was not the end of the story in Algeria’s battle for democracy. On April 5, protesters again filled the streets demanding a new system of government. For 13 months, Algerians took part in peaceful protests to demand the dismantling of the whole political system that's been in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. ‘Yetnahaw gaa’ (they should all go) becomes the most used slogan by protesters in all events. Protesters called for ‘a civil state, not a military one’ rejecting the dominance of the armed forces in the country's politics.
The Algerian presidential elections, scheduled for April 2019, were postponed due to sustained weekly protests. The office of the Presidency’s decision to postpone the elections raised scepticism among the protestors regarding reform, amid the possibility of the military simply transferring power to a recognised member of the same regime.
In November, the presidential elections were rescheduled for 12 December 2019 and five valid candidates were announced. In doing so, Algerian authorities implicitly announced that the December 12 vote will resolve the crisis in the country and promised full transparency and fairness. Public anger followed swiftly, with the protestors saying repeatedly that they did not trust Bouteflika’s allies still in government. To the Hirak, elections could only be held when they were truly fair and free and so the protests went on.
With the beginning of the election campaign in November, hundreds of protesters were arbitrarily arrested by Algerian authorities for opposing the new presidential elections and others for simply holding the Amazigh flag. Authorities beat and arrested activists, charging them with harming Algeria’s national security. Journalists and online users of social media were likewise arrested for covering protests.
Although protesters expressed their rejection of the upcoming election as the conditions are not yet fit, the presidential election was held on Thursday 12 December 2019. Abdelmadjid Tebboune subsequently won the election with 85 per cent of the vote.
There should be no surprise in the protesters’ reaction. The results have spurred even more anger against the government and mass rallies took place in the capital Algiers. Many protesters were injured in ongoing scuffles with police on the night the results were announced. Although Tebboune says he wants to extend his hand to the Hirak for dialogue to build a new Algeria, protesters were still asking for independence.
The Hirak has been suspended in March 2020 because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
One year later, the Hirak lives on
On the second anniversary of the movement, the Algerian Hirak is back in the streets. Protests restarted in Kherrata, the birthplace of the movement. Unconvinced, thousands return to the streets en mass, demanding regime change.
Karim Tabbou, a Hirak figure released from jail in July 2020, says the new protest is a strong message for the current regime: ‘May the authorities understand that Algerians have decided to wrest their freedom’…despite the difficulties, despite the harassment, millions are in the street and they will get their freedom and democracy’.
Similarly, Human Rights Watch and the Algerian League for Human Rights’ Said Salhi said that the new protests ‘confirm the irreversible return and willingness to continue the Hirak with the same determination and commitment to the demands, including a genuine change of the system’.
Speaking on television on 18 February 2021, Tebboune announced he would dissolve the National People’s Assembly, and he would bring forward the legislative elections. On February 28, he signed a presidential decree dissolving the Assembly. Tebboune said he wants elections free of corruption and he called young people to take part in the upcoming legislative election campaigns. According to Tebboune, young people’s participation in political life will break the status quo.
On February 24, a public session was devoted to designating Salih Kujil, now 91 years old, as speaker of the National People’s Assembly. Kujil said the Assembly will work to deepen democracy in the country. Mahmoud Qisari, a member of the parliament, claims that Kujil’s appointment killed the dream of a new Algeria run by the younger generation, fearing he is too old to run the Assembly let alone reform it.
The public’ response to Kujil’s designation was scathing. Algerian netizens routinely make fun of leaders hanging on to power at an old age, claiming they have no good plans for real change. As part of Hirak’s call for reforms, protesters always state they favour younger leaders as Algerian politics was and is very much an old man’s game.
On 21 February, Tebboune conducted a partial reshuffle to his government but without any major changes. The government reshuffle covered four ministers and cancelled nine others. Abdulaziz Jarad's continuation as First Minister has understandably attracted the most attention as he worked with the former president Bouteflika. Reappointing former ministers has sparked a wave of disappointment among Algerians. It could have been interesting to present new figures to signal a fresh direction for the government.
Following these decisions, Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboun released 33 Hirak anti-government activists and amnesty procedures are continuing for others. The charges of incitement to violence and harming national unity were dropped. Opposition activist Rachid Nekkaz and journalist Drareni were the most prominent figures that have been released following Tebboune’s pardon. After he was set free, Drareni said "My battle as a journalist for freedom of the press in Algeria will continue." Amnesty International indicates that Drareni’s release is crucial for the future of human rights in Algeria.
Although activists’ release was valued by many, protesters still believe activists should not have been prisoned just for expressing their views.
What next for Algeria’s protest movement?
In Algeria, the Hirak became the largest protest movement the country has ever seen. Today, fresh rallies are back on the streets, despite the pandemic. Tebboune’s reforms are viewed with a certain doubt by protesters and the latter does not seem they are ready to negotiate or compromise for now. Protesters made it clear that weekly marches will take place until the whole system is brought down.
The goal of toppling the current regime seem worthy but challenging. Lawyer Abdul Ghani Badi claims that weekly protests Fridays are no longer enough. He suggested it would be more significant if protestors go out on the streets every day to put more pressure on Tebboun’s government. For them to achieve a peaceful democratic transition, protesters will need to keep the movement peaceful and purposeful.
Nonetheless, will Tebboune’s government put forward a clear democratic program, will he listen and act on the concerns raised by the Hirak?