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The Algerian hirak – what is happening in Algeria?
The Algerian hirak (Arabic for movement) began on February 22nd 2019 as millions of Algerians began peacefully protesting in the streets, demanding that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down, opposing his candidacy for a fifth Presidential term.
Bouteflika’s decision to run for a 5th Presidential term was the spark that ignited the recent wave of protests, with many Algerians angry at Bouteflika’s absence from the political scene and leading the country despite suffering from a debilitating stroke in 2013.
Bouteflika had been in power since 1999 and was credited with the end of the Algerian Civil war, also known as the Black Decade, with his ‘national reconciliation’ initiative. The Black Decade (1990-1999) was a brutal state conflict between the ruling Front de Liberation National (FLN) and the newly established Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) Islamist opposition party, where over 200,000 Algerians died.
In 2010, with the start of the Arab Spring, the legacy of the civil war and its collective memory largely prevented protests in Algiers turning into a violent uprising, in contrast to neighbouring Libya. The Algerian regime was able to pacify the population with increased public spending via revenues from the oil prices, in stark contrast to other regimes like Gaddafi that opted for a military response.
Since coming to power, Bouteflika’s regime has crushed political dissent and overseen a proliferation of corruption throughout the state, with oligarchs and the party elite owing their position to the monopoly on oil and other key energy industries. Algeria is a rentier state and one of Africa’s major oil and gas producers, the endemic corruption has led to an overreliance on oil revenues at the expense of the agricultural potential of the country, further adding to discontent domestically.
Additional factors including high unemployment, lack of job opportunities, economic stagnation following the decline of oil and gas export revenues in 2014, social inequalities have led the Algerian population to protest against ‘le pouvoir’ (the people in power) as over the last few months protestors have taken to the streets democracy and greater liberties.
Since his stroke in 2013, perception has grown across Algeria that Bouteflika has been a puppet president, with figures from within Bouteflika’s entourage calling the shots.
The military under the army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who is a member of Bouteflika’s regime, initially supported Bouteflika’s candidacy, however following protests and pressure from the people, the army and General Salah intervened to end Bouteflika’s control. The army however has, not unlike Egypt, refused to withdraw from public life and continues to be involved in heavily in Algeria’s domestic politics.
Bouteflika announced his resignation on April 2nd 2019 before the planned April elections, following the pressure of several weeks of peaceful protests held in all the country. Senate President Abdelkader Bensalah replaced Bouteflika temporarily until the new elections which were supposed to be held on July 4th.
This date was however postponed by General Salah to December 12th, a crucial day for the Algerian hirak to elect a new president to end the several months of protests (HRW).
Since February 22nd when the protests started, Algerians have been protesting every Friday for the past 42 weeks even after Bouteflika’s resignation. What started as a protest against a presidential candidature has now evolved into a movement demanding regime change and a complete overhaul of the political system. Protestors have been chanting ‘Yetnahaw Gaa’ (They All Should Go) referring to the end of over 20 years of oppression.
In contrast to the events of 2010-2011, the protests in Algeria have been predominantly peaceful, but human rights violations have been as reported by Amnesty International, with the use of unnecessary police force to control the crowds as well as the arbitrary arrest and detention of protestors.
On June 19th, General Salah prohibited protestors from carrying the Amazigh (Berber) flag or symbol during the protests, criminalizing its use and leading to the arrest of hundreds of Algerians, as only the national flag is accepted.
The wave of arrests undertaken by Alegria’s military however has not succeeded in driving the protestors from the streets. Algerians have continued making demands for an open and fair election, free from figures close to the former President Bouteflika’s entourage. Nonetheless, this seems unlikely as the current five presidential candidates include former prime ministers, a culture minister and a tourism minister.
The five candidates appeared for the first time in a televised debate. In response protesters are rejecting to vote on December 12th, using garbage bags over election materials as the current candidates have the same ideas and will maintain the status quo which Algerians have been fighting against impeding free, fair or transparent elections.
General Salah has called protestors to vote to end the several months of protests, yet citizens want to decide who should rule and not be forced to accept the current candidates supported by the army.
The strength of this hirak, also known as Revolution of Smiles, is that the protestors have learned the lessons of the Arab Spring. Millions of people, both men and women, who mostly young, are participating in the weekly marches, occupying public spaces and peacefully demanding the regime to change. This unorganized movement with no leader is seeking dramatic change through entirely peaceful means, preventing the influence of extremist groups, as what occured in Libya and Syria.
Going into 2020, the lack of a common leadership for the movement has risks, with the chance the hirak stalls, resulting in limited domestic changes. Ahead of tommorrows' elections, Algeria's protest movement is undertaking further protests and with some shunning the polls, with the hope to continue pressuring the authorities to achieve the actual changes. Nonetheless, what will happen on the 12th of December is yet to be seen, will Algerians be pressured into voting or will the protests continue?
Gida Malafronte is a graduate student of International Relations and Global Studies from Nottingham Trent University, UK. Her areas of interest include the Middle East and North Africa and security aspects.