06 May 2020

Algeria: The Hirak Phenomenon

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“‘We, the people’: one year ago, mass anti-government protests erupted in Africa's largest country. At times more than a million people have taken to the streets. The weekly protests finally led to the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been the leader of Algeria for 20 years. Yet the demonstrations continued unabated. Many see in successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune a continuation of the old elites” “‘We, the people’: one year ago, mass anti-government protests erupted in Africa's largest country. At times more than a million people have taken to the streets. The weekly protests finally led to the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been the leader of Algeria for 20 years. Yet the demonstrations continued unabated. Many see in successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune a continuation of the old elites” https://en.qantara.de/content/first-anniversary-of-the-hirak-movement-the-jurys-still-out-on-algeria?nopaging=1

This concludes a trilogy of blog posts on the 2019 global street protests. In the first one, I focused particularly on Sudan, where women had been in the forefront. Then I moved to Algeria, where a year of bi-weekly protests produced spectacular results, at least on the surface: toppling a president, imprisoning many of his cronies for corruption, postponing a presidential election twice, and mostly boycotting said election while shouting to the army, “You are no longer in charge!” For the time being, that’s wishful thinking, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the last post, I offered a synopsis of Algerian history and emphasized the crucial role the army has played even before independence. Then the year 1999 marked a turning point in two ways. First, the army-picked candidate for the presidency (a civilian, for only the second time), Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was elected and managed to mostly put an end to the 7-year-old civil war. A second element is related to the first one. The Algerian-French political scientist I’m consulting for this analysis, Amel Boubekeur, called this the 1999 “tacit social contract”: the army promises to fend off the terrorists, as long as the people rally behind President Bouteflika and the political status quo, while the state promises to expand social benefits.

What I haven't mentioned yet is that Algeria is one the top oil and gas producing nations (11th for natural gas, and 16th for oil, both representing 80% of exports). That explains why the leaders of the war of independence (1954-62) were able to manipulate the political cards to their advantage for over 40 years and divide among themselves much of the spoils of this lucrative industry. It explains too why the army has been the “big brother” behind the scenes pulling the strings to make sure the military and political elites remain on top. Bouteflika, as noted in the last post, had a nasty record of corruption himself but knew how to open the state’s financial spicket enough to create new jobs, embark on ambitious infrastructure projects and build a million housing units.

Meanwhile, Bouteflika was amassing more power: he had named himself editor-in-chief of the state television station, and Algeria’s state of emergency dating to the beginning of the civil war (1992) was not lifted until 2011. And yet street demonstrations were still banned (though a bit of Arab Spring fever briefly touched Algeria in Feb. 2011 with 2,000 protesters clashing with police). An Algerian blogger who had taken part in the demonstration told Al Jazeera that hundreds had been arrested, mostly “human rights activists and syndicate members.” He added that “this is a police state, just like the Egyptian regime,” and that it’s “corrupt to the bone.”

But it would be eight more years before the Algerians exploded en masse, as the Egyptians had done in 2011 – eight years during which the president was largely absent from the political scene, either being treated for illness in France or very debilitated after his 2013 stroke. Understandably, when he announced he would run for a fifth term in February 2019, civil society now coordinated a nation-wide movement of protest that only the coronavirus could interrupt a year later.


Snapshots of the hirak movement

Much as it was the secular, social media-savvy youth who started the protests downtown Cairo in January 2011, the hirak (“movement,” referring to the 2019 wave of protest movements from Morocco to Lebanon) was launched by the youth. In his lengthy piece in Le Monde Diplomatique, Arezki Metref quotes a reporter for an Algerian paper in French, Mustapha Benfodil: “Young people had just one word on their lips, ‘humiliation.’ They could no longer tolerate the image of Bouteflika, a man close to death, being used as a puppet by what has since been referred to as the essaba or gang.”

On the Tuesday before the first mass protest on Friday, February 22, 2019, the students staged a demonstration downtown Algiers, angrily reacting to General Gaid Salah’s morning speech. That sequence became a pattern. Students would march on Tuesdays in protest of official speeches and actions, and on Friday afternoons throngs of people stream in from several corners of the city to its center, raising signs and chanting slogans like, “Civil state, not military state,” “By God, we will not stop,” “No dialogue, no elections with the mafia,” “Cowards, free our children,” “Throw out the generals, Algeria will have independence,” and the like. Metref gives an idea of a typical Friday protest:


“The night before there will be a pot-banging protest in support of detainees, then in the morning the first groups assemble around the Place Maurice-Audin or the Place de la Grande Poste. In the early afternoon, after Friday prayers, marchers converge on the city centre — the group from Bab El Oued is one of the biggest — and the city resounds with protesting voices. In the evening, the media, lawyers and NGOs count the arrests, some of which last only a few hours, and the disappearances. Demonstrators are often taken away by men in plain clothes and their location and charges only revealed days later.”


Algeria has known riots and protests over the decades, but this is a completely different phenomenon. First, it spans the political spectrum: islamists, seculars, socialists, feminists, Berbers and Arabs – everybody comes out. In June, in an attempt to divide the civil protests, General Gaid Salah banned the raising of the Amazigh (Berber) flag. A veteran journalist told Metref, “That touched a nerve. It could have caused clashes between Berber and Arabic speakers, but it did the opposite. In Arab-speaking towns, people you’d never suspect of having Berber sympathies have been waving the outlawed flag.”

Second, the protests are peaceful. Ali Brahimi, “a Marxist activist and Berber advocate,” told Metref that if the youth are tempted to respond violently to police provocations, the crowd immediately reminds them, “Silmiya!” (“peacefully”), or “Khawa!” (“brothers”). ‘In 2017 the official figures recorded 13,000 riots across Algeria. We’ve gone from violent demonstrations to a calm, self-disciplined movement. That’s because of regular discussions about rejecting rioting and the uselessness of violence to oppose a regime that is itself violent.”

One of the giants of the 1980s Afghan jihad against the Soviets, the Algerian Abdullah Anas, who after spending twelve years assisting its leader Abdullah Azzam, found refuge in the UK from where he has been broadcasting on satellite TV a message of peaceful resistance and dialogue to his fellow Algerians and Arab brethren throughout the Middle East. Carlotta Gall of the New York Times caught up with him in January 2020. He declared, “Really, I can say with full confidence, it is a new chapter for the Algerian people. In one year not one drop of blood was lost, praise be to God.” Throughout 2019 he used his satellite channel Al-Maghribia TV to livestream the protests, adding his own commentary.

I should mention a third unique feature of the hirak, and that is the decisive appearance of the Algerian Arabic dialect, the derdja, as a symbol of national unity. Middle East Eye, French edition, did a fascinating interview with an Algerian social scientist and linguist, Mahdi Berrached, who published a dictionary of the specific Algiers version of this dialect. On the streets, one could see signs in English, French and classical Arabic, but the slogans that stuck with the crowds over time were in derdja – as were the songs mostly composed for the movement. As a sociologist pointed out, this comes directly from the chanting of the poor suburbs’ youth at popular soccer tournaments. It’s like the social outcasts have been ushered to center stage!

To sum up these different snapshots of the hirak movement, let’s turn again to Amel Boubekeur’s analysis. Though the protesters themselves call this a “revolution,” it actually builds organically on years of opposition to the regime:


“It is also the product of past political and social movements’ techniques for pressuring and constraining the regime. By gathering several generations of frustrated citizens, demonstrations every Tuesday and Friday (as well as Sunday among the Algerian diaspora) have created an independent political space in which non-violence and popular unity come before ideology in the push for regime change (p. 11).”


The hirak boldly pointed to the real power center of Algerian politics, that is, the army, and it exposed the unspoken deal represented by Bouteflika’s 1999 election. Instead of the people blindly and powerlessly submitting to a rule that guaranteed the political elites’ perpetual hold on state levers, they stood up and said, “Enough is enough!! We want a true democracy!”


Who leads the hirak, and with what agenda?

As mentioned above, this is a very broad-based initiative that also “extends beyond the demonstrations: workers and executives at public companies, students, academics, journalists, and lawyers have refused to follow instructions from ministers and disturbed their public appearances, regarding them as illegitimate because they are overseen by a government not chosen by citizens (p. 12).” Thus, a number of civil society organizations which specialize in highlighting injustices in order to redress them have joined the hirak: unions representing public servants, students and the unemployed; human rights organizations, including those that represent victims of the security forces in the civil war (including families of the 20,000 disappeared persons); and a variety of marginalized people who have “personal experience of the state’s abuses,” as Boubekeur has it.

Here I must interject a related issue, but also one dear to my heart. In my nine years of residence in Algeria (1978-87), I was assistant pastor in the only English-speaking Protestant church (Holy Trinity Anglican) and then for five years in the Eglise Protestante d’Algérie (EPA). I witnessed a growing number of Algerian young people interested in Christianity. Since Algeria is 99 percent Muslim, this is unusual, to say the least. Much of this interest, at least at the time, was in the Berber mountainous region south east of Algiers (Kabylia, capital Tizi Ouzou).

In the mid-1980s, I would often travel to an EPA compound near Tizi Ouzou with my head pastor, Hugh Johnson, to teach Bible courses to these new Christians. Soon after we left Algeria in 1987 (my wife and I were married just the year before in Algiers; see this post for more details), and especially during the “Black Decade” of the 1990s, this variegated movement of Muslims embracing Jesus multiplied from several hundred to somewhere between 50 to 80,000, mostly in Kabylia, but also among "Arabs" in various parts of the country. One article put the total of Algerian Christians at 125,000 (including Catholics). The majority of congregations joined the EPA, now completely run by Algerians and officially recognized by the government in 2011. Its current president, Salah Chalah, pastors the largest church in Tizi Ouzou (over 1,000 attend services).

The link here with the hirak is that a number of churches were closed by security forces in October 2019. Chalah’s church organized a peaceful sit-in which was violently broken up. He himself was literally beaten with a stick and a video shows the police violently pulling people away (see the video in this article). In the end, 17 people were arrested and no one fought back. The vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights had this to say about the regime:


“The regime chose the most dangerous path in stigmatizing this Kabyle region. It started in June with the arrests of those who carried Berber or Amazigh flags. This attack on churches is part of the same strategy that stigmatizes minorities, particular regions, and divisions among the Algerian nation. And all of this to weaken the national protest movement.”


In the case of this high-profile church, it was the local Muslim population that stood up to defend them. The Algerian writing this article for a news outlet in Paris sees this attack in the same light as the human rights activist above. In his words, “this regime is maliciously exploiting everything it can to remain in power. Divide and rule is the only motto recognised by Algeria’s military regime!” But his other point was this: “For the first time in Algerian contemporary history, Muslims support Christians.” This was in evidence when several Muslim lawyers went to the police stations where these Christians were being held and they succeeded in freeing all of them. Then in the afternoon a crowd of Muslims “reopened the church.” Finally, on the Facebook page of these hirak activists on could read,


“We will not forget the main demands of the People's Revolution; we will not accept to deviate and focus on other business. At the same time, we have no right to be fooled by the actions of those in power who deprive our fellow Christian citizens of their right to individual freedom and worship.”


Clearly, the hirak is a deeply democratic movement, but as mentioned above, it is not entirely new. Drawing from past movements of resistance, “Participants in the hirak have gradually tailored it to not only their need for a way out but also the reinvention of channels of political participation – outside those the regime uses to dominate state institutions and marginalise ordinary citizens.” For this reason various political opposition parties have also joined the hirak, hoping along with the other demonstrators that this “will produce new mechanisms that allow citizens to weigh in on genuine negotiations (p. 15).” Boubekeur sums up the positive role of the hirak in these words, “In just a year, the Hirak has deeply transformed the country’s political culture, remodeling Algerian society’s post-civil war dividing lines [between the islamists and the military regime] and reducing the regime’s control over citizens’ participation in politics (15).”

But that is the movement’s weakness as well. By virtue of its great diversity, it has produced “dozens of road maps for a transition” but none of these factions claim to speak for the hirak. And then there is the fact that perhaps a majority of Algeria’s forty plus million people are afraid of state repression and reticent to openly support the hirak. The next and last section looks at where all this might go.


What are some likely post-covid scenarios?

First, Boubekeur’s analysis offers three obstacles that the hirak must overcome in order to be even considered a valid negotiation partner by the military regime:


  • agree on a transition road map and a redistribution of responsibilities that plays down divergences between them”; there seems to be “an emerging consensus” that includes replacing parliament, the current government, the FLN and its state-sponsored union (UGTA), and forming a High Council of Transition, which would then supervise the work of a National Constituent Assembly that would in turn write a new constitution aiming to “reduce the power of the presidency and create greater political and media freedoms”;


  • reflect on the kind of concessions they will accept from the military, as well as the conditions required to demilitarise the state”; this has been complicated by General Salah’s death in December 2019; his replacement, General Said Chengriha (also implicated in some of the army’s worst brutalities during the civil war) has kept a low profile and seems reluctant to speak to Hirak representatives;


  • create a plan for gaining the support of the parts of society who fear political change”; over a hundred leaders of the hirak have been arrested and many fear the regime’s continuing repression; it will be difficult to convince them to join a movement that appears leaderless at this point, and especially now as the country is in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic.


The current stalemate, therefore – between a military-backed regime that has systematically barred the people from any meaningful engagement with the existing political institutions and a broad-based civil society now supercharged and eager to cast it aside in favor of a true democracy – cannot go on forever. The best-case scenario, of course, is that General Chengriha and President Tebboune agree to negotiate with the hirak and begin to lay out a road map for a transition to civilian rule. In the worst of cases, the army, taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, re-applies a form of martial law that forbids any kind of protest, including via the internet. As we have seen in many other parts of the world, autocrats have been using the pandemic to further their grip on power (see this VOA article on Algeria during the pandemic, and how the hirak is using it to its advantage). One thing is certain, though. However long it takes to return to some version of normalcy, the hirak as a movement has already exposed the illegitimacy of the postcolonial regime still in place. It’s just a matter of time before some form of civilian rule overthrows the old political elites and seriously refashions state institutions to make them accountable to the people. This seems to be the refrain of many grassroots protest movements worldwide these days.