The Hirak continues Algeria’s struggle for liberation

By Renaud de Rochebrune
Posted on Thursday, 30 January 2020 13:43, updated on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 10:19

Demonstrators carry a national flag during an anti-government rally in Algiers, Algeria January 3, 2020. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

In "Algeria, the new independence", French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu, dissects the current protest movement through a historical perspective. He is resolutely optimistic in the long term.

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a specialist in the history of the Arab-Muslim world, has written a well-documented book on Hirak, the popular protest movement in Algeria. For him, it is the latest episode in a major phenomenon that began in 2010: a renewal of the struggle of peoples for their emancipation.

Apart from Tunisia, the Arab Spring, seems to have failed, and Filiu beggars one’s belief with his optimism about the ability of the people to free themselves from authoritarian regimes. Does one wonder whether he underestimates the resistance of the Algerian regime, dominated by the army, to the Hirak’s demands for “a new independence”? Certainly not, he asserts, with the unshakeable conviction of one who understands history.

Why publish a book on Hirak when the situation in Algeria is still evolving?

Jean-Pierre Filiu: I chose to deal with the most immediate current events in the Arab world. This involves risks and I assume them because they seem to me to be largely offset by the contribution I make to the interpretation of events that are often confusing in their intensity and complexity. The added value of my book is its historical depth. It is not a descriptive account of ten months of Hirak, but a perspective of it in the long period of the Algerian national movement.

Hence the title chosen: “The New Independence”?

This “new independence”, to which Algerians aspire, can only be understood in the light of the independence of 1962. And of its incredibly rapid hijacking, in just a few weeks, by the border army. The latter, under the leadership of Boumédiène, crushed the internal resistance, already weakened by French repression. And it was this crushing that laid the foundations of the regime from which the people today want to emancipate themselves. From the introduction, I recall the invocation by the movement of two great martyrs of the war in 1957.

First, Abane Ramdane; the anniversary of his death on 27 December last year was an opportunity to recall, in all the processions, his fight for the primacy of politics over the military and his assassination by the border army. And then, of course, Larbi Ben M’hidi, tortured and murdered by French paratroopers, who used to say: “Throw the revolution into the street and the people will take it over.” Exactly what the Hirak has been doing for almost a year.

Observing Algeria, one year later, the “Hirak” organizations are closing ranks. It was the young people who put forward these two leaders. It was a way of renewing the thread of the past and showing that another history of Algeria, and consequently another independence, was possible. The work of remembrance of the war of liberation resonates with the denunciation of the confiscation of independence by the border army and then by the regime. It is fascinating for me as a historian to see the thirst for history of young people who are mistakenly said to be indifferent to public affairs.

You have also written extensively about the Arab springs, the outcome of which was uncertain.

In my books on the democratic uprising of 2011 and the counter-revolution of 2018, I focused on the Algerian matrix of Arab authoritarianism. I could, therefore, only be interested in this Hirak, which challenges the very heart of such a matrix.

I have from the outset situated the “Arab Spring” — a description I felt was inappropriate — in the long history of the struggle of these peoples for self-determination. A struggle for post-dictatorial independence after the struggle for postcolonial independence, and which corresponds to the current struggle of the Algerians. If you add to that the pleasure of working on a movement that is so positive, everything pushed me to study this new era.

Since writing of the book, Abdelmadjid Tebboune has been elected president and General Ahmed Gaïd Salah has died. Does this change the situation?

My book is not a commentary on current events, but of historical reflection. I would like to take its reasoning and conclusions beyond this or that development. In fact, most of my conclusions are no longer debatable, because of the two events you mention. The massive abstention from the presidential elections, officially 60% but probably closer to 90%, is a striking demonstration of the impossibility for this regime to re-plaster its civil facade. As for the national funeral of Gaïd Salah, it merely confirmed that the effective leader of the country was the Chief of Staff.

So nothing different?

The war of attrition between a movement and a regime that is out of breath continues and shows no sign of exhaustion. The death of its leader is an almost caricatured illustration of this. For the first time we have an army boss who is not from the ranks of the NLA. The generational parenthesis is, therefore, dare I say it, technically closed. But the regime itself has not changed in any way, and that is why popular pressure is not letting up.

It is from this regime, and from it alone, that the long-awaited initiative to finally announce a way out of the crisis must come. The preconditions for this are well known: the release of all prisoners of conscience and an effective guarantee of civil liberties. In recent weeks, the signals sent by the regime have been mixed. However, there must finally be a real opening to dialogue before the Hirak is able to participate. And I have no doubt that it will respond constructively in the best interests of the nation.

How do you respond when you are a movement without real leadership?

My thinking is constantly nourished by the dynamics at work. The Algeria of 2020 is not the same as that of 2019. The Hirak has transformed it in depth. And, in transforming it, it has transformed itself. The contest has given back to the people the consciousness — and the practice — of itself in the public space. This setting in motion — a literal translation of the word “hirak” — has already changed the situation. And should save us from sterile comparisons between the regime and the opposition.

If the authorities finally accept the horizon of a democratic transition, the context will be so disrupted, in the most positive sense of the term, that the Hirak will then, I am convinced, respond to the stakes. And how can we imagine millions of men and women taking to the streets for almost fifty Fridays in dozens of cities without a solid and disciplined organization mobilizing them? The fact that this organization from below disrupts the usual clichés in no way invalidates its effectiveness.

Hirak has almost always made the right decisions at the right time. It has, for example, kept to the line of non-violence, which seems normal today, but was an extraordinary gamble at the beginning of 2019. At the end of Bensalah’s interim presidency in July, various proposals were put forward to avoid the constitutional vacuum into which Gaïd Salah had plunged the country.

Finally, during the presidential elections, no attempt was made to obstruct or sabotage the vote so as not to provide a pretext for the supporters of escalation. Nor did it exclude or even stigmatize Algerians who had chosen to vote. I see in all this a sign of collective maturity to which a generous gesture from the ruling power must finally respond.

Who is in power today?

Since 1962, there have been different forms of top-down management. But with power still held by the military hierarchy, with a civil façade responsible for managing day-to-day affairs. We are still at that point with the Tebboune-Chengriha tandem.

These leaders newly promoted to their respective posts would no doubt tend to perpetuate, with various adjustments, the pact that has governed Algeria since independence and which deprives the people of their right to self-determination. This pact, in my opinion, is obsolete: Algerian demonstrators have been clamouring against it for a year now, and it is therefore up to the regime to finally reach out to its determined and pacifist compatriots.

Is it not a matter of urgency for the situation to settle down because of the country’s economic situation, which is in danger of quickly becoming unbearable?

The regime is entirely responsible for the economic slump into which it has plunged Algeria. Because of its calamitous management and a campaign against corruption that has all the hallmarks of a settling of scores. The Hirak manifests especially on public holidays; it has never blocked the slightest access to a port, factory or petrochemical complex.

The demand for the rule of law, and all that it implies, is the only way forward for Algeria and its economy. The regime is perhaps betting on a weakening of the protests due to economic difficulties. If that is the case, it is seriously mistaken. Above all, the slump will worsen its position. It would be reasonable for it to take this constraint into account in order to launch the transition process as soon as possible.

And do you see no risk of the movement gradually running out of steam while the institutions are functioning again and seem to be seeking appeasement?

Hirak will not stop, any more than the liberation struggle against the colonizer has stopped. It is impossible to return to the status quo that prevailed a year ago. The dynamics of the mobilization make it very difficult to achieve the normalization dreamed of by the new decision-makers on a daily basis.

The functions offered to each and every one of them seem limited in their mission or in their duration. To put it plainly, official Algeria may have emerged from the constitutional vacuum, but it now operates, if one may say so, only on fixed-term contracts. And this contract will come to an end, hopefully soon, with the consensual establishment of a second republic.

You mention in your book the importance of the role of women in Hirak. While saying that they do not express any feminist claims. A paradox?

Hirak is not, as such, feminist, and the demand for equality is not at the forefront. But it relies on the massive participation of women. This is, moreover, the main guarantee of its non-violent dimension. Hirak is the image of an Algeria where the social conservatism of the regime thwarts the promotion of women in general, and on the labour market in particular. It is still on the side of the regime that the lock is still in place. But I insist: the movement accepts — and this is a first — plurality within itself.

You underline the central role of football fans, who were seen supporting the Islamists in 1988. Another paradox?

It’s no longer 1988 . No one in recent years has taken seriously the real crucible of freedom of expression and collective solidarity that stadiums have become. The Algerians were not mistaken in taking up the hymns of the ultras to make them the rallying songs of Hirak. And by supporting, with a real sense of civic responsibility, clubs the authorities tried to strangle financially.

Similarly, the epic of the national football team, which won the African Cup of Nations, should be seen as a parable of present-day Algeria. This team, which was at the bottom of a hole in 2018, thwarted all predictions the following year. With the confidence of a new Franco-Algerian coach, the team came out on top as a team of the people and not of the regime. Clearly marking its distance from power.

If you had to bet today on the future of Hirak and Algeria?

I am very confident about the future. And as for the long-term success of the current mobilization, so much so that it is in line with the reality of Algerian society. A reality that implies that the political system must be brought up to standard. Moreover, the solidity of the non-violent commitment of Hirak seems to me to be the best guarantee against the tragic abuses that Algeria has experienced too many times.

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