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Algeria’s grassroots Hirak protest movement came to a halt in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of the virus’s spread. This respite, which continues today, has given activists under lockdown the opportunity to discuss the movement’s future. Mainly playing out on Facebook, the conversations are dominated by a debate between conservatives and progressives rooted in divisions dating back to the “black decade”.
The Rachad movement, founded in 2007 by, amongst others, former activists from the Islamic Salvation Front (Front islamique du salut – FIS) – one of the political parties involved in the civil war in the 1990s – lies at the centre of the debate.
Many democratic activists have accused the movement’s foreign-based officials of intending to hijack Hirak and of only going along with its democratic ideals so that it can establish an “Islamic caliphate” in Algeria. Rachad, which has a large number of active supporters in the country, denied the accusations, asserting that the group seeks to establish a “civil state” which complies with democratic norms.
Rachad’s radical wing
“Rachad does not support the idea of a caliphate or a dictatorship, whether it be a military or theocratic one. It’s written in black and white in the movement’s bylaws,” Yahia Mekhiouba, a member of Rachad’s national board, said during a discussion on Facebook.
What’s more, the movement’s detractors reproach it for not being more critical of the FIS’s involvement in the “black decade” and its radical wing hostile to any form of freedom. Rachad, which often accuses its critics of being in the pay of the “political police” and the government, believes that the Algerian army should above all be held responsible for the civil war since it paved the way for violence when its forces ground the electoral process to a halt in 1992 after the FIS won the first round of the election.
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The Hirak movement had swept this rift under the rug for a long time, with the massive, peaceful demonstrations giving off the impression that citizens from different political stripes had come together, driven by the sole purpose of bringing about democratic change. However, underneath this aura of consensus, the movement’s polarisation showed through at times.
This polarisation was readily apparent following the death of the FIS’s top leader, Abassi Madani, on 24 April 2019, in the middle of Hirak, and during his funeral, attended by thousands of people, in the capital. His critics, who hold him accountable for the terrorism of the 1990s, were outraged. During the demonstrations, the anniversary of the assassination of Abdelkader Hachani – a prominent FIS figure who died on 22 November 1999 – was celebrated by some protesters who brandished pictures of him, which further sowed division.
Conservative vs feminist rows
Occasional rows during the protests pitting conservatives against the “feminist square” of activists in Algiers serve as another illustration of these ideological divisions which were shrugged off or downplayed at the time in the name of “Hirak unity”, with many feeling as though these differences should be discussed after achieving the desired democratic change and that mentioning them beforehand was playing “into the hands of the government”.
However, with people no longer taking to the streets every week because of the pandemic, the debate took on a greater dimension. In a text posted in June on his Facebook page, Saïd Sadi, the former president of the party Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la culture et la démocratie – RCD), criticised “the fundamentalist movement, represented by Rachad, […] which equates universal principles with ‘Western depravity’”, adding that “This camp won’t hesitate to crush all hopes of democratic change in Algeria.”
The spokesperson for the Rachad movement, the inflammatory Mohamed Larbi Zitout, replied by calling the former RCD president a “pawn” of the powers that be. In a live video on his Facebook page, he added: “You’re a part of the bloody past of those who hailed the halt of the electoral process.”
He further illustrated his point by recalling that Khalida Toumi and Amara Benyounès, both RCD officials during the 1990s, ended up serving as ministers under Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Suppression of media coverage
The heated nature of the exchanges, owing in part to efforts to suppress media coverage, with an emphasis on broadcast media, of Hirak, is inherent to any such movements.
According to Nouri Dris, a sociology researcher and professor at the University of Sétif 2, “Algerian society is certainly becoming secularised and the influence of Islamism isn’t what it was 15 or 20 years ago, but the institutionalisation of political life is still weak because the government refuses to comply with the rules enshrined in the constitution. This situation intensifies the debates between various players and makes discussions tense and sharp”.
In his view, even though the current institutional environment does not provide the appropriate conditions for a more constructive political debate to emerge, the latter has to happen because it is part of the process of change which “must take all the time needed to stamp out divisions or resolve them”.
For all that, “historically speaking, democracy has not been the product of an ideological conflict but of a politico-legal compromise between the working class and the middle class”, says the researcher. However, given the Algerian economy’s rentier nature, Dris thinks that these different economic forces have yet to assert themselves, giving the political debate an ideological slant.
Further down the road, a decline in the economy’s revenues derived from oil and gas resources could change the stakes. “At such time, the focus will be on improving the capital investment environment and working conditions for workers. Society will experience new, lesser divisions which will be able to be resolved without posing an existential threat to one political orientation or another,” says Dris.
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