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Algeria: Has Hirak hit an impasse, or is there more to come?

Nadia Henni-Moulaï
By Nadia Henni-Moulaï

Journalist and the author of 1954-1962, ’La guerre d’Algérie. Portraits croisés’ (published in French only).

Posted on Friday, 26 February 2021 11:28

Algeria Protest
Algerians demonstrate in Algiers, one with a plaque reading "Square of Feb.22, 2019, the Smiling Revolution" to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak movement, Monday Feb. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

After an initial burst of elation, has a period of disillusionment set in? On 22 February 2019, an unprecedented peaceful grassroots protest movement took root in Algeria. While the smiling faces and bitingly humorous slogans of the Hirak remain fresh in people’s minds, many are now wondering what the future holds for the movement.

After an action-packed 2020, the grassroots movement is clearly struggling to reinvent itself. Not all “Hirakists” agree with this assessment, however, including one of the movement’s key figures, Karim Tabbou, who was imprisoned for a year.

In an 8 January interview with the French television network TV5 Monde, the political activist directly blamed the Algerian government for the situation: “The country has been forced into an impasse by an oppressive regime.”

In his view, the Hirak has not hit an impasse and is the outgrowth of an incompetent government which “drives Algerians to remain mobilised and determined”.

Contemptuous leaders

The Hirak sees itself as a continuation of the struggle that began in 1954.

The Hirak is seemingly not dead, just dormant. Taking a look back at history, Tabbou’s statements are part of a tradition of Algerian resistance which culminated in the country’s independence in 1962.

While the February 2019 movement is unprecedented, the Algerian collective unconscious has continued to maintain an unusual relationship with power and domination since 1830, one that is marked by colonial conquest, a succession of rebellions, the Algerian War, independence, the 1965 coup d’état and the “Black Decade” [the period of civil war in the 1990s].

The protests also bear witness to Algerians’ realisation that they deserve better than what they have known in recent decades.

Of course, colonial violence came to an end in 1962, but it was swapped out for hogra, an Algerian Arabic word which approximately means “injustice”, as the country’s ruling elite hijacked the government for decades. The impact of the Hirak, moreover, extends beyond the political arena.

The movement’s Friday demonstrations are less a product of the economic crisis than that of a sense of humiliation caused by Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attempt to seek a fifth term as president. Contemptuous leaders are always a powerful driver of uprisings.

This is something we need to keep in mind if we are to grasp the underlying motivations behind the protest movement and, most importantly, chart the course of its future.

Its future is all but assured, as shown by the renewed sense of solidarity that has permeated the Hirak’s Friday grassroots demonstrations. The protests also bear witness to Algerians’ realisation that they deserve better than what they have known in recent decades.

This has brought about an imperative that has now become a slogan: respect the course of history and the war of independence. “Our country is independent but its people are still not free,” has been a frequent refrain within the movement. The Hirak sees itself as a continuation of the struggle that began in 1954.

“More than 60 years later, Algerians are still fighting for their independence,” said Tabbou. From this point of view, the Algerian government is the equally arbitrary and violent avatar of the former colonial administration.

The issue today is no longer whether or not the Hirak will get a second wind, but instead what form it should take going forward to overcome the challenges from which it arose.

After waging a bitter, eight-year-long war in the 1950s and 60s, how can we conclude that the Hirak, which just passed its second anniversary, is dying out? In the space of two years, everything seems to have changed: Bouteflika is no longer in power and the latest president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, has promised a “new Algeria”, although obstacles to justice, freedom and civil liberties remain.

The fate of prisoners of conscience, including that of journalist Khaled Drareni, who was released from prison last Friday after spending almost a year behind bars, is out of joint with the brazen acquittal of Saïd Bouteflika and two generals, Athmane Tartag and Mohamed Mediène (aka “Toufik”), by Blida’s military court on 2 January.

In light of this decision, how can the movement be maintained and equipped with an efficient road map? The issue today is no longer whether or not the Hirak will get a second wind, but instead what form it should take going forward to overcome the challenges from which it arose.

And a fault line within the movement might be coming into view over a thorny question: should it negotiate with the government? And if so, who will represent the movement?

Faced with a presidential vacuum in recent months due to Tebboune’s several hospitalisations in Germany as well as the never-ending Covid-19 crisis, is the Algerian state ready to listen to the demands of those who would like to have a dialogue with their government?

Nothing could be less certain, especially as the regime’s attention is turned elsewhere: to its borders. Donald Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara and the normalisation of Israeli-Moroccan relations could end up halting the internal negotiation process.

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