Algeria: Hirak carries on with protests, despite internal divisions

By Rania Hamdi

Posted on Thursday, 1 April 2021 11:56
A woman holds an Algerian flag as Algerians demonstrate in Algiers to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak movement, Monday Feb. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)

Algeria’s grassroots protest movement, known as Hirak, has not petered out, but it has been struggling to find new ways to articulate its message and structure itself. Meanwhile, ideological discord has taken root.

As of 16 February, the date marking the second anniversary of a movement that led to the ouster of then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Friday marches have resumed in much of the country, bringing thousands of Algerians out into the streets.

While the fresh round of demonstrations was seen as commemorative in nature, the fact that they are taking place week after week shows that there is a lingering sense of dissatisfaction among protesters, who feel the regime has failed to address all their demands. This sentiment has become all the more acute following a crackdown on 26 March that resulted in several dozen arrests throughout the country, according to human rights groups.

But the movement has been struggling to find new ways to articulate its message and structure itself. With early legislative elections in sight, ideological discord and personal ambitions run the risk of further dividing Hirak’s ranks.

Ideological differences?

Despite the uncertainty looming over the future of the movement two years after its creation, Zaki Hannache, a young activist fighting for the release of political prisoners, firmly believes that Hirak will eventually bring down the current regime. “Hirak is a grassroots movement that seeks a radical overhaul of the system. I’m not interested in anything other than that,” he says.

In Hannache’s view, the debate surrounding Rachad, an Islamist political movement accused of infiltrating Hirak demonstrations with its own members, is meant to trigger a clash between pro-democracy and Islamist groups.

“Anyone who opposes the regime is part of the revolution. We can’t let political and ideological diversity, which is what makes Hirak such a powerful movement, become a source of division or cause people to jockey for position,” the activist says. He also refuses to get mired in the controversy, which he describes as “unproductive”.

People are still taking to the streets, which proves that the government hasn’t delivered change. The marches are visible initiatives that contradict the regime’s official line. – Zaki Hannache, a young activist

Lynda Nacer, another deeply invested Hirak activist, thinks the movement needs to “avoid falling into the trap of division, which only plays into the regime’s hands. We have always had political and ideological differences, it’s just that Hirak has brought them to the surface”.

The demonstrators won their first battle, forcing the then president Bouteflika to scrap his plans to seek a fifth term in office and to resign on 2 April 2019. They have also managed to maintain silmiya, or the peaceful character of the protests, over the long haul.

That said, the movement has been unable to find new ways to articulate its message and lacks a hierarchical structure. As the lawyer and activist Abdelaziz Mebarki put it, “For the political system, the question of who would lead Algeria was settled by Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s rise to power, but Hirak is still a leaderless movement. From here on out, it needs to find a way to generate new ideas and to open up lines of communication and negotiation.”

Taking a different tack

But no single figure has emerged as the face of the Hirak movement. According to Selma, a 45-year-old manager at a communications firm, “Members have a wide range of political beliefs, and sometimes their ideas are incompatible. Opposition leaders like Karim Tabbou, just as much as Mohcine Belabbas and the human rights activist Mustapha Bouchachi, are promoted by one faction and then rejected by another. It’s hard at this point in time to reach a consensus.”

Here in Algeria, we intend to shake up the regime with weekly marches and slogans. – Selma

As Selma leans against the railing of her office balcony, which overlooks the area around Place Audin in Algiers’ city centre, she reflects on the street movement: “Who would have thought that this place turns into ground zero of the revolution every Friday? Protesters in Lebanon, Sudan and Egypt filled the streets for weeks and never really succeeded in getting what they wanted. Here in Algeria, we intend to shake up the regime with weekly marches and slogans.”

But Selma is open about her frustration, recalling a statement President Tebboune made when the street demonstrations resumed after a yearlong pause owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. During a meeting with two news editors, he said that he was hardly concerned about the marches.

Nacer is also wary of his comment: “The Friday marches are no longer cutting it. I think we need to continue them, of course, but we also need to expand the scope of our initiatives by remaining active, on a more personal level, every other day of the week.”

Hannache, for his part, says that “people are still taking to the streets, which proves that the government hasn’t delivered change. The marches are visible initiatives that contradict the regime’s official line”.

‘Electronic flies’

Hannache also thinks demonstrators should be on their guard against the regime’s murky attempts to co-opt Hirak. “The administration has heavily leaned into weaponising the media against Hirak and emerging voices.

It’s also making use of a force of ‘electronic flies’ [troll-like social media accounts].

The government lures opportunistic activists by promising them seats in Algeria’s future National Assembly or in municipal assemblies, with the goal of shrinking the protest movement’s ranks,” the activist says, steadfast in his dedication to Hirak’s mission. On top of such machinations, the decline in purchasing power in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis is fanning the flames of social unrest in the country.

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