Algeria's Hirak protest movement is gearing up for a comeback

Algeria's Hirak protest movement is gearing up for a comeback
The Algerian leadership has proved incapable of addressing people's grievances, instead ramping up its repression of political opponents.
7 min read
17 September, 2020
Growing popular anger could drive Algerians back to the streets again. [Getty]
With six weeks to go before a referendum on Algeria's contentious revised constitution, there are widely shared expectations that the Hirak movement will soon return after the suspension of protests over coronavirus fears.

Last week, Algeria's parliament adopted draft constitutional revisions, an initiative of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in response to the country's Hirak protest movement that began more than 18 months ago and succeeded in toppling long-time authoritarian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika. 

The amendments will be put to a referendum on 1 November, which coincides with the anniversary of the start of Algeria's 1954-1962 war of independence from France. The proposed draft is mainly intended to re-balance the powers between the president and prime minister, create a constitutional court and strengthen political freedoms.  

The president claimed the constitutional reform would "meet the demands of protesters" whilst a cluster of parties and associations linked to the Hirak are sceptical that the planned revisions reflect a real desire for change on the part of the government and view the referendum as betrayal.  

Constitutional changes in Algeria have often favoured the executive. Former president Bouteflika modified the constitution several times to suit the national leader himself, who gained unlimited powers of appointment for top official positions. 

Since weekly protests were put on hold the regime has escalated its clampdown against political opponents, independent media and activists

Human rights lawyer Mostefa Bouchachi rejected the revision project in a letter addressed to Tebboune, which he posted on his Facebook page, stating it sets a "personal power" and makes the president an "emperor" interfering in all powers while "having neither political nor criminal responsibility". Bouchachi reminded the head of state he had promised a new constitution during his electoral campaign "that fulfils the Algerian people's aspirations to freedom and democracy". 

The current Algerian regime appears keen on showing it is ready to turn a new page in the country's political history ahead of the upcoming referendum. Yet in substance, it has ignored the demands of the opposition movement for the overhaul of the whole ruling elite with the establishment of a transitional government, the dissolution of the parliament, the organisation of a constituent assembly, and the formation of an independent electoral commission. 

Read more: Covid-19 gives Algeria's repressive state
the edge, for now

Instead, it has enforced a cosmetic transition of power through repression of individual and public freedoms.

Since the popular Hirak movement put its weekly protests on hold in March at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, the regime in Algiers has escalated its clampdown against political opponents, independent media and activists, suggesting that the new administration has not yet abandoned its former oppressive methods.

"The 'Pouvoir' (The Power) is tightening its grip on power though it is also struggling to the extent that its only political expression is repressive, authoritarian rule. It doesn't have a political initiative anymore", argued Mokhtar, an old Algerian Hirakist who was forced to leave his country in the 1990s because of political persecution.  

Referring to pent-up frustrations among his fellow citizens, Mokhtar said the Algerian leadership has long proved incapable of addressing people's grievances, instead it has continued to use the country's resources and turn its back on the population. 

"The vast majority of the Algerian people can't take it anymore," he said, citing everyday problems like poor infrastructure, ill-equipped hospitals, and a scarcity of cash flows at post offices that mostly pay salaries and pensions for employees, wage-earners and retirees. 

The Algerian regime has ignored the demands of the opposition movement for an overhaul of the entire ruling elite

Tebboune had vowed to initiate reforms during his election in December last year that followed the ousting of Bouteflika in April amid mass rallies rejecting the former ruler's plan to seek a new term after 20 years in power.

The protest movement largely rebuffed the polls deeming the new president and the other four candidates to be representatives of the old establishment, since they all held official positions under the Bouteflika presidency, therefore lacking legitimacy. 

With the widely criticised constitution referendum due to be held in the coming weeks, the continued attacks on civic freedoms, coupled with the aggravated economic downturn, oil price crash and persistent concerns over the government's inability to handle the pandemic, growing popular anger could drive Algerians to the streets again.

The repressive climate has worsened with routine detentions and trials targeting several members of the Hirak movement, extending to journalists, protest supporters and all those expressing their critical opinions online. Prisoners' rights group CNLD says some 45 people are currently behind bars on charges related to the Hirak protests, with several of them facing trial. 

Read more: Algeria's tightening grip on the Hirak protest movement

Rights groups have said Algerian authorities exploited the coronavirus lockdown to introduce measures aimed at silencing dissenting voices. On 22 April, Algeria's parliament proposed "criminalising" reporting that "threatened public order and state security". In addition, there have been continued restrictions on free assembly like the arbitrary detention and prosecution of individuals associated with the Hirak movement. 

According to Maghreb specialist Amel Boubekeur, the ongoing repression does not diminish the energy of the Hirak movement, as she told French daily Ouest-France. "Due to the pandemic, protests have been followed by less visible actions which have still kept the spirit of the Hirak alive. Distribution of gloves, face masks or hand sanitiser to get around the shortcomings of the state". 

In such an environment, many anticipate the Hirak movement could be back soon, whether in the form of street protests or through other ways. 

"The protests will resume," an Algerian activist named Farid told The New Arab, alluding to recent attempts to retake the streets, including a popular march in the town of Bouira, in the Kabylie region, to mark the 82nd Friday of the Hirak protests. "When and how is the big question," he continued, while noting that the movement should create alternative forms of struggle with different actions beyond weekly rallies. 

The Hirak is a step in the struggle for democracy in our country. It's an opportunity

The activist criticised the regime for playing "cat and mouse" with opposition groups by means of violence and restraints on civil liberties, an explosive strategy in the current pressure cooker environment. His one major concern is that, in the face of such an oppressive modus operandi, the Hirak will "inevitably" radicalise, leaving the door open for possible extremist actions. 

Some experts fear that the peaceful, civic-minded movement may transform itself into a violent one, still aiming for the overturn of the system in place. Mokhtar believes the popular front will likely regain its strength ahead of the 1 November referendum. With the Covid-19 pandemic, he remarked, it will need to opt for other types of protest but it will not give up on its fight for democratic change. 

"The Hirak is a step in the struggle for democracy in our country. It's an opportunity," he said, adding that the popular opposition force is a gain Algerians are not ready to lose. In Moktar's view, new forms of political expression could be envisaged to ensure opponents participate in the planned actions as a united front, without being put at risk of arrest or persecution individually, keeping in mind the Pouvior's intent to divide and weaken the movement. 

Read more: Pandemic put Algeria's protests on pause
- will they now resume?

Farid thinks the protest movement needs "to overcome differences" between the various currents within it, between progressives and conservatives as well as between secularists and Islamists, and move on to "one platform" where clear and specific demands can be formulated and presented to the government through a group of mediators.

Besides facing internal ideological splits, which can be exploited by the authorities, the Hirak movement has so far been unable to evolve into a political force that could provide a concrete roadmap for reform.

Decentralised and leaderless, its structure has made it difficult for the very diverse civil movement to broker compromises and establish a unifying platform. Lacking a pragmatic strategic vision for the country's future, its plans have failed to generate quick, specific, or realistic recommendations. 

For Mustapha, another Algerian activist, the Hirak needs to change the way it operates. It should hold fewer street protests to coincide with "symbolic days" (like 1 November) because having crowds of people protesting at a time when the government has planned official celebrations, he explained, would send a loud message of rebuff to the system in power.

It should be "better organised" so to prevail over pro-government infiltrators or troublemakers acting to push for other agendas. It should also set a list of "fair" and "realistic" demands that are achievable in the short and medium terms.  

"The return of the Hirak should happen through a massive demonstration, then different ways of expressing opposition should be considered," Mustapha told The New Arab

Aside from doubts over the forms in which it will make its comeback, the potential for the Hirak's resurgence in force will depend on its ability to organise itself as a front that is representative, cohesive and pragmatic in its vision. 

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec