On its second anniversary, Algeria's Hirak proves it never went away

On its second anniversary, Algeria's Hirak proves it never went away
Comment: Algeria's protesters returned to the streets this week, proving they haven't been weakened by the hiatus caused by the pandemic, or regime attempts to stifle them, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
26 Feb, 2021
Algerians mark the two-year anniversary of the uprisings that erupted in February 2019 [Getty]
The writing was literally painted on the wall: "Hirak, we shall return after Covid-19". The Algerian people declared a temporary hiatus in their revolution, as the global pandemic hit and a national lockdown was announced by president Abdelmadjid Tebboune in March 2020. 

Now, a year later, the Hirak has returned, and thousands took to the streets of cities across Algeria this week to mark the second anniversary of the 2019 uprisings.

Once the Hirak protesters succeeded in their initial aim of toppling the then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who was seeking a fifth term in office despite being unfit to govern, they continued to march demanding the fall of the entire regime.

For 13 months, Algerians flooded the streets every single week - usually on Tuesdays and Fridays - calling for "a civil state, not a military one". When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, the
Hirak announced it would be pausing the demonstrations in order to respect the restrictions necessary to stop the spread of the virus. 

The regime took full advantage of the pandemic period, by introducing countless repressive measures and arresting prominent dissenting voices who had been deeply rooted in the Hirak.

Tebboune seized every opportunity to target journalists and those in the media who were critical of the status quo. As well as arrests,
laws were put in place to supposedly clamp down on "fake news" and protect the nation, which activists and journalists vehemently opposed as a violation of freedom of speech and the press.

The regime's pretense of cleansing Algeria of disinformation was especially rich coming from an establishment so renowned for its lies, censorship, and corruption. 

Whether the regime chose to recognise this or not, it clearly feared the arrival of the Hirak's anniversary

Even with mounting international criticism over the targeting of political opponents, however, the pretense that Tebboune was finally hearing the discontent on the streets, continued. In reality, his "listening" was incredibly selective. Only recognised - and loyal - opposition figures were given access to the public debate, while elections were called against the will of the people, without any structural changes necessary to make them transparent or representative. 

In fact, Tebboune's election was overwhelmingly boycotted and his victory subsequently labelled a farce by the Hirak. The president kept announcing reforms and eventually a new constitution, continuing to present himself, against all evidence, as the man who would bring change to the country.

A protester's slogan reads: "We'll be back after Covid-19"

While the streets may have been emptied of the revolutionary fire which had swept the country months earlier, Algerians were certainly not blind to all that the regime was doing. Social media continued to be flooded with updates, discussions and debates over each political event throughout the lockdown. The people made it known that the movement had not been disbanded or defeated, it was just waiting to reorganise. 

Whether the regime chose to recognise this or not, it clearly feared the arrival of the Hirak anniversary. Days prior, Tebboune announced the release of dozens of political prisoners. Journalist Khaled Drareni, whose 11-month long detention was condemned by human rights groups around the world as he quickly became a symbol of the fight for the freedom of the press in Algeria, was among those who were given amnesty.

Read more: Prominent Algerian journalist's appeal postponed until March

In the days that followed, Algerians sent a message to the regime that has been consistent throughout the years of uprisings: they will accept no compromises and no concessions. As the central slogan of the revolution had it: "yetnahawgah" - they all have to go.

Despite what the regime might have hoped, the release of political prisoners was not met with an outpouring of gratitude by the Hirak. If the history of post-independent Algeria has taught us anything, it's that the regime continuously overestimates how their "gestures" will be welcomed, and underestimates the people's rage and memory. 

The thousands across Algeria who took to the streets on the second anniversary of the Hirak reaffirmed that the temporary pause in demonstrations - and the temporary lack of push back against the repressive measures imposed by Tebboune during this period - had no impact on the political mission that they had set themselves back in 2019.

The redistribution of Algeria's considerable wealth was never far from the Hirak's demands for democracy

If anything, the regime's catastrophic handling of the pandemic, which included the President fleeing to Germany for Covid-19 treatment while his own people were left without adequate care, has fuelled protesters' anger further.

Images of presidential planes flying back and forth between Germany and Algeria contrasted painfully with the pictures and
videos emerging from packed, overflowing hospital wards, with people literally dying in the corridors. This was, in many ways, a striking snapshot of Algeria's current reality: A rich ruling class turning to Europe for its own care and comfort, while its population is left in squalor, without the most basic welfare.

The global slump in oil prices - on which Algeria's economy remains so dependent - is likely to make this situation worse still. As national incomes fall, the regime will try to make the people foot the bill by further reducing government spending and protecting their own earnings at the same time.

The redistribution of Algeria's considerable wealth was never far from the Hirak's demands for democracy. The worsening economic situation is likely to further emphasise the need, in the words of the revolutions that shook the region in 2011, "bread, freedom, and social justice". 

The scenes of thousands marching once more across the country was not what the regime had planned or hoped for

The scenes of thousands marching once more across the country was not what the regime had planned or hoped for. There were arrests on the day, including of one figure who had just been released a few days prior. Furthermore, the following day, when students also resumed Tuesday demonstrations, they were met with heavy police repression. Despite the violence, they resisted and fought for their right to protest, demanding "a free and democratic Algeria".

It's not clear whether the Hirak demonstrations will incur more police and military repression as the regime scrambles to put out a flame they had hoped was long gone. The tactics of violence are certainly not unknown to Algerians who have witnessed it at home as well as throughout the surrounding region during the 2011 Arab uprisings.

In the past, the regime failed to repress the Hirak because of the sheer numbers and popular support the movement was able to gather. Whether it can regain the same momentum also remains to be seen.

This week, though, protesters showed they remain unwavering, that their demands have not changed, and that they have not been weakened by the hiatus that the pandemic forced on them. 

Yetnahawgah, and nothing less. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.