Five years on, Algeria's Hirak must learn from past mistakes

Five years on, Algeria's Hirak must learn from past mistakes
The movement mobilised millions and inspired hope for political change, writes Abdelkader Cheref. Facing severe state repression, what's left of Hirak's spirit?
5 min read
13 Mar, 2024
The Algerian government has cracked down heavily on any form of dissent or activism since the Hirak of 2019. [Getty]

On 22nd February 2024, the Algerian people celebrated the 5th anniversary of the Algerian nonpartisan Hirak uprising – Arabic for “movement.”

Algerians still recall how, on 22nd February 2019, millions took to the streets in disciplined and peaceful marches to oppose the country’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.

The protestors marched in the streets every Friday until they forced Bouteflika, whose 20-year rule was rife with corruption and institutional decay, to resign in April 2019.

The ousting of Bouteflika was presented by the army as a success in response to the expectations of millions of demonstrators. But this strategy did not dupe the movement.

While a Sky News Arabia broadcaster claimed on air that Algerians in downtown Algiers were rejoicing at the news of Bouteflika’s resignation, Sofiane, a 33-year-old man, unexpectedly barged in the live broadcast to passionately declare,  “We are not happy…They should all go!”

"Without a shred of doubt, the extreme repression and weaponisation of the judicial system discouraged scores of Algerians from taking to the streets"

Sofiane’s watchword, “Yetnahaw gaa (they should all go),” – calling for the ejection of the powers that had ruled the country ever since Algeria got its independence from French colonial rule in 1962 – would become the main slogan of the Hirak.

At first, the Algerian regime tolerated the protests and the Hirak continued for over a year until March 2020. But the Covid pandemic was instrumental in helping clear the population off the streets. Finally, the Hirak succumbed to lockdown and suspended the protests.

What followed was the classic carrot and stick approach.

The government paid symbolic tribute to the Hirak in the preamble to the newly adopted 2020 constitution – a constitution that the Hirak boycotted because it only brought some cosmetic changes to an authoritarian  regime – and the new President Abdelmadjid Tebboune even called the Hirak a “blessed movement that had saved Algeria”.

But this was all window dressing. A heavy clampdown ensued, with authorities tightening their grip on the movement, and jailing popular Hirak activists on obviously politically motivated or trumped-up accusations such as “harming national unity.”

An unparalleled wave of arbitrary arrests targeted academics, journalists, members of political parties, civil society activists, and students.

Without a shred of doubt, the extreme repression and weaponisation of the judicial system discouraged scores of Algerians from taking to the streets.

At the same time as the growing regime repression, cracks were emerging within the Hirak, revealing infighting among the Hirak's self-proclaimed leadership. Among the splits were Islamists vs secularists, nationalists vs Pan-Arabists, liberals vs conservatives, Arabs vs Amazigh (Berber), and Francophones vs Arabophones.

The Hirak did not maintain the apparent unity that had given it power and marked its beginning. If truth be told, the Hirak fractured along ideological, ethnic, and linguistic lines, all with opposing perspectives regarding Algeria’s political future.

The bone of contention among Hirak activists and some of the opposition leaders was their respective positions regarding the forthcoming elections after the ousting of Bouteflika.


The nomenklatura, pro-establishment parties - such as the FLN (National Liberation Front), the RND (Democratic National Rally), and opposition parties like the Islamist MSP (Movement of Society for Peace) and the left-wing PT (workers’ party) - supported the army Chief of Staff’s roadmap, which called for amending the existing constitution.  

But Hirak activists vetoed the proposition, with Hirak’s leading figures favouring an immediate transitional phase and a constituent assembly to institute a new republic that is true to the spirit of “they should all go.”

Besides the divisive question about the transitional period, Hirak started brandishing contradictory slogans about the nature of the new state and its political identity.

As these divisions grew, and in an attempt to impose their political model, some associations like RAJ (Youth Action Rally) initiated the Tuesday students’ marches, further splitting the movement.

Today, five years after Algerians first took the streets in 2019, the Hirak has been practically extinguished.

"Should a new wave of protests materialise in the near future, it must avoid replicating the mistakes of the Hirak, which would inevitably lead to the same results"

Algerian authorities have systematically stifled peaceful dissent and cracked down on the last critical voices and political opponents. Hundreds of people have been arbitrarily arrested and incarcerated. Dozens of peaceful protesters, political and human rights activists, journalists, and whistle blowers are languishing behind bars. Even a social media post can land you in jail.

And as this repression against Hirak activists intensifies, the socio-political and economic crises are deepening.

Still, the people of Algeria recall the peaceful “Revolution of Smiles” that filled the country with hope for change.

No other “Arab Spring” country witnessed such a prolonged mobilisation of peaceful and across-the-board uprisings. It is absolutely a source of pride for the millions of Algerians who suffered the 1990 civil war ordeal.

Should a new wave of protests materialise in the near future, it must avoid replicating the mistakes of the Hirak, which would inevitably lead to the same results.

The Hirak failed because of the infighting, the Covid lockdowns, and the regime's repressive measures, but also from its inability to address upfront all serious ideological and political issues.

But the “Revolution of Smiles” succeeded in bringing an end to the Bouteflika era and wiping out its corrupt system. Two of his prime ministers, business figures associated with Bouteflika’s presidency, and scores of civil servants are now serving prison sentences.

The Hirak achieved this without bloodshed, and will forever be a significant chapter in the story of Algeria’s contemporary history.

Besides enabling Algerians to tear down the wall of fear, and instigating a radical development in the political culture of Algeria, the Hirak movement did, nevertheless, address one fundamental issue over and over again: the intrusive role of the military in Algerian socio-political affairs.

Dr. Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian academic and a freelance journalist based in the US.

Follow him on Twitter: @Abdel_Cheref

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.