In under a year Algeria's Hirak did the unthinkable, now it must go one further

In under a year Algeria's Hirak did the unthinkable, now it must go one further
Comment: Malia Bouattia takes stock of what the unprecedented Hirak movement has achieved, and the path that lies ahead.
6 min read
20 Feb, 2020
22 February will mark one year of weekly protests in Algeria [Getty]
As the anniversary of the Hirak movement in Algeria approaches, the air is filled with both a mixture of hope as well as worry over what is yet to come in the people's ongoing fight for freedom. 

Protests erupted in the streets of Algeria on 22 February last year over the announcement that then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was seeking a fifth term in the presidential elections.

Every consecutive Friday since, Algerians have filled the streets demanding an end to corruption, and a complete overhaul of a repressive, undemocratic and unjust political system. Students have also been organising across the country every Tuesday.

The protest movement, or Hirak has done the unthinkable in the eyes of many who had lived under the Algerian regime since the country's independence in 1962. Bouteflika was not only forced out of the presidential race, but also resigned in April. The people did not stop protesting, however.

Having learned the lessons of neighbouring countries across the MENA region during the 2011 uprisings, they chose to continue marching, chanting and demanding that the entire system be uprooted. The political elite, known as 'le pouvoir' was left with no choice but to "postpone" the national elections.

Furthermore, powerful actors among Algeria's political elite, and the military started to turn on each other in a bid to save themselves and their seats. General Gaid Salah, once a champion of Bouteflika not only publicly abandoned him as protests grew, but also went after the then-president's brother, Said Bouteflika, who had arguably been the real man in charge of running the palace since 2013. 

Yet, despite dragging some high-profile perpetrators of corruption in front of the courts in order to offer the people a sign of change, Salah could not save himself from the rage of the Algerian people.

For far too long, they have watched the state benefit from the wealth of the country's natural resources as millions of people plunged into further poverty, unemployment and ill health.

It has been both impressive and inspiring to watch an unrelenting people continue to organise week in week out for the last 12 months

Week in week out, the chants of "Gaid Salah, leave!" were getting stronger and more widespread. The regime, instead of buying off the people through limited reform, had instead exposed the real levers of power. 

In response to the sustained, mass discontent from the people towards Salah and the military dictatorship under which they have lived for decades, a presidential election was announced once again on the 12 December 2019.

While the hand-picked president Abdelmadjid Tebboune won the elections as expected on one of the lowest turnouts in the country's history, protestors organised an impressive boycott and mass opposition to a process that they highlighted was neither free nor fair. 

The Hirak movement has achieved many of its demands and served as a source of global inspiration. Algerians have not given up on the idea that has been at the centre of every mobilisation for 52 weeks: "yetnehawga3" - "they've all got to go". They have shown that they are in this for the long-haul, and that each concession offered by the Algerian state and its institutions will not deter them from pursuing a complete transformation of their political system. 

This has not come without difficulties, however. There has been growing use of force by police during demonstrations, and many activists have been imprisoned for their efforts. Journalists have faced censorship at every level, human rights campaigners have faced jail time and independent trade unionists have been experiencing heightened levels of repression for their involvement in mass movements.

For the diaspora, as for progressives around the region, it has been both impressive and inspiring to watch an unrelenting people continue to organise week in week out for the last 12 months.

The sustained pressure has already achieved new victories since the beginning of 2020. Tebboune, despite not enjoying popular recognition as the newly elected president, has been working very hard to build bridges and open talks with the Hirak. He officially pardoned over 3,000 prisoners, in his bid to win the nation over.

And while while the scale of protests marking the 22 
February anniversary will symbolically demonstrate to what extent this has been successful, what comes next will be a good indicator. 

The truth is, however, that so much remains to be done. 

Democratisation in both the economic and political spheres remains illusory, just as the return of the fortunes amassed by regime stooges on the back of the people for decades.

Investment in education, healthcare, and job creation are urgently needed but there is no sign on the horizon of any of this materialising.

Algerians, just like many across the Middle East and North Africa, are young, highly educated and underemployed. They want a say in their future, but the old military elite stand in their way. They still have not been swept aside.

Algerians, just like many across the Middle East and North Africa, are young, highly educated and underemployed

Some speculate that in the period ahead efforts will be ramped up, including to potential daily demonstrations. Whether it is this, a general strike, occupations or other forms of mass direct action, it's clear that greater and continuous disruption is necessary.

The ability of the movement to remain mobilised for so long has been truly inspiring but if it is to end the system it denounces, it might need to intensify as well.

Across the region from 2011 onwards, we have seen mass occupation and continuous demonstration in squares and public spaces. When nationwide workers strikes joined in, old regimes collapsed like the ones in Tunisia and Egypt.

Read more: 
Algerians, now's the time to finish what you started

They were, in different ways able to regain the initiative later on, but only once the people were demobilised. If Algerians too, are to free themselves from le pouvoir, then similar continuous mass action will be necessary. 

I was struck recently when reading about Karl Marx's stay in Algeria in the last year of his life. He wrote extensively about the country in his notebooks and in letters, and the anti-colonial sentiment among Algerians played an important role in shaping his late writings about the horrors of European colonialism and his support for liberation movements in the Global South.

In one such letter, addressed to his daughter Laura, he celebrates what he calls "the absolute equality in their social intercourse" before concluding: "Nevertheless, they will go to rack and ruin without a revolutionary movement."

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

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.