On 22 February, Algeria’s protest movement, the hirak, will complete a year of weekly street demonstrations in the country that have been unprecedented in intensity and longevity since the 1954-1962 War of Independence from France.
This popular movement is a revolt against the consecutive authoritarian regimes that have emerged in the post-independence era and have continued to dominate Algeria’s ruling system.
With chants like “independence” recalling the struggle against colonialism, Algerians have conveyed their rejection of today’s “pouvoir” – the ruling elite of military generals and senior businessmen that rule Algeria from behind the scenes – in a series of unrelenting demonstrations throughout the past year.
Only days after the former ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) announced its endorsement of former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office, the first popular protest broke out in Kherrata in northern Algeria on 16 February 2019.
Having suffered a stroke in 2013 that affected his movement and speech, Bouteflika, 82, had barely appeared in public for six years. His brother, Said, was seen as the power behind the throne, managing his wheelchair-bound brother’s fifth bid for the presidency as he shuttled back and forth to Swiss hospitals, enraging the Algerian public.
Protests in the capital Algiers have been banned since 2001, but the city rose up following Friday prayers on 22 February 2019, roaring with chants against the incapacitated Bouteflika and his renewed bid for office. The protests rapidly spread across the country, becoming a weekly event every Friday following noon prayers and later also on Tuesdays.
Coming under pressure from chief of the Algerian military staff Ahmed Gaid Saleh, Bouteflika was forced to step down two months later in April 2019. But by then the protesters had moved on and were demanding the departure of Bouteflika-era officials and the overhaul of the entire ruling system.
The leaderless movement’s massive street protests succeeded in delaying the July presidential elections scheduled by Saleh, who, while occasionally appeasing the hirak, also attempted to contain it.
As the protests raged on, officials were forced to resign, and the authorities launched an anti-corruption campaign that targeted Bouteflika’s brother Said and dozens of influential figures and businessmen loosely connected with the former president’s network.
By the end of the summer, the security forces had begun arresting figures from the leaderless movement, as Saleh, by now Algeria’s de facto ruler, had publicly denounced the demonstrations.
Presidential elections among selected candidates were finally held in December despite the hirak’s rejection of them. A former premier, Abelmejid Tebboune, 74, was then elected in a widely contested vote marred by violence, calls for a boycott and the absence of international or independent observers.
On 23 December, Saleh died suddenly of a heart attack.
While the protests continued every Friday and Tuesday, they might have been affected in size, observers say, as questions over the future and objectives of the hirak met with few answers.
A year later, the faces of Algeria’s major players are gone, behind bars, or replaced, and the legitimacy of Bouteflika’s successor is being questioned. But le pouvoir remains in place.
However, the fact that the balance of power has not tilted towards it testifies to the delicate situation in the North African country. Still reeling from the bloody decade of violence that followed the scrapping by the army of democratic elections in 1992, it appears that both sides in the country prefer to move forward cautiously.
Employing a carrot-and-stick strategy, the authorities have “oscillated between promises of democratic reform and continuing authoritarian practice, between co-optation and repression,” noted Algeria experts Isabelle Werenfels and Luca Miehe on the German Qantara website.
On Sunday, as representatives of numerous bodies associated with the hirak attempted to hold their first press conference to mark the movement’s first anniversary, the security forces forced the Algiers hotel hosting them to cancel the event.
As this was happening, Tebboune, addressing a conference of Algeria’s provincial governors, gave a nod to the hirak’s anniversary, describing it in favourable words as a “peaceful and blessed” movement that had taken “to the streets under the protection of the army”.
But “the press is banned while Tebboune talks about a new Algeria. Nothing has changed,” Algerian journalist El-Kadi Ihsane lamented on Twitter.
On Sunday, Kheratta, the site of the first anti-Bouteflika protests, erupted as part of a series of demonstrations commemorating the hirak’s anniversary. On Tuesday, protests raged ahead of the expected massive demonstrations on Friday.
A press conference was held on Sunday by dozens of hirak-associated bodies at the SOS Association of the Disappeared, a human-rights groups, headquarters.
While he emphasised that they did not represent the hirak, Hafeeth Thamrat, a lawyer, said that civil society collectives and groups associated with the protest movement had held more than 20 meetings during the past two months. Their objective was to hold a national seminar in order to articulate the hirak’s main demands.
“It is unreasonable for every group to continue to voice its demands individually,” he added.
The speakers said that they had acquired permits to hold the hirak’s first conference on 22 February in the massive Harcha Hassan Sports Arena in Algiers. Unless the security forces cancel the event, it will be the first organised meeting of hirak actors and associations, including academics, journalists, student unions and activists.
Should it take place, this “historic” conference, in the words of Algerian observers, could adopt a manifesto likely to serve as a starting point for a new political dynamic in Algeria in the coming months.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.