Hirak is back. After almost 12 months away, the grassroots anti-government movement returned last week to Algeria’s streets to protest the lack of change under President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. The strong turnout shows that Hirak has survived the pandemic and a year of intensified state repression. But it remains to be seen whether the movement can keep up momentum to realize its ambitious vision: the replacement of Algeria’s army-dominated authoritarian system with a civilian democratic state.
Hirak emerged in early 2019 amid widespread political and economic discontent to galvanize citizens against a fifth term in office for the ailing and unpopular president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. On February 22, 2019, Hirak staged the largest protests seen in Algeria in decades. After its successive huge marches led the army to force Bouteflika to resign less than two months later, the movement kept going, denouncing the entire power structure and calling for a complete overhaul of the governing system—as conveyed by the slogan Yetnahaw ga3 (“they all should go”). Hirak held marches every Friday through March 13, 2020, after which its activists halted protests due to the coronavirus and instead gathered online.
During its first year on the streets, beyond compelling the army to remove Bouteflika—no small feat—Hirak broke other political ground. Using a decentralized, leaderless structure; significant organizational creativity; and nonpartisan, peaceful tactics, it generated the largest sustained pro-democracy mobilization in Algeria’s recent history. Hirak united hundreds of thousands of protesters of all generations and of diverse (even opposed) ideologies, such as Islamists and secularists, under a broad demand of systemic change. The movement’s strong criticism of the army’s political role shattered a longstanding taboo in Algeria. And Hirak remained steadfastly peaceful in the face of repression and in a country that endured civil war only three decades ago.
Yet Hirak has not been able to compel the army leadership to make sweeping change. The army replaced Bouteflika with Tebboune, an establishment figurehead picked to protect the existing power structure. Brought to office through a controversial and widely boycotted December 2019 election, Tebboune has officially praised Hirak but proposed only superficial reforms and failed to engage seriously with its demands.
Some observers argue that Hirak’s lack of a specific platform or detailed roadmap to accompany its broad slogans is the reason why it has not been able to exert more influence on Algeria’s decision-makers, mainly the army leadership. While Hirak discussions have flourished online during the pandemic, with initiatives such as “Nida 22” that provide a framework for debate among activists in all regions, there is no consensus among its supporters over whether it should organize as a group, announce a platform, and designate spokespersons.
For one thing, it is extremely difficult even for opposition parties and civic organizations to operate in Algeria’s highly restrictive political environment, and Hirak supporters worry about regime co-optation if the movement becomes more structured. For another, there is a widening division between Islamist and secular activists. Although the two camps had put their opposition aside in the early days of Hirak, recently some more progressive activists have become reluctant to protest alongside Islamists, and the slogan Ni état islamiste, ni état militaire (“neither an Islamic state nor a military state”) is becoming more present. This tension will make it harder to agree on a political platform and may diminish the size of upcoming protests.
Hirak has also had to contend with stepped-up repression during the pandemic. In an aggressive campaign to silence Hirak, the authorities arrested more than 1,500 people last year simply for backing the movement, with many people arrested multiple times. Some 150 peaceful activists were jailed, many on charges of “insulting the president” on social media and “harming national unity.” (According to Abderrahman Salah, a lawyer for Hirak activists, under Tebboune around 60 people have already been prosecuted for “insulting the president,” compared to five such prosecutions during Bouteflika’s entire 20 years in power.)
This crackdown has forced Hirak supporters to spend a lot of energy simply trying to get people out of detention. In an (unsuccessful) attempt to appease protestors, on February 18 Tebboune finally announced that some 60 people would be released. So far, however, activists say that only 39 people involved in Hirak have been freed; some, such as journalist Khaled Drareni, received only a provisional release. And the repression is continuing. The recent protests saw a heavy security presence, police violence, and scores of new arrests. Last Friday, February 26, at least 750 people were arrested, although reportedly all were released after a few hours.
The coming period may provide answers to three key questions. First, will Hirak marches continue to draw large crowds? Second, will Hirak move to create a platform, list of specific demands, and leadership structure? This may be necessary to maintain its strength as a pressure movement, but it is no easy endeavor. Third, will the opposition parties and civil society groups that align with Hirak take up its demands in an effective way, despite their own weaknesses? As protesters return to the streets, many activists are wary of a possible trivialization of Hirak. They warn that without evolving from a movement that denounces into one that offers more precise proposals, Hirak may progressively weaken, even disappear, without changing the Algerian political status quo.
Ilhem Rachidi is a Morocco-based freelance reporter focusing on human rights and protest movements in Algeria and Morocco. She has published with POMED, Al-Monitor, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Christian Science Monitor, Rue89, and Foreign Policy, among others. She is on Twitter @Ilhemrachidi.
1. Author’s communication with Hirak activists in Algeria, March 2, 2021.
2. Author’s interviews during 2020 and 2021 with Hirak activists in Algeria.
3. Author’s communication with Abderrahman Salah, March 3, 2021.
4. As of March 3, 2021, 33 Algerians are incarcerated for politically related motives, with three incarcerated just in recent days, according to the Algerian Detainees website run by activists: https://www.algerian-detainees.org/
5. Author’s communication with a Hirak activist in Algeria, February 28, 2021.