The Algerian People’s Movement is still alive!

Hamza Hamouchene reports on the struggle for a republic and the end of the military regime

On February 16th 2021, Kherrata, a town in eastern Algeria, witnessed a huge mobilisation. Tens of thousands of people marched to commemorate the second anniversary of one of the protests that led to the huge marches at the national level on February 22nd 2019, which gave birth to a historic popular movement (Hirak).  

Kherrata’s events a few days ago signalled the long-awaited return of the Hirak and are a harbinger of the resurgence of an active resistance in the streets to the military dictatorship, after a temporary halt in March 2020 due to the global pandemic.

For more than a year since February 2019, the people of Algeria have waged an inspiring revolt against the country’s military regime. Millions took to the streets, united in their rejection of the ruling system, demanding radical democratic change. They chanted “They must all go!” and “The country is ours and we’ll do what we wish” – two slogans that have become emblematic of this new Algerian revolution.

This is not just a middle-class uprising, as Western mainstream media like to paint it. People from marginalized neighbourhoods, unemployed youth and the working poor have all marched for freedom, voicing their indignation. “Antouma Asbabna!” they shouted, “You are responsible for our misery!”

Women have played an important role as well and had a strong presence in protests all over the country, including in conservative areas. Some feminist organizations are working to put women’s liberation at the centre of this democratic revolution. On March 8th 2020, International Women’s Day, Algerian women chanted in the streets: “We are not here to celebrate; we are here to uproot you!”

The country has been in a political crisis for decades, particularly since the 1992 military coup that prevented the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from winning the first multi-party elections since independence. The atrocious war on civilians that followed killed an estimated 200,000.

Though the roots of Algeria’s problems lie in the colonial era, recent troubles are the result of a politics of parasitic accumulation and corruption: a military-oligarchy nexus that denies people their sovereignty and benefits foreign and domestic capital. The Algerian uprising comes at a time of economic crisis and suffocating austerity following the decline of oil and gas revenues (exacerbated by the pandemic), and infighting among the ruling factions.

The Hirak (‘movement’ in Arabic) succeeded in overthrowing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in early April 2019 after only six weeks of protests. It managed to accomplish much in its first year: cancellation of two presidential elections (April and July 2019), massive active boycott of another (December 2019), seeing through the various divisive manoeuvres of the regime, and the maintaining of its momentum and its fundamental demands of “We want independence!” and “A civilian not a military state!”

The movement’s deeply anti-colonial politics and enduring unity, especially after the country’s many years of civil strife, are also great achievements. The placards and chants showed the failure of the regime’s attempts to sow division: “Algerians are brothers and sisters, the people are united”. After decades of atomized opposition and silencing of dissent, the movement has raised political consciousness and brought determination to fight for radical democratic change.

High-profile oligarchs and once-powerful individuals are in jail, including former prime ministers, and the deposed president’s brother. This is a big achievement for the Hirak, though many felt the anti-corruption campaign was a matter of settling scores within the ruling classes and just a highly-publicised smokescreen to create a false sense that the regime is changing. But none of it would have happened without the popular mobilizations and calls for accountability and an end to corruption: “You devoured the country…Oh you thieves!”

The Hirak and the pandemic

Due to the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Hirak decided to halt its weekly protests and marches in mid-March 2020 after celebrating its first anniversary. In the first weeks of March, the protests continued, fuelled by an unflinching desire to get rid of the regime as well as a deep mistrust in the authorities’ calls on people to avoid big gatherings. However, wisdom prevailed, and the popular movement temporarily discontinued its street actions on March 17th 2020. But the energy and dynamism of the movement has metamorphosed into health campaigns and solidarity actions for the most vulnerable in society during these difficult times.

Meanwhile, the authoritarian military regime has been doubling down on the repression of journalists and activists. Many have been judicially harassed and jailed since the start of the lockdown, often for their social media posts. New laws to further stifle dissent have been approved in order to criminalize actions that are deemed to “undermine state security and national unity”, accusations that have been levelled at many activists and journalists. Moreover, the regime continues to tighten restrictions on online media by blocking access to several dissenting sites like Radio M, Maghreb Emergent and Interlignes.

Meanwhile, a new re-configuration of power between the various factions of the regime is emerging, culminating in the release in early January 2021 of the former security services chief, General Toufik. Popularly known as ‘God of Algeria’, he had been previously sentenced for 20 years of jail for conspiracy.

After the suspicious death in December 2019 of General Gaid Salah, the then de facto ruler of the country following the demise of Bouteflika, it seems that the balance of forces is shifting yet again towards the powerful networks of the former spy chief or probably towards some kind of unstable equilibrium and forced mutual understanding between various interests of how to collectively continue pillaging the nation’s wealth.

Just a few days before the largely boycotted constitutional referendum (23.7% voter turnout according to official statistics) held on November 1st 2020, Algerian President Tebboune contracted Covid-19 and was transferred to Germany for medical treatment. He has been absent from the political scene for most of the last 3-4 months. This is not only reminiscent of the situation in which Algerians found themselves in the last few years of the now dethroned Bouteflika’s rule, but is a clear indication of how the nation’s health services have been hollowed out by decades of neoliberal restructuring, underfunding and mismanagement.  Add to this the injustice of it all when an illegitimate President has the privileges to be treated in foreign cutting-edge facilities while the bulk of the people are left to their fate.

The economic consequences of the pandemic in Algeria have been catastrophic on poverty and unemployment levels, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs lost. The year 2020 has seen emblematic workers’ struggles and strikes to fight unjust layoffs, the non-payment of salaries and various assaults on their rights to organise and set up trade unions. We also can’t forget the informal workers that constitute around half of Algeria’s labour force, typically working without contracts, unions, or access to social protection schemes.

The pandemic will further dispossess these already marginalised sections of society and push some of them to risk their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Fortress Europe for a better life. Harga – undocumented migration in Maghrebi Arabic – has increased lately even during the pandemic, while the EU is escalating and strengthening its inhumane racist border imperialism.

On another front, the start of 2020 has seen an unprecedented oil price crash. The plunge in the oil prices was unparalleled as the escalating pandemic accelerated the profound shock to the fossil fuel industry.

The impact was brutal. For oil-producing countries such as Algeria, more strain was added to their extractivist economies with mounting budget deficits and a haemorrhaging of their financial reserves. Despite some recovery of oil prices (currently around the $60 mark), Algeria would need an oil price of over $157 a barrel just to balance its budget, according to the IMF. This means more painful austerity measures, more unemployment and pauperisation for the vast majority of Algerians.

They thought they could bury the movement. They didn’t know that the Hirakists were seeds

In the current gloomy political, health and socio-economic context, the regime thought that it could bury the Hirak, but little did it know that the Algerian rebels and revolutionary youth are like seeds waiting to grow again, hopefully with more vigour and energy. In fact, in the last few weeks, there have been growing calls online to resume the Hirak and restart the weekly marches and protests after almost a year of hiatus. These with the outbursts in Kherrata on February 16th sent the Algerian ruling classes into panic.

Following a second hospital stay in Germany, President Tebboune returned to Algeria on February 12th. Alarmed by the approaching second anniversary of the Algerian Hirak and the potential return of the weekly mobilisations, he initiated a simulacrum of a dialogue with certain political parties. And on February 18th, he addressed the nation in an official televised speech announcing a few measures that are aimed at defusing popular anger in order to subvert the movement and extinguish its flame.

He dissolved the parliament, called for early legislative elections, promised that he would reshuffle government and ordered amnesty for dozens of prisoners of the Hirak. These official gestures are perceived by large sections of society as cosmetic and disingenuous. Inspired by the motto “everything changes so that nothing changes”, they are meant to deceive people and to pull the rug out from under a re-invigorated Hirak by the Kherrata events.

This is a futile exercise and won’t work. There is no doubt that the Hirak would resume its weekly protests from February 22nd because the same conditions that gave rise to it are still present, if not exacerbated by the health and economic crises. The Covid-19 pandemic might have been a blessing to the ruling classes in Algeria. But the movement is not finished: “We are the descendants of Amirouche [anti-colonial national hero] and we will never go back”.

Coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the unleashing of a revolutionary process that shook the foundations of political power in the Arab region, the year 2021 might not be just symbolic for the Algerian Hirak.

Hamza Hamouchene is a London-based Algerian researcher and activist. He is currently the North Africa programme coordinator at the Transnational Institute.

Image: The Hirak in Algeria 2019. Author: Titouhwayne, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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