Algeria’s Hirak: Experimenting a Political Agora

While Hirak’s purpose was to challenge the whole political system, its longevity and periodicity turned it into a weekly forum for discussing domestic and foreign policy issues.

Demonstrators in front of the Grand Post Office in Algiers, 1 August 2019. On the sign: “Our dreams don’t fit in your ballot boxes”

Thousands of Algerians took to the streets on 22 February 2021 to celebrate the second anniversary of Hirak, the large-scale popular movement which brought down the then President of the Republic, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and led to the arrest of several high-ranking officials.

These marches were banned in March 2020 because of the Covid pandemic, but now, the demonstrators have taken to the streets again, demanding the dismantling of a political system in place since 1962.

The resumption began in Kerrata, a town 280 km to the East of Algiers. On 16 February 2021, a huge crowd from various cities across the country occupied the streets there, where the first Hirak demos had taken place on the same date in 2019.

For these thousands of Algerians what was at stake was to show that the movement was alive and well, that the struggle for a better Algeria was still going on. Anyone who had doubts that Hirak was really back had to change their minds on Friday 19 February: the protesting crowd was as big as ever.”Hirak isn’t dead, and the struggle is far from over.” The next day, it was the students’ turn to resume their weekly protests, as in 2019.

On 18 February, a few days before the anniversary of “Hirak the blessed”, as President Abdelmajid Tebboune called it, the latter, no doubt anticipating that resumption of the protests, unexpectedly announced that he was pardoning the Hirak detainees, “between 50 and 60 individuals all told”. And some ten days later, the Ministry of Justice did indeed announce the release of 59 Hirak prisoners, among them the journalist Khaled Drareni, one of the movement’s emblematic figures. But this gesture of appeasement did not have the intended impact.

A weekly rendezvous

Having failed to achieve its goal of bringing down “the system,” Hirak gradually became a grass-roots opposition movement, reacting to the various governmental decisions and expressing, at each demonstration, its opinion on current events. From the spring of 2019 to that of 2020, even while the principal demand remained the end of the present regime, each Friday’s slogans dealt with the latest government decisions or reacted to its announcements. Thus, in October 2019, Hirak condemned the cabinet’s approval of the hydrocarbon law, accused of granting foreign companies unacceptable privileges.

Three months later, in January 2020, the crowds spoke out angrily against declarations made by President Abdelmadid Tebboune proclaiming “the need to develop shale gas”. The protestors distrust that source of energy, deemed dangerous for the environment. some of the slogans chanted during that period were "No to shale gas”; “Shale gas? Develop it in Paris” (where some politicians were in the habit of purchasing luxury apartments). And the authorities refrained from tabling the subject again. Even after the Covid-19 epidemic interrupted the Hirak protests, the issue was never brought up again by the authorities. Or leastwise they no longer refer to it as a firm governmental decision but rather as a possible future option.

The shale issue was cleverly evaded, moreover, in the government’s “plan of action” submitted to the People’s National Assembly on 11 February 2020. The chapter on energy mentions only conventional hydrocarbons, offshore exploration projects and renewable energies. In the same document, the government promised to raise the national minimum wage, to make it easier to set up an association and to authorise the opening of radio stations on the web and on the air waves. All of these measures were aimed at placating the people one year after the start of the protests.

Hakim Addad, one of the founding members of the association Rassemblement, actions, jeunesse (RAJ) which has been very active in Hirak, is convinced that the movement really has the power structure running scared: “It is a nation-wide and weekly agora which doesn’t seem to be running out of steam.” Better still, the protest movement does not confine itself to domestic issues. It also addresses international questions. At the beginning of 2020, for example, the protestors came out strongly against the"deal of the century,” Donald Trump’s so-called Peace plan supposedly meant to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Placards reading “le deal de la honte” (Ihe shameful deal) were commonplace in Algiers on two successive Fridays, 31 January and 7 February 2020.

Saïd Loucif, professor of social psychology in the college of political science and international relations (Université Alger 3), has observed a new oppositional dynamic in Hirak “which is part of a broad struggle for recognition and for the reappropriation of political matters”.

Responding to people’s demands the better to divide them

These regular comments on current events have made Hirak into a political force to be reckoned with despite its lack of structure and its diversity. Cherif Driss, professor of political science in the Graduate School of Journalism and Information Science at Algiers University believes that in its first phase Hirak became a genuine pressure group which the government had to take into account: “Governmental decisions in its plan of action for 2020, such as those dealing with the reform of the pension system, the reform of the health system, and taxation, including the decision to do away with income tax for earnings below 30,000 dinars ($226), were all inspired by demands voiced during Hirak.”

However, Professor Driss argues, “the power structure made sure that there would be a segmentation of grievances, separating the social demands from the political ones and mostly providing responses only to the former. They are trying to pretend that Hirak is not looking for change in the political order but only in the social and economic order.” The professor believes that the Algerian Hirak is here to stay. On the other hand, “it will be unable to achieve its objectives and become a decisive force for change if it does not become a structured entity with a clear leadership.”

As for Noureddine Bekkis, professor of political sociology at the University of Algiers, he hopes that there will be a convergence between the different advocates of reform. In a talk on Radio M (a private Internet radio station) he explained that the movement which has become over time an opposition force is not likely to organise or evolve further. “Hirak is not a revolution, but it has triggered a reformist dynamic,” he points out. “The most moderate figures on the Hirak side and those in the power structure will find a common ground to implement the desired reforms.”

However, Professor Bekkis deplores the fact that Hirak has no structured social anchorage: “There is no powerful trade union or political party on which Hirak can rely, since the system has already broken all the structures capable of accompanying such a movement,” he says. Nonetheless, he is still optimistic, since he believes the country is immersed in a positive dynamic and that we just have to wait a while to see genuine changes occur.

Saïd Loucif agrees with this diagnosis, he is convinced “that in Algeria, every aspect of political activity must be re-examined, all the more so as most of the opposition parties were created precisely in order to smother political action”.

For her part, Louisa Driss-Haït Hamadouche, a professor of political science at Algiers University, emphasises the difficulty of the task facing the protest movement: “The Algerian system has a great capacity for resilience and has always relied on three pillars to guarantee its longevity: co-optation, repression and division”, she explains. However, she also observes that these methods seem less effective today than they once were. And she insists: “The decline of the country’s financial resources and the judicial proceedings brought against a number of high-ranking officials have limited the scope of co-optation. Rrepression ends up by producing national heroes. And the efforts to divide the opposition have not stemmed the national momentum, quite the contrary. I don’t think regime change is an impossibility in Algeria. But it will involve a revision of the State’s structures and institutions, as well as our economic and social order.”

In 2020, President Tebboune issued a decree making 22 February, anniversary of the beginning of Hirak, a national holiday to celebrate fraternity and the alliance of the people with its army in favour of democracy. Never had the Algerian power structure taken such a conciliatory stand vis-a-vis a popular movement which was clearly demanding its downfall. A symbol in itself.