One year on, Algeria’s protest movement is soul-searching
Around a year ago, on 22 February 2019, Algerians thronged the streets to protest against then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term after nearly 20 years in power.
Mr Bouteflika stood down in April. But Algerians kept on protesting. By this time, the protests had a name – the Hirak (movement).
Ten months into the protests, an election ushered in Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president. But the demonstrations continued.
One year on, some political players and national figures have sounded alarm bells, warning of the movement’s “failure” and “radicalism”. They have called for dialogue with the authorities and the pursuit of “achievable” goals.
But others are more optimistic and insist that things will never be the same again in Algeria.
In January this year, Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud wrote an article in which he said the Hirak had “failed”. His analysis appeared in French weekly Le Point, and made waves in Algeria.
He cited the “myopia” of the “urban elites of the opposition” and a “quixotic war” against perceived foreign intervention – in particular from France, the former colonial power. Daoud concluded that the movement had failed and had met an “impasse”, albeit “temporarily”.
He is not the only one to have said so. Others have warned that the Hirak has reached a standstill as the authorities plough on with their agenda.
Since the start of 2020, President Tebboune – who briefly served as Mr Bouteflika’s prime minister – has been consulting political figures about amendments to the constitution.
A referendum on the amendments is expected in the summer, followed by legislative elections by the end of the year.
This month, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad pitched his government’s plan of action – dubbed “a new deal for a new Algeria” to parliament, promising to “cleanse the disastrous heritage” of past governance.
But many are sceptical about the authorities’ promises. More than 100 protesters are reportedly still in detention, events organised by the opposition are still often banned, and the judiciary continues to show subservience to the executive branch.
As for the authorities’ purge against former officials and powerful businessmen, it has actually drawn criticism from many protesters and political players, who have called instead for a transitional justice system to be put in place.
“Nothing has changed” is the leitmotiv repeated by human rights lawyer and political activist Mostefa Bouchachi, a familiar face at the protests who gives frequent interviews to the press. That is why Algerians will carry on, he says, far from being discouraged.
Whether or not to engage with the authorities has been a bone of contention, causing divisions in the movement.
Sofiane Djilali, the leader of the Jil Jadid (New Generation) party and erstwhile coordinator of the Mouwatana (Citizenship) movement has warned against the “radicalism” of some segments of the Hirak and argues that cooperating with the authorities is the only way to effect real change. But he has stopped short of saying the movement has failed.
Despite diverging opinions about the road ahead, many Algerians share the same demands – as Mr Djilali said – and many feel that things have changed permanently.
Some observers are confident that a new dynamic and social pact have been established and will bear fruit. One word that crops up again and again in commentaries is “opportunity”, conveying the sense that the Hirak is a work in progress.
Some people think the Hirak has failed because there was a presidential election… They see the Hirak as a political party that failed to make it to power. But, that’s not what the Hirak is…The Hirak is political, but it’s not a political party,” journalist Said Djaafer said in an episode of Radio M’s flagship Cafe Presse Politique programme.
“It’s a movement that comprises all political currents, all social classes, which wants to change the rules of the political game. They don’t want to take power.”
“Those who say it has failed are not looking at this new dynamic: students are organizing, there are people who have never taken an interest in politics who suddenly are interested, it is these things that are being sown… you cannot talk about a failure.”
“It’s a movement that will not stop, even if the demonstrations stop.”
One journalist threw the ball back at the authorities, saying they were the ones who had “failed”.
“The regime has failed.It is over, and the democratic revolution is only beginning,” Amin Khan said on the Radio M website. “The equation is simple. This is a historic opportunity for the country. The regime is faced with a popular movement characterised by rare wisdom. Algerians are not hungry for violence, revenge, expeditious justice or a witch hunt.”
“They want the peaceful and orderly departure of the regime through the law, via… democratic elections [and] the establishment of legitimate institutions… in other words, the complete opposite of a wild adventure or extravagant ambitions.”