The Algerian demonstrations represented a qualitative jump in the political consciousness of the Algerian people – one which the former President of the Republic, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, tried to stifle by any available means during the 20 years of his reign. As such, the 22 February 2019 has become a new historical reference for the Algerian collective memory, if not a key turning point for the people as well as for the political elite.
The term ‘Hirak’, in Arabic, refers to any occurrence of activity against motionlessness. In the Algerian case it was a sudden burst of activity, rapid and unexpected, against the rotten political status quo. So, what was it that led to the revolt of the Algerian people, which has taken observers aback and pushed the system into disorientation?
Undoubtedly, the political, economic, and social conditions – which Bouteflika had falsely promised to improve – did not meet the expectations of the Algerian people. There are also the regime’s blatant legal and constitutional violations.
In addition, in the year leading up to protests erupting, a number of events took place which reinforced the incompetence and negligence of the regime towards the people, and intensified the general state of discontent across the country.
To begin with, social media played an important role in the immediate broadcasting of news and events that would otherwise have been unavailable to citizens, as well as in the spreading of expressions of solidarity between Algerians. For example, the death of Ayache Mahjoub, who had fallen into an abandoned Artesian aquifer on 18 December 2018, was a story that had gone viral, as did the absolute inaction of the authorities whilst he was left to die for six entire days. What added insult to injury, was the insensitive intervention of the Wali (Mayor) and his public statements. This horrifying incident brought Algerians together on social media and provided a space for them to collectively express their sadness and anger.
Another alarm bell was the spread of cholera – a disease which is often thought to have been eradicated – in several Algerian cities. The contradictory public statements made by health officials which created much hysteria across the country, only highlighted how little the people could trust their so-called leaders.
With each event, state officials would further ridicule the people by bringing a framed picture of the President to official gatherings, in great fanfare. The salute given to the frame particularly angered the masses. In one unforgettable scene, security were assigned to the picture during a procession through the streets of the capital. The humiliating footage of the event was widely circulated throughout international media outlets.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the nomination of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ‘frame’ to the 2019 presidential elections, by the then general secretary of the National Liberation Front (FLN) Mouad Bouchareb. In his speech, Bouchareb jubilantly and provocatively railed against those who opposed the sitting president’s candidacy, which is to say the near entirety of the Algerian people. This speech set social media alight and sparked unrest on the streets.
Once the movement started, as students we felt a particular sense of responsibility to join the protests. The despair we had all known, that our academic achievements would amount to nothing in a country with mass unemployment, and no prospects motivated us to take to the streets. We also called a general student strike following the demonstrations of 22 February, in support of the Hirak and its demands. We created a social media space on Facebook called ‘the Algerian Student Movement’ (الحراك الطلابي الجزائري) which we used to collectively discuss the rapid political development in the weeks that followed. It is also through this page that we took the decision to organise weekly Tuesday student demonstrations, in addition to the national Hirak protests that were organised every Friday.
At the Institute of Veterinarian Science of Constantine, we organised weekly Sunday meetings on campus. Here, we would debate and vote on a number of issues including continuing strike action and which slogans to raise. These gatherings were also an opportunity to invite professors in the social sciences to discuss the current political situation. This provided us with a deeper understanding of our context and the state’s actions in order to mobilise better and organise ourselves to win. Every meeting ended with a vote over the decisions made.
A considerable number of young people supported the Hirak because they are amongst the most impacted by the endemic corruption of the state, which undermines our opportunities and future. Furthermore, many of us did not live through the Black Decade in Algeria, or we were too young to remember it because it took place in the 90s. The experiences of the civil war throughout these years was incredibly traumatic for older generations and for too long, it paralysed them from marching against the regime. Not us.
We are too connected to the wider world through the internet, we are all too aware that an Algeria without corruption and nepotism, that is guided by social justice is possible. We continue to fight for that, through peaceful revolt in the streets.
The pandemic may have forced the Hirak to halt demonstrations, but it has not killed the sense of revolution and the demand for a free, democratic Algeria. Young people and students will be amongst the first to take to the streets once again as the restrictions end.
Zakaria Chaabi is at student at the University of Mentouri in Constantine and an activist with the Algerian Student Movement
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