On 16 February 2019, in Kherrata, Algeria, the city where French colonial troops carried out an infamous massacre of pro-liberation protesters in 1945, hundreds of people took to the streets once again to express their anger. The movement was sparked by the announcement earlier that month of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s intention to stand for a fifth term, which the protesters saw as the ultimate humiliation.
Following a stroke a few years prior, Bouteflika was unable to speak or to move without his wheelchair. He had effectively left the political scene and avoided any presence in the media. His personal appearances were already extremely rare prior to his ailment, after which they were replaced by his official portrait, in a frame. When the regime paraded the literal picture frame in an official ceremony and announced its candidacy in the presidential election, the people erupted.
The revolt quickly spread to several cities in the east of the country, before sweeping across the entire nation on 22 February.
The use of Bouteflika’s photograph in his absence profoundly shocked Algerians, crystallising their anger and leading to massive numbers participating in the peaceful demonstrations of 2019. This rage became the principal catalyst for the Hirak (the Movement) and gave form to its main demand: Bouteflika’s departure.
Bouteflika’s resignation was called for by the young, the not so young, women and men, who took over the streets in their millions. Diverse social classes met within the same struggle, demanding the removal of all those who rule over them. The slogan ‘Yetnahaw Gaâ!’ (‘They all have to go!’) became the central leitmotif of the Hirak.
Many of the demonstrations were led by women who expressed themselves as equals to men and defied both the so-called family code, a law that institutionalises their inferiority, and the social codes that confine them to a subaltern status.
The Hirak is the latest in a long series of revolts in Algeria since the ‘riots’ of October 1988. Back then, thousands of young people took to the streets to express their misery and demand an improvement in their deplorable living conditions. Politicians used the opportunity created by the revolt to demand the introduction of a multi-party system.
Since independence in 1962, only the National Liberation Front (FLN), the ruling party, had the right to exist until the October revolt led to the birth of a more ‘open’ electoral system. In 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of the elections but this victory was short lived. An army-led coup soon followed and plunged Algeria into ten years of violence. This became known as the ‘Black Decade’, during which hundreds of thousands of people were killed.
The Black Decade undermined the potential for any significant resistance by the Algerian people in subsequent years. The recent memory of the civil war was a key factor in preventing the spread of the sort of large-scale uprisings that swept across the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 onwards. ‘Le Pouvoir’ (‘the Power’, as the Algerian ruling class is commonly known) surfed on this wave of fear to impose its rule, as it had done during the 20 years of Bouteflika’s reign. But the humiliation felt over the ‘framed portrait’ as the only candidate in the 2019 presidential elections broke this fear, and brought Algeria’s millions out onto the streets.
While the Hirak was successful in achieving the departure of Bouteflika from the political scene in April 2019, as well as the cancellation of the presidential elections, the army used this moment as an opportunity to take back control through its chief of staff, Gaïd Salah. He became the strong man of the Algerian state. This hijacking of the Hirak was the most serious attack to the movement’s key demand: ‘Dewla madania machi askaria’ (‘A civil, not a military, state’).
Loyal to its authoritarian politics, the army moved to arrest protesters en masse, and imposed new elections in December 2019, against the will of the streets. These elections were, in the end, largely boycotted, but the army – deaf to the demands of the demonstrators – used them as a justification to carry out ferocious repression, locking up hundreds of Algerians.
The Covid-19 pandemic has proven a golden opportunity for le Pouvoir, which declared a political rather than sanitary lockdown. Principally, it enforced a ban on all public gatherings and marches, which had been taking place every Friday for more than a year. The regime also prohibited any travel, with the aim of shutting down the Hirak.
The regime continued its targeting of protesters by arresting journalists who were committed to the struggle. The recent jailing of Khaled Drareni, an internationally recognised journalist who had been covering the Algerian protests since they began, illustrates the state’s determination to silence the Hirak. Yet despite its heavy-handed approach, resistance has not been defeated and the people remain resilient.
The Hirak is waiting for the official lifting of the lockdown to take to the streets once more. Le Pouvoir is conscious of this and is biding its time by prolonging the exceptional measures.
The Hirak’s strength lies in its ability to mobilise Algerians around its demand for a complete and uncompromising overhaul of the existing political system. Each tokenistic ‘olive-branch’ made by the regime, which has included the arrest of former political figures including the ex-preseident’s brother Said Bouteflika, has been rejected as insufficient by protesters.
However, the Hirak’s Achilles’ heel is the lack of a political leadership capable of federating the different ideological currents that exist within it. Only when this has been established through the support of representative trade unions, youth movements and women’s organisations can we foster the emergence of the necessary social power to achieve the Hirak’s demand: Yetnahaw Gaâ.
Sanhaja Akrouf is an Algerian feminist activist, a member of APEL Égalité and co-founder of L’association Agir pour le changement et la démocratie en Algérie and Forum Social Algérien.
This article first appeared in Issue #230, Struggles for Truth. Subscribe today to support independent media and get your issue hot off the press!
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