The people of Algeria have been protesting for more than six months — every Friday since 22 February, at least — with the demand that “they all leave”. For the people, “they” refers to the establishment, the government, the gang of corrupt politicians in power; those whom Algerians accuse of looting the country. Although the chants on the street include “Free and democratic Algeria” and “Establishment get out”, it is probably “The people want independence” which is the most commonly heard.
At the beginning of this year, Algeria was all gloom and stagnation, just like the then President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, who has been dependent on a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013. Public anger was ignited by the suggestion of a fifth term for a president who had only been represented during official ceremonies by a framed photograph. With the public demonstrations, the hirak — uprising — has achieved Bouteflika’s resignation; the cancellation of the presidential election scheduled for 4 July; and the arrest of many supposedly powerful and untouchable people, including army officers, politicians and tycoons, such as Ali Haddad, Said Bouteflika and Generals Mohamed Mediène (also known as Toufik) and Athmane Tartag.
Professor of Information and Communication Sciences at the University of Algiers Redouane Boudjemaa is a former journalist who has been participating in the hirak since 22 February. As an informed observer, for Boudjemaa the hirak is above all else about the people regaining their sense of citizenship.
“The hirak movement is first and foremost a symbolic representation of the rebirth of the Algerian nation as well as the great public expression of political consciousness,” he explains. “Everywhere in the country, millions of people have been demonstrating their desire to build a democratic nation, a state where politics is rehabilitated. I also see the country’s diversity in these marches: social, generational, cultural and gender. Everyone, quite literally, participates.”
This is very unlike the regime from February 1992 — after the army coup against the Islamic Salvation Front, which looked set to win the elections — to February this year, under which the establishment prevented Algerians from having freedom of speech and debate, and from exercising their democratic rights.
The generational effect plays a massive role in the hirak movement. Algeria is a young country and its youth use social media to spread the message “live from the protests”. The country has 42 million people, 60 per cent of whom are under 30 years of age; 70 per cent are under 40.
“This young generation has succeeded in creating a media system parallel to the establishment propaganda,” Prof. Boudjemaa points out. “That’s impressive. They use social media to organise themselves and pour out the flow of images from the hirak. In the middle of the demonstration, everyone is filming, taking pictures, posting on Facebook or Tweeting. Those of my generation are trying to support these initiatives so that this young generation does not repeat the mistakes of mine.”
By “mistakes”, Boudjemaa means the previous movements that shook the country in which he had participated, from October 1988 to spring 2001. Algeria has never been lacking in civil society movements, with limited but regular demands about wages, housing or exploitation in the shale gas sector. The year 2010 was even called “the year of a thousand and one riots”. However, these movements did not join together to arrange national political protests for regime change, as is the case with the hirak.
The uprising did not happen spontaneously. Some Algerians now say that they knew that something was going to happen, but just didn’t know when, and where it would come from. In fact, the movement is the result of a number of previous struggles, rooted in the national memory which has in the ongoing protests an opportunity to express itself.“Events began in Kherrata and Bejaia; then in Khenchela and in the Aures,” says Boudjemaa. “Without being paranoid, any social movement is in one way or another subject to manipulation or capitalisation by one group or another. What remains certain is that when these movements began, they served interest groups competing with Bouteflika’s. Once he was off the stage, though, the establishment experts in psychological games thought that the movement would stop. They bet on the exhaustion of the movement, Ramadan, exams, holidays, the heat wave. None of this has happened. The manipulators of public opinion tried to impose presidential elections on 4 July, but this proved impossible. From now on, not even a theoretical date for a possible election can be set.”
The Algerians, he adds, have engaged in a power struggle with a group whose “manoeuvres” they know and fear. “Since 22 February, there has been a re-conquest of this public space. Every Monday, for example, public conferences are held throughout the country. Young people work together to avoid the mistakes of previous generations.”
One challenge, however, is to overcome the fear that the establishment, through various initiatives that have been announced, will defeat the hirak by using tactics that will simply reproduce the old regime instead of changing it. “The establishment wants to impose presidential elections without providing any guarantee of change. That is why Algerians do not want to leave the streets. This creates a balance of power with the government, which the Algerians want to maintain to avoid a political hold-up. Everyone knows that the hirak can also be used by an interest group to gain an advantage over another clan. We feel that a clan is preparing to extend the old system while taking power by ousting competing forces. But Algerians do not want this clan transition; public opinion is mobilised around a single objective: a real democratic transition.”
Obviously, the hypothesis of a “clan” taking advantage of another “clan” on the pretext of the hirak is not to be rejected out of hand, given Algeria’s political history. Who makes up this new clan is the question that Algerian are asking themselves.
According to Boudjemaa, this is the most difficult question, because everything is very secretive in Algeria. “Real power is happening underground. Many citizens are unable to understand who is behind whom, and who is benefiting from whom. However, given some statements by politicians it is understandable that some of the political staff are aligned with the army’s Chief of Staff, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah. Others are opposed to the same general but linked to the ‘Bouteflikistes’ networks and the former chief of the secret police.” The trap, says Boudjemaa, would be to personalise the debate. “The real problem is not Gaïd Salah. If he leaves, he’d be replaced by someone else like him. The issue is to create the conditions for a genuine democratic transition. The country needs a fundamental break to develop true citizenship: a state of citizens and not of subjects, with statesmen and not men of power.”
There are obstacles in the way, however, that could cause the unprecedented hirak movement to stumble. The first is the question of identity. This is an outstanding issue in Algeria, as regionalism has been exacerbated by the state itself. After 1962, the “Algerian national myth” mixed political struggle for Algerian independence with pan-Arab unity. According to Prof. Boudjemaa, Algerian power was born out of the hijacking of the memory of the War of Independence. For Algerians, this culture of remembrance has ensured that the establishment has control over all aspects of the country’s power, both political and economic. This led to the looting of state resources and mineral wealth, which Algeria has in abundance, to such a degree that it affected the economy severely.
“In the summer of 1962,” notes Boudjemaa, “Algerian independence was stolen. The army then organised a coup d’état against the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA). This determined the construction of a system based on the primacy of the military over the civilian, single party rule and political exclusion. A pseudo-elite was promoted to think on behalf of the whole of Algerian society and which believed that its members were more patriotic, more mature and more responsible than the people. Independence was indeed hijacked, but so was history and the fight against colonialism. Being patriotic came to mean being pro-government; that was the discourse of exclusion hammered out by the regime.”
In banning the use of the Amazigh — Berber — flag during demonstrations, General Salah tried to manufacture antagonism between different sections of Algerian society. “The response of the Algerian people was that they proclaimed their unity. It looks to me as if the army is managing the demonstrations rather well for the moment, with millions of people out on the main streets of every city across Algeria every Friday. The government will not give up; it will try to test the hirak with acts of repression and manipulation. The people are also determined, though; they took to the streets in the cold of February, and continued while fasting during Ramadan.”
Boudjemaa believes that the memory of the martyrs who fell in 1980, 1988 and 2001 are commemorated by the same struggle now in 2019. “Protesters in the hirak have portraits of Boudiaf, Aït Ahmed, martyrs of the War of Independence. It is a real work of memory being carried out. Many of the slogans hammer the betrayal of the martyrs’ oaths by the authorities.”
Meanwhile, the spectre of another civil war looms large, and is being stirred up by the authorities. The civil war in the 1990s froze Algeria. Today, the families of those who disappeared during the civil war have their own special square. “Each family tells its own story. Many Algerians are convinced that the civil war was imposed to preserve the establishment, just as Bouteflika was imposed to get past the pages of that black decade,” explains Boudjemaa. For him, the civil war remains the question of the hirak. “It must be understood that the last time Algeria wanted change, a punitive war was imposed on the people, unleashing violence against civilians, followed by Bouteflika’s 20-year rule backed by various power networks. The political debate has not been opened up on this period.”
However, the youth who are marching today are not paralysed by the fear of a civil war as the previous generation was, having been traumatised by 10 years of fratricidal conflict. Officially, 150,000 were killed in the period December 1991 to February 2002, although some put the figure at 200,000, not to mention those who are still missing and the subsequent exile of an untold number of graduates.“The young people we met said that they have time,” says Boudjemaa. “That they are 20 years old and that those in power are 80 years old. Those of my generation [40 to 50 years old] say that it has been sacrificed and that they have nothing more to lose. The previous generation is there too; my 83-year-old father is out every Friday. He refuses to give it up because, for him, the regime’s abuse of power has stolen Independence and he wants to make sure that future generations will regain that power. All of society is concerned by the hirak. Everyone knows that the stakes are existential, so it will be difficult for the regime to succeed in defeating it.”
The uprising has made some progress, but not enough to stop a major reaction to the collapse of the entire political system. From now on, it is General Salah, the army Chief of Staff who is the country’s strong man. He is also the main target of protesters. According to Redouane Boudjemaa, “Decision-makers are counting on the exhaustion of the movement, on the fatigue of a significant number of the demonstrators. Dialogue commissions, discussion panels and so on are set up to try to convince the public of the sincerity of the regime, but these structures are seen very quickly for what they really are: subterfuges without any echo or audience. The effective holders of power think that they can find compromises to hold the course of elections that the people definitely do not want to hear about. This is in vain, because the people are determined and do not want a clan transition but a real democratic alternative.”
How can the hirak move from denunciation to enunciation; from a reaction to a project that implies political construction? For Boudjemaa, the staff working for the establishment do not really know what a state is.
“It is the spontaneously organised civil society of the hirak that is providing lessons in civics and the future. At the demonstrations, there are always young people who make sure that everything goes well. Algerians also reject any foreign interference because, in their opinion, any interference will only serve to benefit one clan over the other to the detriment of the national interests.”
Civil society, he insists, also adapts its slogans according to the messages of the authorities, and the hirak is very flexible. “Nascent parliamentary groups are multiplying; they are the real thing. Some have constituencies; others fear that this may be a pretext for the power to create dissent. Yet others want elections with a president with a single imperative mandate. These debates do not exist in the mainstream media, which distil a discourse of anguish, fear and election pressure, because according to them there is a foreign plan to disrupt and partition the country. For Algerians, it is the system — establishment — that is in crisis, and not Algeria.”
In his speeches, General Salah has indeed stirred up the idea of a foreign hand, and it seems that French President Emmanuel Macron is very concerned about the situation in Algeria. Boudjemaa explains this French concern as “the networks of France-Algeria”, which would have been surprised by what has been happening since 22 February. “These networks put together the interests of the elites in power on both sides of the Mediterranean; they were convinced that any idea of resistance among the Algerian people was destroyed; that the terror inherited from the civil war had settled in the people, that society was politically neutered. They must also have been surprised by the form of the protest and its massive and widespread nature; by the calm and pacifism of the demands, which were both very clear and very politically elaborate. But it seems to me that France, or these very influential commissioning networks, can no longer follow on this issue because its interlocutors are the very people who have an interest in ensuring that the ineffective and outdated system continues.”
Salah is not the only one concerned about this “foreign hand”; many Algerians are paying attentive to it. “The government used this formula of the ‘foreign hand’ before any hirak was triggered, to prevent and discredit any dispute from the outset. Any social movement would have been suspected of serving foreign interests or a plan to dislocate the country by hostile powers, but the Algerian people turned the idea around by accusing the government of looking for sponsors abroad. For Algerians, the current government held on thanks to Western, French and US support.”
Boudjemaa points out that it has been claimed that Algeria has missed the so-called Arab Spring uprisings but, with the exception of Tunisia, these short-lived revolutions have led to the strengthening of dictatorships and violent unrest in neighbouring Libya. “It should not be forgotten that Algeria is suffering the effects of deep colonial trauma and has a definite aversion to foreign interference and neo-colonialism. As far as the Algerian public are concerned, NATO supported the colonial army and is certainly not a charitable or friendly organisation.”
Many Algerians, claims Boudjemaa, perceive a plan to destabilise the entire Maghreb region. They observe their neighbours in transition in Tunisia, and a fragmented Libya. They know that their own country could be affected similarly.
“They also want to get out of the geopolitical games of the worst kind desired by Western imperialism and to promote a peaceful revolution. Our country is indeed caught up in a tense regional game. Gaïd Salah is accused by the Algerian people of being close to the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps Abu Dhabi will take a negative view of the success of the hirak movement. There is also Egypt. Libya so close. How does this affect the hirak? Through their slogans, Algerians show that they know that the UAE does not act independently; that it is basically like an international subcontractor. Algeria has great sympathy for the Palestinian cause and the Yemeni people. They note that the geopolitical game has crushed these two peoples. They know that if their country is also in the same geopolitical wars of interest, Algeria will be sacrificed. It is a movement that defends national sovereignty and protects the army and the state as institutions.”
The economy and the issue of foreign exchange reserves is addressed widely in the hirak. In addition to the humiliation and anger felt by Algerians, there was the prospect of a latent economic crisis, which the fall in oil prices exposed. The oil income, which until recently has bought relative peace and quiet socially and politically, can no longer function.
“The economy, in structural crisis, is the backdrop that influences popular perceptions and the urgency of a convincing response to democratic demands,” explains Boudjemaa. “According to the figures, beyond 2021, if oil prices do not change, the country risks default. This is one of the establishment’s arguments for holding an election; it blames Bouteflika and those surrounding him for Algeria’s economic difficulties.”
However, the people know that this issue can only be addressed or dealt with if political preconditions addressed. “The absence of counter-powers, the dictatorship and the political police have allowed the appalling squandering of the country’s resources and their seizure by criminal groups in power. The change of individuals at the top will not do anything about this and will not change the predatory nature of the system. The establishment is thus afraid of the social deadlines that are coming up. It can neither repress nor manipulate the protests. The impasse that the regime must face is particularly worrying for its key players.”