The Covid-19 pandemic may have put Algeria’s revolutionary uprising temporarily on hold, but, as Hamza Hamouchene observes, the will to topple the military regime remains strong.
Since February 2019, the people of Algeria have waged an inspiring revolt against the country’s military regime. Millions took to the streets united in their rejection of the ruling system, demanding radical democratic change. They chanted ‘They must all go!’ and ‘The country is ours and we’ll do what we wish’ – two slogans that have become emblematic of this new Algerian revolution. The Hirak (‘movement’ in Arabic) succeeded in overthrowing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in early April 2019 after six weeks of protests.
Weekly protests continued every Friday through the scorching summer. A student movement organized parallel demonstrations every Tuesday, adding to the momentum. Only in March 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing a lockdown, did this mass movement see a temporary halt.
The country has been in a political crisis for decades, particularly since the 1992 military coup that prevented the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from winning the first multi-party elections since independence and the atrocious war on civilians that followed, killing an estimated 200,000. Though the roots of Algeria’s problems lie in the colonial era, recent troubles are the result of a politics of parasitic accumulation and corruption: a military-oligarchy that denies people their sovereignty and benefits foreign and domestic capital. Recent events come at a time of economic crisis and suffocating austerity following the decline of oil and gas revenues, and infighting among the ruling factions.
The Hirak has accomplished much. It forced the Military High Command (MHC) to distance itself from the president’s coterie and effectively deposed Bouteflika after 20 years in power. It also prevented two elections: one in April 2019, in which the physically ailing president was running for a fifth term, and the second in July 2019, which the movement saw as a sham to maintain the primacy of the MHC.
The movement has seen through the manoeuvres of the regime, such as attempts to maintain Bouteflika in power and the manipulation of anti-corruption demands for political advantage, and responded with creative, flamboyant and radical slogans and tactics. For example, youth protesters obstructed presidential candidates’ campaigns in various parts of the country by blocking access to their towns and disrupting meetings. When elections were finally held in December 2019, they were actively boycotted through massive street protests and by shutting down electoral bureaux. After the installation of former prime minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president, the Hirak reasserted its demands: ‘Tebboune is a bogus president. He was imposed by the army and has no legitimacy… The people were liberated and it’s they who should decide… A civilian state now!’
When Tebboune announced in January that Algeria will be exploiting its shale gas potential, the people responded with ‘You frack in Paris, not here!’ – a reference to French transnationals like Total’s interest in Algeria’s shale resources.
High-profile oligarchs and once- powerful individuals are in jail, including former prime ministers, chiefs of security services and the deposed president’s brother. This is a big achievement for the Hirak, though many felt the anti-corruption campaign was just a highly publicized smokescreen to create a false sense that the regime is changing. But none of it would have happened without the popular mobilizations and calls for accountability and an end to corruption: ‘You devoured the country... Oh you thieves!’
The movement’s deeply anti-colonial politics and enduring unity, especially after the country’s many years of civil strife, are also great achievements. The placards and chants showed the failure of the regime’s attempts to sow division: ‘Algerians are brothers and sisters, the people are united.’ After decades of atomized opposition and silencing of dissent, the movement has raised political consciousness and brought determination to fight for radical democratic change. The taking back of public spaces has created a kind of agora where people debate and strategize and where art and music flourish. The slogans signal a resolve to force the system to yield: ‘The people want independence!’, ‘It’s either us or you, we swear we are not stopping!’
From the ground up
Algeria has not witnessed such momentous events since independence from French colonial rule in 1962. People no longer accept the status quo, and the ruling class, despite its attempts at repression, is on the ropes.
It’s not just a middle-class uprising either. People from marginalized neighbourhoods, unemployed youth and the working poor have all marched for freedom, voicing their indignation. ‘Antouma Asbabna!’ they shout, ‘You are responsible for our misery!’
Women have played an important role and have a strong presence in protests all over the country, including in conservative areas, and some feminist organizations are working to put women’s liberation at the centre of this democratic revolution. On 8 March 2020, International Women’s Day, Algerian women chanted in the streets: ‘We are not here to celebrate; we are here to uproot you!’
The movement is spearheaded by youth and has no clear leaders or structures. Organizing is mainly horizontal and through social media; the general strike in the first few weeks that was instrumental in forcing Bouteflika’s abdication followed anonymous calls for action on Facebook.
The participation of independent labour unions has been somewhat limited. Weakened considerably over the last few decades, their leaderships adopt reformist and sometimes accommodating positions towards the regime.
Despite such shortcomings, independent trade unions, particularly the combative ones in the health and education sectors, have staged their own strikes and marches in solidarity with the popular movement and to demand their rights as workers. Lawyers’ and judges’ associations gave their support by refusing to oversee the cancelled July 2019 elections.
However, Algeria’s biggest trade union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), is affiliated with the regime and has played a reactionary role against workers’ interests for decades. Emboldened by the uprising, some trade unionists attempted to re-appropriate it and remove its pro-regime leadership. They protested in several regions, forcing the general secretary Abdelmadjid Sidi Said to step down. His replacement, Salim Labatcha, however, is no better.
As with any revolution, counter-revolutionary forces have mobilized to block change. The counter-revolutionary campaign currently under way in Algeria draws support from abroad: regionally, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are using their money and influence to halt potentially contagious waves of revolt in the region. At the global level, France, the US, UK, Canada, Russia and China, along with their major corporations, seeing a potential threat to their economic and geostrategic interests, are all supportive of the Algerian regime.
Assaults on media channels have increased. All audio-visual and most print media, public and private, have been tamed. Just one TV channel has covered the protests, Al Magharibia, and it was suspended by the Paris-based European satellite provider Eutelsat at the request of the Algerian government and with the complicity of the French political establishment. Social-media campaigns led by an army of trolls have worked to spread pro-MHC disinformation and discredit the Hirak.
The army has not fired any bullets so far, but it has continued to justify various repressive measures. Since independence in 1962, Algeria has always been ruled by a military regime, directly or indirectly. The militarization of society has created a culture of fear and distrust. The brutal repression of past uprisings and the cruelty of the war in the 1990s explain the popular movement’s reluctance to directly confront the army.
However, despite the MHC’s rejection of every roadmap and appeal for genuine dialogue proposed by the movement, people remain determined to peacefully demilitarize their republic. They have been chanting: ‘Generals to the dustbin and Algeria will be independent.’ After Bouteflika’s overthrow, demonstrations continued in opposition to the military, which has maintained de facto authority over the country. The movement remained at a stand-off with the Army Chief of Staff Gaid Salah until he suddenly died in December 2019. Gaid Salah, a staunch supporter of Bouteflika, was determined to preserve the military regime and status quo, doling out threats and accusations of treachery and foreign collusion against the opposition. From June 2019, he initiated a repressive campaign of arrests targeting more than 200 activists and figureheads of the Hirak. The slogans have never been clearer: ‘A civilian not a military state,’ ‘A republic not a military barrack,’ ‘Gaid Salah is with the traitors.’ He has been replaced by General Chengriha, who has taken the mantle from his predecessor.
No going back
Entering into its second year, the Hirak could not topple the regime; likewise the regime could not exhaust the movement. Weekly protests came to a halt in mid-March 2020 due to the global pandemic. But the energy and dynamism of the movement has metamorphosed into health campaigns and solidarity actions for the most vulnerable in society during these difficult times. There have been several initiatives for cleaning up and disinfecting public spaces, caravans of solidarity to Blida, which was the pandemic’s epicentre in the country, campaigns to raise awareness about the disease and other creative actions to keep the Hirak’s flame alive.
Meanwhile, the authoritarian military regime is doubling down on the repression of journalists and activists. Many have been judicially harassed and jailed since the start of the lockdown, often for their social-media posts. New laws to further stifle dissent have been approved in order to criminalize actions that are deemed to ‘undermine state security and national unity’, accusations that have been levelled at many activists and journalists.
The Covid-19 pandemic has, in a way, been a blessing to the ruling classes in Algeria. But the movement is not finished: ‘We are the descendants of Amirouche [anti-colonial national hero] and we will never go back.’ If the regime thinks that it will bury the Hirak during the pandemic, it will need to think again. With an economic crisis looming, the struggle for democratization will be long and will go on.