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Why was Algeria’s Hirak movement defeated — And why it can return?

  • Tin Hinane El Kadi

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham Housث

    باحث مشارك، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا، تشاثام هاوس--

The sooner the Algerian regime grasp the need for democratic change, the better. Until then, another Hirak may well be on the horizon. 

Four years after the onset of Algeria’s Hirak protest movement, there is a sense of hopelessness and despair among Algerians. The Hirak has arguably failed to achieve its ultimate goal of putting an end to military rule, and building a new democratic system based on the rule of law, the respect of individual and collective freedoms. 

What started in February 2019 as a series of protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's ambition to run for a fifth presidential term ballooned into a large-scale movement demanding meaningful political change. While the Hirak successfully removed Bouteflika from power, it did not manage to dislodge ‘le pouvoir’ (the power); the opaque network of military and political elites who have, albeit with some variations, ruled the country since independence. 

The ‘New Algeria’ proclaimed by the new government looks much like the old one with self-reproducing electoral authoritarianism, clientelism, sluggish growth and corruption.  But the “New Algeria” is unequivocally more repressive than the old one. The presidency of  Abdelmajid Tebboune, Boutflika’s former prime minister who acceded to power following contested elections ordered by the military command,  has been marked by deteriorating civil liberties and political rights, with hundreds of activists, opponents, journalists and human rights activists harassed or thrown in jail. 

The Hirak’s failure to produce a radical break with the political system is due to a confluence of factors, including the resilient nature of the Algerian regime, but also due to the Hirak’s own inability to produce a representative leadership able to negotiate the terms of a political transition. 

A movement without structure

Despite many grassroots initiatives attempting to structure the Hirak, the movement has remained largely horizontal and leaderless, and without an organization able to galvanize some of the millions of Algerians who marched for democratic change. The Hirak is part of what Jurgen Habermas described as new social movements (NSMs); movements lacking centralized leadership and catalyzed around questions of representation, legitimacy and accountability. 

The question of representation emerged soon after the start of the 2019 protests, with discussions about the merits of appointing individuals and/or organizations to lead the Hirak. However, a decade of violence in the 1990s and widespread clientelism and depoliticization under Bouteflika’s 20-year rule meant Algeria’s civil society lacked the representative structures to channel the people’s demands. 

The Hirak largely dismissed political parties, with the slogan ‘Yetnahaw Gaa’ (all of them have to go), signalling a desire to break with the existing system. The lack of trust in political parties can be traced to the country's political history, filled with several instances of the regime infiltrating political parties’ and co-opting opponents. Protestors viewed both pro-establishment parties, such as the FLN (National Liberation Front), the RND (Democratic National Rally), and opposition parties like the Islamist MSP (Movement of Society for Peace) and the left-wing PT (workers’ party), as part of the system and therefore both to blame for the country’s endemic governance problems. 

Concurrently, new political initiatives struggled to seize momentum. Initiatives led by platforms like the Democratic Alternative Pact (PAD), NIDA 22, human rights organizations, unions, and student associations have all attempted to come up with a roadmap for the post-Bouteflika period. These initiatives faced a set of challenges, such as internal power struggles and ideological divisions, mainly between Islamist/conservative-leaning groups and more secular/progressive forces. 

State-led repression was also a key cause behind the failure to translate Hirak's demands into structured political initiatives. Algerian authorities have attempted to crush dissent by shutting down critical associations, parties and media, and arresting over 300 pro-Hirak activists on trumped-up charges. Like elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic served the regime's authoritarian restoration. Lacking structure, the Hirak became confined to social media platforms and was eventually defeated. 

A wobbly return to ‘normal’ politics

But hope for democratic change is still alive. The regime’s new configuration is fragile and subjected to both internal and external contestation. As time passes, any remaining legitimacy it still possesses is draining away. 

Reforming institutions, from the presidency to local councils, has been the cornerstone of the regime’s survival strategy, claiming this process would get rid of corruption and mismanagement. Yet, the presidential elections of December 2019, which brought President Tebboune to power, saw a turnout of just 39 per cent, the lowest in the country’s history. The 2020 constitutional referendum and the 2021 legislative and local elections were also marked by significantly low turnouts. In a context of repression and the absence of mechanisms for citizens to voice discontent, large-scale abstention became an act of defiance. 

Meanwhile, the country’s socio-economic situation is grim. In recent months, Algerians have seen soaring inflation and unemployment. The old promise of economic diversification away from hydrocarbon is yet to materialize, leaving millions of Algerians jobless. Booming oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saw the Saharan blend average $100 for several months, which undoubtedly helped alleviate immediate pressures. However, it will not be enough to prevent the deterioration of living standards in the medium to long term without structural reforms.   

Yet, the weak legitimacy conferred on post-Hirak institutions means they lack the capacity to introduce such reforms. Successive governments have been unable to deliver on commitments and have so far been engaged in superficial reforms, while postponing comprehensive and ambitious change.

Against the backdrop of growing poverty and authoritarian practices, many Algerians have been making the potentially deadly journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. The summer of 2021 has been the darkest summer on record for Algerian migrants, or ‘Harragas’. According to Spanish authorities, 9,664 Algerians reached the Spanish coast between January and October 2021, a 20 per cent increase from the previous year. While some manage to reach Europe safely, many lose their lives trying.

Ultimately, the idea that a young, educated, and digitally connected population will accept an archaic political leadership that has consistently demonstrated its ineptitude in delivering political rights, economic development and sound governance is illusionary. Algerians have strongly voiced their preference for a democratic system, something that would require redrawing the rules of the game to redistribute political power from the military institution to the people. The sooner those in power grasp the need for change and engage in broad-based dialogue to define a peaceful political transition, the better. Until then, another Hirak may well be on the horizon.