On February 16th, the inhabitants of Kherrata, a town in northern Algeria, have been hit with a strong sense of Déjà Vu, watching about 50 thousand protesters gathering at the site, where two years earlier, thousands of citizens rallied to call for an overhaul of state institutions and the removal of top political leaders. The spontaneous protests, in 2019, laid the foundation for a solid nonviolent movement in Algeria, known as “Al-Hirak.” The protest, held in mid-February, marking the second anniversary of the launch of Al-Hirak, is their first street protest since March 2020. The protests, which used to take place consistently since the initial gathering in 2019, were put on pause in compliance with the general lockdown measures applied by the government against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The origins of Al-Hirak can be traced back to people’s discontent with former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been ruling the country, since 1999. Questions about Bouteflika’s competence to continue as the president of the state were initially raised in 2005, following several incidents of exposing corruption in state-owned companies and the controversial building of “Djamaa al Djazaïr,” a large mosque which went 2.5 times over its pre-estimated budget, at about 1.4 to 2 billion US dollars. The government promoted the building of the mosque as an effort to create jobs for Algerian youth. However, most of the work was given to Chinese immigrant labor. The final straw was Bouteflika’s announcement that he would run for a fifth term as President, claiming that the recent constitutional amendments, which limited the number of presidential terms to two, did not apply retroactively to him. For many Algerians, the idea of the president, who after a stroke in 2013 rarely made public appearances, running for re-election, was an embarrassment.
After the initial protest in Kherrata, on the 19th of February 2019, Al-Hirak quickly gained traction with an estimated 800 thousand people joining protests in Algiers. These were the first major protests in the country’s capital since street protests had been made illegal in June 2001. After three weeks of protesting, on March 11th, President Bouteflika announced he would no longer seek re-election, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigned, and the April 2019 presidential elections were indefinitely postponed. Over the following months, Bouteflika stepped down as president, under pressures by the military, and after corrupt members of the president’s inner circle had been subjected to trials. Despite the progress, the decision to hold the elections on the 12th of December 2019, amidst wide popular opposition, and the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who had formerly been Prime Minister under Bouteflika, gave plenty of reasons for Al-Hirak to continue protesting.
Due to the precautionary measures against the COVID-19 pandemic, Al-Hirak protests were temporarily frozen. While the protesters willingly chose to commit to the anti-pandemic lockdown regulations, some observers claimed that the government exploited the lockdown to halt the momentum of the movement. Regardless, the leaders of Al-Hirak decided not to waste the time they had to spend indoors. "It, kind of, gave the movement the time and space to think, plan, and organize itself;” said a member of an online group that supports Al-Hirak. While, Al-Hirak has returned to the streets with the massive protest held earlier this month, the movement faces a simple but important existential question: what is next?
With the reemergence of Al-Hirak, President Tebboune has offered several concessions, in an attempt to contain the movement. Restrictions and curfews related to COVID-19 were relaxed, and several political parties were invited to discuss how best to reconcile with the Algerian people. The president, also, announced he would dissolve the current parliament and call for early parliamentary elections, make a cabinet reshuffle, and release dozens of detainees associated with Al-Hirak. Some of the protesters see these concessions as an opportunity to use their leverage to pressure for more change in state institutions, while others in the movement sense that these concessions are nothing more than desperate endeavors by the regime to avoid being held accountable. “The Algerian people cannot go forward with this regime that has been in place since our independence;” said one representative of the Rally for Culture and Democracy Party who refused the President’s offer. “It is a revolutionary process for a very precise goal, which is the departure of the regime, the whole regime with all its components;” said another protester.
The protesters’ urge to see the political legacy of Bouteflika completely eradicated from Algeria’s political arena is understood, given his long history of compromise and broken promises of reform. However, it is important not to be blinded by this desire, and ignore the potential of taking Algeria to a whole new political direction, given Tebboune’s apparent willingness to cooperate. There is no harm in keeping the conversation with the regime going, knowing that the door is always open to return to the initial call for regime removal, if things do not evolve as hoped for. However, the biggest challenge facing Al-Hirak, at this stage, is how to unify the vision and the will of the decentralized movement, especially when their opponent becomes less obvious. The development of networks of communication to keep Al-Hirak active during the pandemic provides the infrastructure for a solution, but the real key is having a clear vision on where to go next. It appears that Al-Hirak’s eagerness to continue standing on the opposition side against the political power is, at least partially, motivated by the fact that it is the one thing that people agree on. If this is true, then what could happen to Al-Hirak when there are no more political leaders to dispose.