Following over a year of demobilization owing to Algeria’s COVID-19 restrictions, this February the Hirak (“movement”) returned to the streets to mark two years since the mass uprising which ended president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s twenty-year rule. Alongside ongoing weekly demonstrations and strikes, last month the Hirak organized a mass boycott of national elections held by the regime, whose legitimacy it refuses to acknowledge. In the end, turnout was under 23 percent.
The regime has been wrong-footed by both a growing economic crisis — largely caused by the fall in income from oil and gas exports — and an inability to control popular discontent. It is trapped between trying to appeal to the population through gestures of goodwill and continuing to repress activists, journalists, and demonstrators. Yet rather than help the regime to regain control, each such decision fuels the flames. The dismal turnout in June’s vote demonstrated the depth of its crisis, as less than one in four eligible voters cast their ballots.
Illustrating the rising intensity of street contestation, last week mass demonstrations erupted in the two southern wilayas (provinces) of Ouargla and Touggourt. Led by the unemployed, protesters blocked key roads and clashed with police forces following the announcement of new hires in the oil industry, which the demonstrators claim are distributed based on cronyism. More fundamentally, people in the south of Algeria are revolting against a system that continually underfunds their regions even though they sit on top of the oil and gas reserves on which the entire national economy still depends.
The south is not alone, however. In recent months, demonstrators have returned to the streets to demand, in the words of the Hirak’s central slogan, Yitnahawga3 (“They all have to go”). This demand captures the radical nature of the movement. Protesters are not satisfied with a change in the presidency or limited electoral reform but are fighting to disband the entire regime. The latter is made up of the army, whose indirect hold over the country dates from the 1960s; the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), which has ruled Algeria since independence and has long stopped representing the ideals of freedom and independence it once fought for; and the state officials and private businessmen who have become rich on the backs of the people.
However, while the mobilization by students and the wider population have sustained the uprising over the last twenty-nine months, a more recent development is pointing to further radicalization, as workers have turned to striking and joining the protests collectively. Firefighters did both — in uniform, visibly as workers in revolt — while teachers, postal workers, and even doctors have also taken action. They are making the connection between the political and economic aspects of the movement in practice.
But faced with this radicalization, the government has stepped up its repressive tendencies — attempting both to behead the movement by depriving it of leadership and to use fear to dissuade others from joining.
Earlier in 2021, at the same time as demonstrations gathered speed in northern Algeria’s main cities, Ouargla province saw significant riots and clashes with police. This followed the arrest of Ameur Guerrache — a long-standing regional leader and active organizer of the current revolt — for “incitement to terrorism” and “insulting the president.” Guerrache’s mother publicly appealed to the president to release her son, but to no avail.
The state has in recent months increasingly used the specific accusation of “terrorism” to target activists. Ahead of June’s elections, prominent activists and lawyers were arrested for “conspiracy against the state.” With obvious repressive intent, such accusations rely on a boundlessly expansive definition of terrorism, applicable to anyone organizing, demonstrating, or striking against the regime.
This strategy has a double significance in the Algerian context. First, it harks back to the civil war which ravaged the country from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, after the military coup that followed the election of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The language of anti-terrorism was a key strategy mobilized by the state to justify its repression and violence — which in turn justified more violence from its opponents. For a long time, the fear of the return of the “Dark Decade” (La Décennie Noire), as the civil war years are colloquially known, stopped social movements and confrontations against the state from developing. It is on this fear that the regime is hoping to play today.
Furthermore, by framing its repression of activists as a struggle against terrorism, the Algerian state is attempting to appeal to its allies in Paris and Washington. It is painting its actions in the framework of the so-called War on Terror and thus as a defense of, rather than an assault on, democratic rights. The regime was, indeed, a pioneer of this approach, now reproduced by states across the world, from China and Britain to Syria and the United States. But the truth is that the regime is under pressure, desperate and lashing out against its opponents.
The arrest of journalist Khaled Drareni is striking in this regard. Drareni was already arrested during an earlier roundup of activists, under the cover of “harming the integrity of the national territory.” After serving a year in prison, he was released on bail in February, as the regime attempted to show goodwill before the second anniversary of the Hirak. Now that this strategy has clearly failed and the movement is gaining strength, Drareni has again been detained.
The recent election, snubbed by the vast majority of Algerians, thus took place in an increasingly repressive atmosphere. Leading activists as well as journalists were imprisoned in the run up to the vote, while others were charged with breaking electoral laws and received disproportionate fines and jail sentences. The northern region of Kabyle was particularly targeted.
Crisis at the Top
A striking aspect of the current conjuncture in Algeria, then, is a sustained and apparently unresolvable crisis at the top of the state. The regime (Le Pouvoir, as it is known by Algerians) is dealing with a profound crisis of legitimacy that it is unable to resolve. Attempts at staging elections, arresting and releasing activists, reforming the constitution, or developing a rhetoric of national renewal have all failed to appeal to the population, let alone divide the movement.
If anything, each of these attempts by the state to reclaim control further demonstrates its failures — strengthening Hirak participants in the conviction that the break with the old order must be complete to be effective. This lesson has no doubt been reinforced by the revolutionary experiences in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since 2011.
Moreover, the collapse in the authority of the two most important institutions of the postindependence Algerian state — the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the army — is not new; it has been brewing for decades. Already in the 1980s, as the failure of the developmental strategies of the Houari Boumédiène years started to show — with Algeria’s dependence on oil rents prompting economic crisis during the oil slump toward the end of the decade — thousands of Algerians repeatedly took to the streets to demand economic and political reform. That decade thus marked the beginning of a long-term process of resistance against the regime, of which the current movement is the latest iteration.
While the regime was able to buy some time through violent and bloody repression — most strikingly during the civil war — as well as through a minimal reinvestment of the income from the early 2000s oil boom, the absence of an immediate “enemy within” to fight exposed the fragility of the state’s power and its reliance on fear to stabilize the system. Over time, it became increasingly difficult for military and civil leaders to invoke their participation in the anti-colonial struggle against France as a source of legitimacy. This is, certainly, no basis for self-renewal.
Bouteflika’s presidency (1999–2019) well represents this dilemma. Not only is it clear that the narrative of his heroic contribution to the struggle against the French settler state is a myth (much like his supposed long-term opposition to military influence over civilian life), but after he was incapacitated by a stroke in 2013, the regime found it easier to keep him in place as a puppet president rather than go to the trouble of replacing him. His health condition meant that he effectively disappeared from public life and was increasingly replaced by his portrait at official events. This “rule by portrait” has repeatedly been mentioned by activists as a key trigger for the current uprising.
Since Bouteflika’s fall two years ago, the regime has continued to demonstrate its inability to reproduce itself at the top. General Gaïd Salah — the military strongman largely seen as the effective leader of the country in the post-Bouteflika period — suddenly passed away of a heart attack in December 2019, aged seventy-nine. Similarly, the current president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, is seventy-six and owes his presidency primarily to the fact that he was chosen by the regime to be its candidate, rather than to his subsequent election, which was boycotted by the Hirak — a boycott that over 60 percent of Algerian voters heeded.
While thus far the regime has clearly been unable to rebuild its legitimacy or divide the movement through piecemeal and largely cosmetic reforms or repression, it is less clear that the Hirak has the necessary organizational strength to defeat Le Pouvoir head-on and build a new Algeria. The current period has therefore been defined by a lasting stalemate between a state that cannot rule and an uprising that cannot take over.
The challenge so far has been twofold.
First, despite massive popular mobilizations, the Hirak has not yet been able to build up sufficient social pressure to break the back of the regime. Unlike during other recent revolutions in the region — Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Sudan, Iraq, or Yemen — public space has not been occupied continuously to create an organizational base for the revolution, where politics, strategy, and alternative visions for the state can be debated and developed. Occupied universities played that role to some extent in 2019, as have different conferences and gatherings throughout the movement’s twenty-nine months of activity. Overall, however, the uprising has depended on informal and less visible networks and channels of communication. Alternative forms of self-governance, as in the case of Syria’s Local Coordination Committees, have also not seen the day.
Furthermore, the Algerian uprising has not yet translated into sustained industrial action, through which the political contestation in the street could move into an economic contestation in the workplace. It is at the point of unity between these two that the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Sudan gathered the greatest power and were able to push the regime back the furthest — even if temporarily. There have been small localized developments in this direction at different moments in Algeria. As mentioned above, teachers, postal workers, firefighters, and doctors have struck in recent months. Sections of the judiciary have expressed their support for the Hirak. And, most importantly, early on in the movement, walkouts took place by Sonatrach workers (the state-owned oil company) in the south, after management called on workers not to join the uprising. While these are important examples of collective workers’ action, they have not yet generalized.
Second, the movement has not developed formalized leadership, either in the shape of political parties, coordination committees, or unions and resistance committees as in Sudan. This can largely be understood as a legacy of Algeria’s recent history: on the one hand, the civil war led to the elimination of countless progressive figures and intellectuals — such as Tahar Djaout and Nabila Djahnine, to name but a couple — who were systematically targeted for assassination, effectively beheading the radical left, which could have constituted an alternative amid the civil war.
A Weak and Isolated Left
Long-standing left-wing organizations, with roots in the struggle for independence, were unable to respond to the rapid and deadly escalation of violence between the FIS and the army. The Party of the Socialist Vanguard (PAGS), which brought together former Communist Party activists and their periphery, collapsed under the pressure of the nascent civil war, while others, like the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (PST), survived but faded into total isolation. The Workers’ Party (PT), formally also of a Trotskyist hue, made its peace with the regime in exchange for a small share of the vote in the post–civil war, state-managed elections. This in turn led to its leadership entering parliament as MPs and enjoying the associated incomes and privileges. For a modicum of (imagined) influence, the party accepted to sustain the illusion of democratic life in Algeria. Louisa Hanoune, its historic leader, was chased out of the Hirak demonstrations as a consequence of this collaboration with the regime.
The Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), which was founded by the historic Amazigh FLN leader Hocine Aït Ahmed as he broke with the nascent regime in 1962 over the issue of military control and centralization of power, is a partial exception. It continues to wield influence in the Kabyle region and has largely avoided being co-opted by the regime, despite its legalization in 1991. It boycotted several — but not all — legislative election in the aftermath of the civil war. It continues to support the struggle against the repressive state machine controlled by the FLN and the army, regardless of previous participation in parliaments after 2012.
Finally, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) has remained firmly under FLN control, despite some resistance by rank-and-file activists.
However, this absence of a clearly identifiable, formalized leadership to the Hirak should not be understood as an outright lack of leadership. Clearly, local demonstrations, as well as the nascent industrial movement, are organized by well-rooted activists who are not new to political contestation against the state. Ameur Guerrache, mentioned above, is one such example. At the same time, the current movement is throwing up a new generation of organizers and leaders. For example, a string of young Amazigh activists — such as Samira Messouci and Messaoud Leftissi — were arrested around the time of the 2019 elections in an attempt to disorganize the Hirak before Algerians cast their ballots. In this sense, the pattern of state repression points to newly emerging centers of organization.
Two simultaneous realties in the Algerian context continue to push the movement toward increasingly radical action and analysis — something which should hearten the Left, despite the weakness of organized socialist and progressive politics. The first is that the regime continues to be unable to provide any solution to the structural failures against which people are revolting. Historically, the Algerian state has been a one-trick pony, depending on a limited redistribution of its oil revenues in the form of minimal infrastructure or welfare services. This avenue is currently closed to it, as oil income is at an all-time low, leading the state to dig deep into its foreign currency reserves, which have been falling at a dizzying rate, from $200 billion in 2014 to $47 billion in 2020. This situation prevents the regime spending its way out of the impasse — Bouteflika’s strategy in the aftermath of the civil war.
Alongside this material factor, the Hirak’s key slogan — Yitnahawga3 — contains a both radical and radicalizing core message. Having learned from previous rounds of struggle from the early 1980s onward, as well as from the uprisings that have shaken the MENA region since 2011, the Hirak has maintained a steadfast commitment to the demand that “they all have to go.” Even after Bouteflika stepped down, even after former ministers and military leaders were arrested, and even after (carefully stage-managed) elections brought a reshuffle at the top of the state machine, the movement did not relent. These changes were seen as evidence of the Hirak’s effective pressure but never as final victories. The demand for a full clearing out of the old regime opens the door to mass, radical alternatives both economically and politically.
In addition, the fact that the movement appears to be spreading to workplaces creates the possibility of calls for the democratization of the workplace to emerge — a key demand of the revolutionary left, which the historic Greek Trotskyist leader Michel Pablo convinced Ahmed Ben Bella to include (albeit only formally) in the first Algerian constitution. A mass movement which demands the clearing out of the ruling class from both political and economic power and insists on democratic control over all aspects of life is surely the most fertile ground for socialist ideas to develop.
The question, then, for the Algerian uprising and for all progressive forces with an interest in its victory, is how the current stalemate between the state and the Hirak will be resolved. Only time will tell whether the state’s incapacity to either repress or disorganize the movement will last long enough to allow for the further deepening of the revolt and the emergence of a more coherent leadership. But, for now, what is certain is that there is no turning back to the way things were.