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Algerians demonstrate in Algiers to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak movement, February 22, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Toufik Doudou
The numbers were down from the hundreds of thousands who filled the streets of Algerian cities when the “Hirak” protest movement began, but the thousands who marched February 22, despite Covid-19 restrictions, to mark the Hirak’s second anniversary, demonstrated that the movement lives on.
Four days earlier, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had called it a “blessed” movement that had “saved Algeria,” as he announced the release of some 60 people imprisoned for their role in it.
Protesters first marched on a national scale on February 22, 2019, repeating the act every Friday until the pandemic hit a year later. The nonpartisan Hirak – Arabic for “movement” – mobilized first to oppose then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term. After forcing his resignation, the Hirak demanded the departure of the ruling elite and a transition toward more democratic governance.
During the “Arab Spring” ten years ago, Algeria simmered but did not dislodge Bouteflika. However, the country has been center-stage in the second wave of popular revolts, which shook the region starting in 2018.
Algerian authorities initially tolerated the protests. But they resisted demands for a negotiated political transition and, in mid-2019, began jailing prominent Hirak figures on such blatantly political charges as “harming national unity.”
The arrests continued as authorities prepared for December 2019 presidential elections in the face of the Hirak’s demand for reforms prior to a vote they feared would reinstate the old order.
No other “Arab Spring” or “Arab Spring 2.0” country experienced such a sustained mobilization of nonviolent and large-scale protests, a point of pride for Algerians marked by the country’s horrific political violence in the 1990s.
This might explain why authorities praise the Hirak as they try to hobble it.
After winning with a record-low turnout, Tebboune called for a “serious dialogue” with the movement and freed over 70 Hirak detainees.
But when the pandemic hit, and the Hirak suspended outdoor protests, authorities tightened the vise on the movement, jailing some of its leading figures. Then, as homebound activists took to social media, authorities prosecuted dozens for their peaceful online posts.
This did not keep them from paying tribute to the Hirak in the preamble to the new constitution, adopted in November 2020 – a constitution that many in the Hirak opposed on the grounds it reformed little of a repressive system.
A more persuasive gauge of reform will be the release of the remaining tens of Hirak activists like Abdellah Benaoum of Relizane, detained solely for peaceful expression and protest, and scrapping all laws criminalizing speech that have been used to jail them.