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A conversation with Rachid Ouaissa of the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb

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Demonstration in Algerien
Hirak protesters take to the streets of Béjaïa in the Algerian province of Kabylia, June 2019. CC BY-SA 4.0, Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Since early 2019, the North African state of Algeria has been rocked by ongoing anti-government protests. Known as the “Hirak” movement, it emerged in the northern Kabylia region, but soon spread to encompass many parts of the country. Initially demanding the resignation of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who ruled the country for two decades, the movement has continued since he stepped down in early April 2019, opposing the widespread corruption in the country and calling for more democracy, respect for civil liberties, and the rule of law.

Yet two years into the protests, progress appears to have stalled. Where can the movement go from here, and how was COVID-19 affected its prospects? Sofian Philip Naceur of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s North Africa Office spoke with Dr. Rachid Ouaissa of the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) in Tunis about the current situation in Algeria, the state’s failure to handle the pandemic, and why the country’s growing social and economic pose an opportunity for the movement to reorganize itself and to put forward a tangible vision for a socially just Algeria.

SN: The Algerian regime has pursued repressive tactics against the opposition since the Hirak protests resumed in February 2021, seeking to put an end to the movement once and for all. At the moment, the country is facing the worst coronavirus wave since the pandemic began. What options does the Hirak movement have to rebuild pressure on the regime after the current wave subsides?

RO: That is indeed unclear, and also depends on what traces the corona crisis will leave behind. The current wave is the most severe the country has witnessed. The state’s failure in handling the pandemic is evident. Hospitals are overloaded and there is a widespread shortage of oxygen. The traces of Bouteflika’s system are now even more noticeable. Therefore, it is indeed likely that the Hirak will react to the state’s failure.

Rachid Ouaissa is a professor at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at the University of Marburg, Germany, and director of the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) in Tunis.

Almost every family has seen relatives dying. This may contribute to an even larger potential for protest in Algerian society. Hence, I expect the Hirak to focus more on socioeconomic demands in the future. At the same time, the state’s financial situation is likely to recover to at least some extent, as a medium-term increase of oil prices is estimated to materialize. However, the state’s reprisals may also lead to people being successfully intimidated.

For this reasons as well, the Hirak will increasingly emerge regionally rather than nationally. The Kabylia region will certainly continue to revolt. Eventually, people will continue to take to the streets in major cities as well. But I do not believe that the Hirak will be able to successfully mobilize nationwide as it did in 2019, at least at the beginning of a new protest wave that is still to come.

Hirak’s last bulwark appears to be Kabylia, where protests continued unabated until the beginning of the current wave. However, since 2019 we have also seen the regime try to divide the movement along ethnic lines, playing Arabs and Berbers off against each other. Following the heavy repression, only people in Kabylia continue to demonstrate, and are regularly prosecuted for displaying the Berber flag. Is the regime trying to use sectarian means to divide Algerian society and maintain its power by violently escalating the conflict in Kabylia?

The regime resorts to the same means again and again, following a notorious pattern. It attempts to divide by authoritarian means. Kabylia is framed as an exceptional case, while the Hirak relies on a kind of national consciousness—Algeria is seen as a whole—and tries to defend itself against this regional division.

I don’t think the Hirak and the Algerian people are falling for it. However, I consider the Hirak to be a political failure. Nevertheless, it has ensured that the people’s self-confidence has grown. It is clear for everyone today that the regime is the problem, not Kabylia.

Why do you think the movement has failed?

Should a new wave of protests materialize after the current emergency, I hope the movement will learn from its mistakes. The Hirak failed because it unfortunately overlooked all serious ideological and political issues.

The main reason for this failure is the Islamists. The Rachad movement [an Islamist movement mostly active in Europe that emerged from the Islamic Salvation Front] destroyed the Hirak because, under its pressure, all important questions about the future of Algeria were left aside. The focus was always on the regime—not on the system. But Algeria’s problem is not only the elite, it goes much deeper. Do we want to simply exchange elites, or do we want to question and change the educational and economic system?

The Islamists have never questioned the neoliberal structures of the Algerian economy or the crumbling educational system, which is heavily influenced by religion, and they insist that any question that might divide the Hirak should not be posed. The same pattern was applied in Algeria during the war of independence between 1954 and 1962: “Our enemy is France, and only after the victory against the colonial regime will we discuss in which direction the country should move.” This did not work out then, and it won’t work out now. We have to discuss this key question.

The Hirak movement did, however, address one central issue quite consistently: namely, the role of the military in Algerian politics and society. The demand for a civilian-run government is even one of the movement’s most important demands.

That is correct. This is a key question and it is considered a priority for the Hirak. The movement’s secular leaders say that the military and religion must not play any role in the state. However, while the question of the military has been prominently discussed, the role of religion in a new Algeria was not. This won’t work.

Moreover, there can be no real revolution if economic actors are not convinced of it. The economic actors are afraid. They are afraid that after a real revolution there might be rules that are even worse than those imposed by the military. For economic actors, it is safer with the military in power as they already know the rules very well.

But didn’t the movement also discuss social and economic issues? Hirak representatives regularly called for social justice—albeit usually without a vision of how this could be achieved. The movement also regularly discussed the state’s dependency on oil rents. But it seems like so far these debates have only led into an impasse.

Exactly. This discussion has been blocked again and again. I myself experienced debates in which women’s rights were demanded, to which was replied that the issue of women’s rights was ideological in nature and ideological debates had to be postponed for the time being. This kind of approach does not convince people—the Hirak’s vision was too vague. When you are on the path towards a revolution, you want to know where the country is heading. You need to present a more concrete vision of Algeria’s future, but the Hirak could not offer that.

The coronavirus pushed social issues into the centre of the Hirak’s attention. But what does that mean concretely? The socioeconomic situation is currently extremely tense, not only due to the run-down health care system. Economic protests have repeatedly occurred in parts of Southern Algeria such as Ouargla, which could translate into new supporters. Could it also call into question the movement’s peacefulness, since we are now dealing with people who are simply hungry and not joining the protest for political reasons?

The risk is there. So far, however, the movement has failed primarily because it was an amalgamation of middle classes. These middle classes are both Islamist and secular. Their social visions differ, but in matters of economic policy they have similar ideas. The socioeconomically marginalized strata of society have received little attention.

If these strata are to join the Hirak as new players, a pact must be struck between them and the middle class. Socioeconomic issues must be elevated and turned into key issues. It can no longer be just a question of regime change. Instead, a debate about changing the system must be brought to the fore. Only cooperation between the ideologically divided middle class and low-income strata of society can turn the Hirak movement into a genuine revolution.

In 2019, independent trade unions still marched side-by-side with the opposition. Today, they no longer play any role, and instead the movement is primarily associated with NGOs, opposition parties, and public figures such as prominent lawyers and human rights activists. Why is that?

For a real revolution, we need to involve economic actors, whether those with money or those without money. Those with money must be reassured so they invest again. At the same time, those without means—the destitute—must be given hope that something will change for them later and that they will get something out of this uprising.

These two actors—the employers and the employees, mostly represented by the unions—must be convinced and actively involved in the Hirak. If the state recovers financially in the medium term due to rising oil prices, employers and employees might calm down as well. If such a scenario occurs, the Hirak will have lost.

Even if the state recovers in the medium term, the economic system will continue to face enormous pressure. The decline in foreign reserves will continue, and it’s only a matter of time before the country approaches bankruptcy. What are the options for short-term economic and social policy interventions, and how could the state’s dependency on oil be countered in the long term?

I believe Algeria cannot avoid negotiating with the International Monetary Fund. The regime already did so in 1994, in the midst of the civil war. The domestic political situation at the time was a good distraction and cover for behind-the-scenes negotiations with the IMF. Such a scenario is once again imminent. Under pressure from the pandemic and the economic crisis, there could be renewed negotiations with the IMF, resulting in a new liberalization programme. This, in turn, is likely to trigger new socioeconomic protests. We must hope that they do not escalate into violence.

But we know that the IMF’s recipes are always the same—and simply do not work. I’m not claiming that a heavily isolated economy like the Algerian one works—indeed, it clearly doesn’t. But what alternatives could there be to an isolated economic system in which oil rents are monopolized by the elites and the IMF’s deregulation strategy?

Algeria is one of few countries that could actually negotiate good terms with the IMF. Algeria is not poor, the IMF cannot impose its usual dictates here. In this respect, and given Algeria’s vast oil rents, I imagine that the welfare state could be reformed, and the rents could be transferred and transformed into productive forms—if the political will to do so is there.

Rents are not per se an obstacle to development, they can also be transformed and used to boost a productive economy. They could be used for consumption, so that Algerian entrepreneurs no longer have to rely on the generals to do business. If the rents were distributed as a means of consumption in society, such as in the form of salaries, certain products would no longer have to be imported, and it could finally be worthwhile for local entrepreneurs to produce in Algeria.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to use and redirect oil rents like this. There are hardly any examples in the world where it has been possible to reform rent economies in the way you describe.

The East Asian models, such as China, are certainly examples of how states have succeeded in valourizing and utilizing labour to boost purchasing power in society. Such a scenario is also possible in Algeria. Entrepreneurs must be convinced to invest and produce in the country and no longer import. For this, however, we need increased purchasing power. Rents could be used to generate this purchasing power. The question, of course, is how to implement such a policy in concrete terms.