Algeria: The Arab Spring’s Late Bloomer?

February 09, 2021

Algerian Protest © Gwenaël Piaser, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Inès Osman. Originally published on The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy on February 9, 2021.

When protests started throughout the Middle East and North Africa in late 2010 and early 2011, observers seemed to keep wondering: why are Algerians not protesting? But this is not entirely true. In 2010, nearly 10,000 localized protests and riots were recorded throughout the country: demonstrators, mostly the youth, were denouncing their poor living conditions due to rampant unemployment, lack of housing, food inflation, and widespread corruption. 

Sparked by sudden increases of basic foods prices, in early January 2011 and throughout February a number of protests and strikes emerged throughout the country. Like Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who ignited the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire, several men did so to protest their dire living conditions. Mohcin Bouterfi, a 37-year-old father died after setting himself on fire in front of his hometown’s town hall to protest the officials’ disregard for his repeated requests, as he was unemployed and seeking housing. 

However, the protests were met with strong police presence and excessive violence, with hundreds of protesters arrested. In the capital, the police routinely used a 2001 decree forbidding demonstrations in Algiers—a text that is still in force to date. In February 2011, the state of emergency, which was in force since 1992, was lifted to ease tensions. The president also committed to revising the Constitution as a sign of political liberalization, but did not effectively do so until 2016. More importantly, the authorities announced the release of 20 billion euros to support a number of social and economic measures. For the time being, and thanks to its significant oil rent, the Algerian authorities managed to buy social peace in order to maintain the political status quo. In 2014, the contestation did not reach sufficient levels to impede Abdelaziz Bouteflika from running—and winning—a fourth term.

The birth of the “revolution of smiles”

It was after eight years into the start of the Arab Spring, on February 22, 2019, that the “Hirak” movement, also known as the “revolution of smiles” to echo the peacefulness of the protests, was born. Only a few days after Bouteflika announced his candidacy for a fifth presidential term, mass protests erupted throughout the country. Though he resigned on April 2, the movement continued, demanding the departure of the entire ruling class and a deep reform of the overall system. Unlike pre-2019 contestations, the protests shifted to more political demands, over the social and economic ones previously made. 

The end of the Bouteflika regime was not the only victory won by the revolution of smiles. Unimaginably, the street brought a number of high-ranking officials and oligarchs—“El Issaba” or the “the gang”to their knees; some were even arrested and prosecuted. Feelings of political paralysis seemed to have been swept away. But that was without reckoning with the role of the army, the backbone of the Algerian state and true holder of political power.

A political transition overseen by the army

Early on, the army sought to handle the political transition and take credit for the changes demanded by protesters, with the large political void making it fairly easy for the military to play the role of arbiter. As such, former chief of the National Armed Forces Ahmed Gaid Salah (who passed away few months later in December 2019) quickly forced Bouteflika out of office in April, claiming that the army would “meet the people’s demands” and remain the “anchor of stability.” Salah handled the installing of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah and vowed to organize presidential elections as soon as possible. But these cosmetic changes did nothing to please protesters who expected more than a mere sacrifice of certain political figures to save the regime. In the streets, people kept chanting “yetnahaw ga3,”—“they should all go.” 

Initially planned for July 4, the presidential elections were postponed to December 12 due to public pressure. The protesters’ rejection of elections, which were perceived as a means by which the “system” could regenerate itself, was embodied in the turn-out of 40 percent, the lowest recorded in Algeria’s history. Abdelmajid Tebboune, who was seen as the military’s establishment preferred candidate, was elected president in the first round.

2020: a turning point

Despite Tebboune’s pledge to open a dialogue with demonstrators to “strengthen democracy, the rule of the law, and the respect of human rights” 10 months into the “Hirak,” protests continued unabated. On February 22, and after 53 uninterrupted Fridays of demonstrations, thousands took the streets to mark the one-year anniversary of the movement. The demands have remained the same, but the future of the “Hirak” becomes more uncertain: what now?

But a few weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Algeria: a windfall for the authorities, a curse for the revolution. After the government banned all public gatherings, as in other countries, Friday March 20 was the first on which streets remained empty in more than a year. Though authorities initially stated that they had no intention of exploiting the pandemic for political purposes, they have done nothing but the opposite.

Emboldened by the end of the protests, which they had tolerated for some months, the authorities carried out an unprecedented crackdown against peaceful dissidents, including demonstrators, political activists, and human rights defenders. Though in early January 2020, the authorities released about 70 activists, 80 others, including a number of prominent movement leaders, remained behind bars. Between March and June, over 200 individuals were arrested and prosecuted for “participation in unlawful assembly”, “insulting the president”, “undermining national unity,” and “harming the morale of the army”. 

As of today, over 80 prisoners of conscience remain imprisoned according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD). Journalists and bloggers were not spared by the repression and the number of judicial proceedings against them has reached disturbing levels, gravely compromising press freedom in the country. On 15 September, prominent journalist Khaled Drareni was sentenced to two years in prison on appeal for “endangering the integrity of the national territory” on the basis of two social media posts. 

Legal setbacks

The authorities also used the COVID-19 pandemic to further restrict their legal framework. In April, the government presented amendments to the Penal Code to the parliament, opting for a so-called “restricted” debate due to the pandemic. Only the Minister of Justice took the floor, before swiftly proceeding to a vote. The amendments entered into force a week later, bringing a further blow to freedom of expression and association in the country. Under the new text, anyone receiving foreign funding deemed to undermine “state security” or “national unity,” among others, could be punished with five to seven years in prison, a penalty that can be doubled if the funding is received by an association or organization. The new text also criminalizes the dissemination of “false information” without defining it, thus allowing the authorities to punish those publishing critical content or controversial information with one to three years in prison.

Last but not least, revised Article 144 of the Penal Code increases the penalty for “contempt”— defined as insulting a state official “with the intention of violating their honor, delicacy or the respect due to their authority”to up to three years in prison. In January of this year, Walid Kechida, founder of the “Hirak memes” Facebook page, was sentenced to three years of imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 dinars on the basis of this provision.

The introduction of a new constitution embodies authorities’ most recent attempt to pretend that the page of the former regime has been turned and been replaced with a “new Algeria.”The timing of the constitutional referendum, on November 1, is no coincidence: this date is symbolic, as it marks the anniversary of the start of the war of independence against France in 1954. But this did little to make Algerians enthusiastic about their new Constitution; less than 24 percent of voters participated, according to official figures.

Lacking any sort of legitimacy—as the amendments were initiated by the presidency instead of a constitutional assembly—the constitutional revision is far from ground-breaking. While it seemingly upholds a number of fundamental rights and freedoms, they remain severely restricted by legislation and mean little in the context of the increased crackdown on peaceful dissenting voices. Perhaps the most intriguing is the introduction of a broad provision stating that the “National People’s Army defends the vital and strategic interests of the country,” which is left to arbitrary interpretation. For the first time, the political role of the army is enshrined on paper, which does not bode well with repeated “Hirak” demands to establish a civil—not military—state.

Two years on, what is left of the “Hirak”?

Nearly two years into the start of the “revolution of smiles,” the Algerian people have paid a heavy price for speaking up. The repression, along with the authorities’ mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and inability to address the economic and social crises, have heightened tensions that could very well bring Algerians back on the streets. But this time, it will likely for political and social and economic demands. With falling oil and gas prices, coupled with high import bills, will the authorities be able to sign a check to buy social peace like they used to? Nothing could be less certain.

But regardless of what the future holds and despite setbacks, the “revolution of smiles” is a milestone in Algerian history. The victories of the biggest protests since the independence from France were gained peacefully. The fear of plunging back into violence is now long gone and can no longer be used by the authorities to deter any form of dissent. At the onset of the “Hirak” movement, 37 percent of Algerians had been born after the civil war that ended two decades before and led to 200,000 deaths. Their memories are instead filled with images of people reappropriating the public space and uniting together, beyond any regional, political or ideological stances.

The pandemic gave the authorities an unexpected truce, and the authorities know that their attempts to feign reform have fooled no one. The “Hirak” will likely have to reinvent itself, but in any case, the power in place remains terrified of the streets and for the first time, fear has changed sides.

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