here was only twenty three percent voter turnout in the 2021 Algerian election, even as more than thirteen thousand candidates stood for the four hundred seven seats in the parliament. The reason was largely due to Hirak movement boycotting it.
Controversies also arose when some estimates suggested that one million votes were cast as invalid. This is the third vote to have taken place since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted in 2019, after seeking a fifth term in office. His replacement, Tebboune, had however vowed to break from the cronyism-corruption of the former regime, and commented that he respected the turnout, despite it being low. But, it turned out as a lie when he made just few changes in his government’s top positions.
For the academic Nacer Djabi, ‘these elections confirmed what was known. The Algerian political system rejects change and one should not rely on this type of elections to fix the system.’
Leaders of the opposition overseas such as the Rachad movement, which is led by Algerian academics, politicians, and activists in London and Paris, including members of the banned Islamic Salvation Front, also rejected the polls as a farce and issued boycott calls.
Louisa Hanoune, the general secretary of the Workers’ Party, believes that the future National Assembly will ‘undeniably worsen the crisis as it only represents a minority.’
As a reaction, in the month of July 2021, several unemployed people led mass demonstrations in provinces of Ouargla and Touggourt. The young people had set tyres on fire and blocked public transport in many towns.
The mobilisation by students and the wider population have sustained the uprising over the last twenty-nine months. As a post-election reaction, the government was continuing to repress journalists, activists and demonstrators. Some were even charged with breaking electoral laws and received disproportionate fines and jail sentences. At least 258 Algerians are currently in jail because of their political activism and ‘unorthodox’ opinions. The northern region of Kabyle was particularly targeted. Human Rights Watch called it a ‘frightening escalation of repression.’
The people are also revolting against the system because the national economy that depends on the oil and gas reserves are managed inefficiently: the protestors had even clashed after changes in administration of the oil industry, which the demonstrators feel are based on cronyism. They have lost hope, as even some reforms are resented, such as the new electoral law which targets corruption, bribery and even the violation of people’s democratic rights.
Hirak’s central slogan, Yitnahawga3 (“They all have to go”) captures the radical nature of this movement, which is now even backed by opposition parties such as the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), and the Workers’ Party, a Trotskyist political party.
In an article in The New Arab, Abdelkader Cheref, wrote: ’despite brutal repression, unbearable censorship, large-scale manipulation, and psychological intimidation, the leaderless movement has continued to advocate for a fundamental overhaul of the system.’
It also seems that the protesters are not satisfied with a change in the presidency or limited electoral reform, and are now fighting to disband the entire regime, which 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 has long stopped representing the ideals of freedom and independence it once fought for, and the state officials and private businessmen have become rich on the backs of the people.
The regime ‘Le Pouvoir, as it is known by Algerians, has in recent times increasingly used the specific accusation of ‘terrorism’ to target activists. Before the June 2021 elections, prominent activists and lawyers were arrested for ‘conspiracy against the state’. An example of it can be elucidated with the arrest of Ameur Guerrache, a long-standing regional leader, ‘for incitement to terrorism’, and ‘insulting the president’ in Ouargla province. Guerrache had been an active organiser of the current revolt, but his arrest led to even more deepening crises. Guerrache’s mother publicly appealed to the president to release her son, but to no avail.
This strategy of mass detentions on terrorism activities 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 mobilised 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 regime from developing.
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 as a defense, 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 2021, 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.
Moreover, the collapse in the authority of the two most important institutions of the post-independence Algerian state, the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the army, is not new. It has been brewing for decades. Already in the 1980s, the failure of the developmental strategies of the Houari Boumédiène rule started to show with Algeria’s dependence on oil rents, prompting economic crisis during the oil slump, toward the end of the decade. With the result 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 manifestation.
As per an article in Jacobin by Maria Bouattia and Sai Englert: ‘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.’
Thus, it seems that the regime has clearly been unable to rebuild its legitimacy or divide the movement through largely cosmetic reforms or repression. It is also less clear whether the Hirak has the necessary organisational strength to defeat Le Pouvoir head-on and build a new Algeria. Hirak has produced effective pressure but never final victories.
Unlike during other recent revolutions in the region public space has not been occupied continuously to create an organisational base for the revolution, where politics, strategy, and alternative visions for the state can be debated and developed. The uprising has depended on informal and less visible networks and channels of communication. The movement has also not developed formalised leadership, either in the shape of political parties, coordination committees, or unions and resistance committees as seen in Sudan.
Naveed Qazi is an author of six books, and editor of Globe Upfront. For feedback, he can be mailed at email@example.com