In the year preceding the Covid-19 pandemic, Algeria witnessed widespread dissent in what became known as the Hirak protest movement after former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his campaign for a fifth term in office. Algerians, angered by decades of corruption and a lack of political freedom, participated in sit-ins, strikes, and weekly demonstrations against Bouteflika and his supporters within the government, leading to Bouteflika’s resignation. In a tightly controlled election that permitted only establishment candidates to run, Abdelmadjid Tebboune clinched the presidency.
But winning elections in Algeria has not always led to smooth tenures. Tebboune faces a looming crisis after the Hirak protest movement that led to his predecessor’s downfall reignited on its two-year anniversary, February 16, 2021, with protestors continuing to call for a complete overhaul of Algeria’s political system. Although he has nominally aligned himself with the movement, his cabinet has struggled to gain legitimacy following dismal turnout in a widely boycotted election. Tebboune must choose to further endorse the protests that call for his own removal, which would mean pursuing meaningful political reforms, or to initiate a harsh crackdown on a movement that has attracted millions of Algerians from all strata of society.
The protests resumed after nearly a year of Covid-19 restrictions that have provided the Algerian regime with some amount of shelter from the unprecedented fervor which ousted President Bouteflika in 2019. The two-year anniversary of the movement witnessed a protest of 5,000 people in Kherrata, the town where the movement started. Now that virus restrictions have been lifted to some degree, many expect that the protests will gain momentum once again, though perhaps not at the widespread and systematic level seen prior to the pandemic. This revival has put Hirak at the forefront of President Tebboune’s agenda.
The protesters regarded Bouteflika’s departure as only a first step in a democratic overhaul of the system that has been in place since Algeria gained independence in 1962. The regime consists of a network of corruption and patronage among the ruling FLN party, military and security officials, and business leaders. Despite pervasive authoritarianism, the structure of the Algerian regime does not permit a strongman-led state, meaning that behind Bouteflika was an entrenched system that maintains an economic and political grip on the country. The protestors know this, and even after Bouteflika resigned, called for “the gang to go” and to “topple the regime.”
Tebboune and his faction have sought to distance themselves from Bouteflika’s unpopularity and legitimize their standing with the movement that cross cuts Algerian society, but this superficial alignment with Hirak and his limited attempts at appeasing the protestors through reforms have done little to stifle the calls for accountable and transparent governance. After Bouteflika was pushed from power, a few of his top supporters in the government were jailed. However, several have since been released, which many Algerians interpret as Tebboune walking back on his commitment to fight corruption.
Should he choose not to listen to the will of the protestors, Tebboune would certainly escalate tensions by choosing to jail Hirak's participants and pursue other restrictions on the movement. The protestors appeal to the idea that the army, police, and people share identity, as shown in the popular chants “jaysh wa sha’ab, khawa, khawa,” or “the army and the people are brothers, brothers.” Beyond this appeal to unity, some argue that the composition of the Algerian army being 70% conscripts makes the soldiers more inclined to view themselves as one with the protestors. The army was unwilling to fire on protestors and refused to stick with Bouteflika. This dynamic poses a serious risk for Tebboune in taking steps to reign in the protestors.
Tebboune’s government released many of the jailed activists – several of whom reported being brutally treated and even tortured – who were charged under a vague provision of the Penal Code. However, dozens of non-violent activists have not been released. This goes to show that Tebboune has not fully endorsed either the approach of a brutal crackdown or the genuine willingness to engage in reforms. At the same time, he has not had to deal with Hirak in full swing. As the movement gains momentum again, Tebboune’s government will continue to be forced to make difficult choices.