Skip to main content

Algeria's popular movement, one year on

On 22 February 2019, Algerians took to the streets in their tens of thousands to demand change. What's happened since then, and why are Algerians continuing to protest?
Algerians took to the streets nationally to demand the departure of longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in power. A year on, how has Algeria been shaped post-Bouteflika? (Ryad Kramdi/AFP)

If you had told Algerians before February 2019 that they would soon be witnessing nationwide mass mobilisation for over 52 consecutive weeks, they probably wouldn't have believed you.

Yet that is exactly what started to happen when on 10 February, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been the country's president since 1999, announced that he would be seeking a fifth term in the presidential election scheduled for 18 April.

Bouteflika has been wheelchair-bound since suffering a stroke in 2013 and had not given a public address since. His announcement, which outraged many who saw him as unfit to lead, was the final straw for Algerians living in a country with poor living standards and where more than a quarter of those under 30 are unemployed.

.
Algerians protest in Algiers on 26 April (MEE/Yasmina Allouche)

Algerians defied the state-sponsored rhetoric that street protests would send the country back to the violence witnessed during the so-called Black Decade of the 1990s civil war, and started a protest movement now celebrating its first anniversary.

Breakout protests against Bouteflika's fifth term in cities like Kheratta and Khenchela would morph into nationwide peaceful protests by 22 February. The capital would witness its largest protest in over a decade, in direct defiance of a ban on demonstrations in place since 2001.  

Despite the weekly peaceful mobilisations, the lack of international focus on noteworthy developments in the country compared to the attention given to mobilisations in other countries has often been lamented by Algerians, and the large-scale ignorance of the country's opaque politics criticised.

As Algerians mark one year since the start of the popular movement, or hirak, and reflect on what to expect in 2020, Middle East Eye takes a look at some of the most notable moments of the past year. 

1 March: The first of Algeria's "Million-Man March" is organised as thousands of protesters across Algeria take to the streets opposing Bouteflika's fifth term bid for the second consecutive week.

Translation: Abdelkrim Khettabi Street, not far from the Grande-Poste in #Algiers. [Then-presidential candidate] Rachid Nekkaz is in an apartment across the street.

Translation: Two processions have joined. Didouche Mourad Street is flooded with people. Audin Square as well. At the moment things are static. We don't really know in which direction things are headed. Near the Grande Poste, police are blocking access to Hassiba street.

11 March: Bouteflika announces that he will not run for a fifth term and postpones the April election. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia resigns and is replaced by Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui. 

26 March: Army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah comes out in support of the protesters' demands and orders the immediate application of Article 102 of the constitution, which renders the presidency vacant due to the president's "incapacity". The turning of Algeria's powerful military against Bouteflika marks a key turning point in the protest movement, although protesters are wary of its intentions.

Translation: Gaid Saleh calls for Article 102 of the Constitution to be activated which deems the post of President of the Republic to be vacant

2 April: Bouteflika announces his resignation, a few hours after a speech by Gaid Salah in which he said: "We will stand with the people and protect them from the gangs." Asked whether Algerians should celebrate Bouteflika's departure, a protester responds "yetnahaw ga" - or "remove them all" - which has since become a popular slogan of the hirak.

Translation: The last video of President Bouteflika before his final departure from office after 20 years as president

10 April: Abdelkader Bensalah, who served as speaker of the upper house for 16 years, is appointed interim president and announces that election will be held on 4 Jul, a date viewed by many protesters as far too soon for a proper political alternative to emerge.

4 May: Bouteflika's brother Said and the once-feared former intelligence head Mohammed Mediene are arrested along with the head of the intelligence service, General Athmane Tartag, and leader of the leftist Workers' Party Louisa Hanoune. The four are accused of participating in a meeting held at the end of March to discuss Algeria's political future, which is believed to have led Gaid Salah to trigger Article 102, fearing a conspiracy against him.

2 June: Elections are once more cancelled after the only two candidates are rejected by the Constitutional Council.

21 June: Security forces start increasing their use of repressive tactics against protesters. Arbitrary mass arrests start to increase based on charges such as holding flags other than the national flag. Those carrying the Amazigh flag, representing Algeria's largest ethnic community, are arrested. Police are also given orders to prevent protesters from reaching certain key points in cities in an attempt to restrict mobilisation. 

Translation: The Berber [Amazigh] flag is here, the Algerian flag as well. Slogans against Gaid Salah abound. The 18th Friday of the revolution has begun in Algiers with 'fraternity' as the key value.

Translation: The majority of demonstrators march between Audin and the Grande Poste. Several groups are also marching on Pasteur Avenue, where access to the Faculty Tunnel and the government palace are blocked by police vans.

15 September: Bensalah announces that presidential elections will be held on 12 December. The hirak continues raising its slogan of "a civilian state not a military one" in its calls for the removal of Gaid Salah, believed to be the one calling the shots.

Translation:The president of state officially announces that 12 December 2019 will be the date for the presidential elections

Translation: civilian state not a military one 

6 December: A week before the election, the five presidential candidates take part in the country's first televised debate. Many protesters dismiss the move and voice their rejection of the candidates, all of whom either had served in Bouteflika's government or had close connections to him.    

10 December: Former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia is sentenced to 15 years in prison and another one of Algeria's former prime ministers, Abdelmalek Sellal, is sentenced to 21 years in prison on charges of corruption and abusing state funds.

12 December:  The election goes ahead despite weeks of protests. Many of the polling stations in the country are targeted by protesters and offices of electoral authorities are set alight. 

Translation: The vote is taking place as planned and in a transparent manner in Jijel

13 December: The election results are announced and a former prime minister of Bouteflika's government, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, becomes Algeria's next president with 58.15 percent of the vote. Tebboune is sworn in the following week and vows to initiate a dialogue with the hirak. Algerians ensure the next protests are full of reference to his son, imprisoned on drug-related charges.  

Translation: Meanwhile...

23 December: Gaid Salah's sudden death from a heart attack, just four days after attending Tebboune's inauguration, comes as a shock to many. General Said Chengriha replaces him as the military's interim army chief of staff. Thousands take to the streets in the capital to pay their respects during the funeral procession and to avoid provoking any type of retaliation. Signs against Gaid Salah are left out of the protests.

6 February: Tebboune pardons nearly 10,000 prisoners, including revered national figure Lakhdar Bouregaa, as part of a series of appeasement measures towards the hirak, which has maintained its rejection of his presidency.     

What next? 

Despite steps undertaken by Tebboune towards constitutional reform and his promise to fight corruption and make his government more inclusive of the youth, media freedoms remain restricted and hundreds of political prisoners are still incarcerated. 

A lot may have changed in 2019, but on some issues things remain as stagnant as ever. Protesters see Tebboune's election as following the same system of governance in place since 1962, where the military elites wield more power than the president and rule the country from behind the scenes.

While large protests are now mainly concentrated in the capital, the demands remain national: democratic transition, respect for the rule of law, starting with the constitution that stipulates that sovereignty - and by extension selecting who should govern their affairs - lies solely with the people. 

.
"Yetnahaw ga’” or “remove them all” is the hirak's popular slogan (MEE/Yasmina Allouche)

Despite their demands going unmet and the absence of tangible change in the system, the determination of the hirak is what drives many to still take to the streets on Tuesdays and Fridays to denounce what they see as an illegitimate president and those from the Bouteflika era who still enjoy political influence.

Lack of leadership

One of the key achievements of the hirak movement has been the remobilisation and repoliticisation of Algerian society, which will be difficult for the current authority to quash.  

However, the movement's lack of leadership, which may have been beneficial at first, is slowly becoming a disadvantage as polarising opinions on strategy and objectives become more commonplace.

This has become particularly obvious when looking at Tebboune's negotiating strategies, as he handpicked members of the opposition and national figures to discuss political strategies despite only a few of those figures being respected by the hirak.    

While it is difficult to predict what may happen in 2020, given Algeria's opaque political system and the unpredictability of the last year, the economic situation remains the most decisive factor for the country.

In dire need of diversification and reform, painful economic measures adopted by the government are on the horizon and they will further stoke anti-government sentiments for being too little, too late.

However, the slow adoption of reforms and appeasement measures is a strategy that the state continues to rely on in order to buy itself more time for its own continuity, while hoping that the popular movement will eventually die out.

This year will thus be a waiting game to see whose survival triumphs: the Algerian state or the hirak.