Popular protests against the Algerian government have continued into their forty-ninth week, as Algerians once again spilled onto the streets of large cities across Algeria on a Friday afternoon in order to have their voices heard. These protests have been running consistently since February 22, 2019, when the President at the time, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced he was seeking to remain in power and to add another five-year term to his already twenty-year rule. While Bouteflika was ousted by April, the consequent election was widely dismissed as a sham and protests continue against the new President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected December 12, 2019.
The protestors have made their sentiments clear – common chants include, “La hiwar, la hadra, el raiss Iheb Ibia Essahara” (“No dialogue, no talks, the president wants to sell the Sahara Desert”). In response, Tebboune openly remarked in his first news conference as president that he would, “commit (him)self to satisfy all the demands of the blessed Hirak (pro-democracy movement), including amending the constitution and changing the laws as part of the radical change of the foundations of our democracy in Algeria to establish a genuine democracy.” He has also met with a number of key figures in the Hirak movement and about ninety activists were recently released from jail. However, problems remain. Still, one hundred and twenty-four activists remain jailed; this includes figures who were prominent in the Hirak. The peaceful protests of the Hirak are also not completely accepted by the state – in the city of Algiers, for example, there is safety in numbers as smaller crowds are usually forcibly dispersed. In the cities of Tlemcen and Sidi Bel Abbes, protests have been blocked since December.
It is clear that the new Algerian government has not fully embraced the spirit of reform being advocated by protestors and so the Hirak is divided – while some argue that only complete dismantlement will allow the state of Algeria to progress, others recognize that Algeria has found itself in a curious stalemate, where neither side has won or lost. One Algerian writer argued that the movement was failing, “to move from radical slogans of change — ‘Go away, all of you’ — to a negotiating posture with the regime, which still holds essential levers of power: oil revenues, repression forces and international support of foreign partner states.” In response, other Algerian intellectuals slammed the pre-emptive legitimization of the state’s inevitable crackdown.
The state of Algeria faces a crisis that must be addressed. At its root, these protests represent the frustration Algerians feel towards a corrupt system that they feel has never represented them. The current government must undertake a project of democratic transition. The Hirak has demanded that the system be dismantled – parliament should be dissolved, and free and fair elections must be conducted in order for an assembly of democratically elected representatives to take its place. Algeria will also have to work to build strong institutions that can be trusted by its citizens to protect their rights and champion their causes. The trigger for these protests was the twenty-year-long rule of a leader that became entrenched within a corrupt system – consequently, a reformed Algeria must set and abide by firm term limits for those in office. The Hirak must be consulted in this process, and the eventual system that comes from these discussions must be the product of discourse with the movement. These reforms are necessary in order to bring peace back to Algeria.