A year on, challenges remain for Algerian protest movement

Algerian women take part in an anti-government protest rally in Algiers. (AFP)
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Updated 18 February 2020

A year on, challenges remain for Algerian protest movement

  • A year on, the protests are smaller than in spring 2019, but the movement remains strong

ALGIERS: On Feb. 22, 2019, sudden and unprecedented protests swept Algeria. A year on, despite bringing down a president, the “Hirak” protest movement faces mounting challenges.
Massive anti-government protests held every Friday quickly gathered momentum: Six weeks in, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned after 20 years in power.
But Algeria’s military was quick to reassert control and by the time presidential elections were held in December, a former Bouteflika ally succeeded him in a vote deeply opposed by protesters and shunned by most voters.
“With the presidential election, we passed into act two, with all the specter of improbability, uncertainty and instability” that entails, Karima Direche, an historian of contemporary North Africa, told AFP.
“It matches what Algerians have been saying for a year: ‘Everything is moving and nothing is changing.’” While a year of weekly protests has not yet brought down “the system” that they challenged, the Hirak movement has profoundly changed Algeria’s political landscape.
Bouteflika’s resignation and the imprisonment of corrupt businessmen and politicians are “tangible results, even if the main demand of regime change and systemic reform is far from having been achieved,” said Dalia Ghanem, a researcher with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
But Hirak’s biggest success, she said, was “the increased awareness of Algerians and their desire to reconnect with politics ... without fear of another civil war.”
A brutal war between the Algerian army and Islamist rebels killed some 200,000 people in the 1990s.
The trauma of the conflict was exploited under Bouteflika to discourage dissent, and until February 22 had rendered large protests on the streets unimaginable.
Ahead of the first protests, Algeria’s political system had remained focused on presidential polls that were widely expected to return Bouteflika to power — despite the 82-year-old being largely incapacitated since a stroke in 2013.
Cut off from the public, the regime sensed growing anger but underestimated it. Young Algerians — disproportionately affected by massive unemployment in a country where the majority is under 30 — were fed up with being represented by a wheelchair-bound octogenarian whose rare public appearances elicited mockery online.
Simmering anger peaked when, during a meeting of the president’s party, a portrait of Bouteflika was addressed by party apparatchiks in the absence of the ailing leader.
Calls to protest on Feb. 22 began multiplying across social media.
Few expected the movement to take hold though, especially in Algiers, where since 2001 public rallies had been banned.
But then on the first Friday, overwhelmed police stood aside as tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators poured out onto the streets.
In a country without a real opposition party or union, for the first time “the street appeared as a protest force,” said Karima Direche, an historian at the French National Center for Scientific Research.
According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po University in Paris, the Hirak has for the past year taken center stage in “both the nation’s history and public space.”
And by keeping the protests peaceful, “the movement has changed the rules of the game in Algerian politics, which was previously marked by violence and a lack of transparency.”
The Hirak has also shown the profound transformation of Algerian society: Led by an educated and hyperconnected youth, and in particular women, who are now determined to be heard.
Algeria’s new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, aged 74, “will have to deal with that. He won’t be able to rule like those before him,” said Direche.
A year on, the protests are smaller than in spring 2019, but the movement remains strong.
The Hirak wants to influence the changes promised by the new president but is struggling to structure itself and agree on a future strategy.
“As the movement celebrates its first anniversary, I want to ask ‘What’s next?,’” said Ghanem. “What do you want? What are you demanding and how will you obtain concrete results?”
Several civil society groups born of the Hirak movement are to hold a conference in Algiers on Sunday marking the anniversary in a bid to unify their ranks as a political force.
Participants from across Algeria and abroad will examine a “Feb. 22 Proclamation” summing up the demands and slogans of the protest movement, organizers said.


Initial investigations point to negligence as cause of Beirut blast

Updated 24 min 18 sec ago

Initial investigations point to negligence as cause of Beirut blast

  • 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures
  • A source said a fire had started at warehouse 9 of the port and spread to warehouse 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored

BEIRUT: Initial investigations indicate years of inaction and negligence over the storage of highly explosive material in Beirut port caused the blast that killed over 100 people on Tuesday, an official source familiar with the findings said.
The prime minister and presidency said on Tuesday that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures.
"It is negligence," the official source told Reuters, adding that the storage safety issue had been before several committees and judges and "nothing was done" to issue an order to remove or dispose of the highly combustible material.
The source said a fire had started at warehouse 9 of the port and spread to warehouse 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored.
Tuesday's explosion was the most powerful ever suffered by Beirut, a city is still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from a deep financial crisis rooted in decades of corruption and economic mismanagement.
Badri Daher, Director General of Lebanese Customs, told broadcaster LBCI on Wednesday that customs had sent six documents to the judiciary warning that the material posed a danger.
"We requested that it be re-exported but that did not happen. We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why," Daher said.
Another source close to a port employee said a team that inspected the ammonium nitrate six months ago warned that if it was not moved it would "blow up all of Beirut".
According to two documents seen by Reuters, Lebanese Customs had asked the judiciary in 2016 and 2017 to ask the "concerned maritime agency" to re-export or approve the sale of the ammonium nitrate, removed from the a cargo vessel, Rhosus, and deposited in warehouse 12, to ensure port safety.
One of the documents cited similar requests in 2014 and 2015.
"A local and international investigation needs to be conducted into the incident, given the scale and the circumstances under which these goods were brought into the ports," said Ghassan Hasbani, former deputy prime minister and a member of the Lebanese Forces party.
Shiparrested.com, an industry network dealing with legal cases, had said in a 2015 report that the Rhosus, sailing under a Moldovan flag, docked in Beirut in September 2013 when it had technical problems while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique with 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
It said that, upon inspection, the vessel was forbidden from sailing and shortly afterwards it was abandoned by its owners, leading to various creditors coming forward with legal claims.
"Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port's warehouses," it added.