ALGIERS: Algeria this weekend marks a year since the birth of an unprecedented protest movement known as “Hirak” — one that quickly forced an ailing president from power and is now looking to maintain momentum.
Anti-regime protesters have designated Friday and Saturday a landmark moment, mobilizing to “disqualify the system’s agenda of self-renewal, and to lay the foundations for a new republic.”
The epicenter of the protest movement in central Algiers remained calm on Friday morning, with a heavy police presence. Checkpoints were installed on roads into the city, according to social media, complicating access to the commemoration for Algerians outside the capital.
Protests first erupted on February 22 last year, in response to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announcing he intended a run for a fifth term — despite being debilitated by a 2013 stroke.
Less than six weeks later, he stepped down after losing the support of the then-army chief in the face of enormous weekly demonstrations.
But despite hordes — diplomats said “millions” — turning out after Bouteflika’s fall to demand an overhaul of the entire system, the military maintained a political stranglehold in the months that followed.
The election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, once a prime minister under Bouteflika, as president in December appears to have reinforced the regime’s hand and further stalled the protest movement.
But many boycotted the poll — even the official turnout was below 40 percent — and demonstrators remain numerous.
On Thursday evening Tebboune paid homage to the protest movement in an interview with local media, promising to implement “all of its demands” after it prevented the “total collapse” of the country.
But in a manifesto published Thursday, organizations from the Hirak movement called for “continued mobilization” to force out members of the old guard, arguing that they could not oversee the process of reform.
They denounced the state taking “repressive measures” against journalists, activists and protests.
Algerians “want their country ruled and managed with transparency” by “accountable officials, an independent judiciary and a parliament that is not a rubber stamp body,” they wrote.
Dalia Ghanem, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center based in Beirut, argued things in Algeria appeared much as before. “Soldiers have returned to their barracks, civilians are in power, so there is a democratic and constitutional facade,” she said.
“Tebboune is just the civilian face of a regime that remains in the hands of the military.”
But “the capacity of the regime to adapt without really changing, and its resilience, will be tested in the coming years,” she contended.
It will dole out political handouts through limited reforms, she said, but an economic crisis caused by low oil prices will limit its largesse and hence its scope to maintain social peace.
The protest movement, meanwhile, has plenty of rethinking ahead, if it is to maintain momentum.
The size of marches across the country on Friday and Saturday will represent a key test of the spontaneous, leaderless and youth-dominated movement.
Will it grasp President Tebboune’s extended hand and risk being swallowed up by the regime?
Or does it need to gear itself up for an institutional game, with the risk of exposing its own divisions and contradictions?
But whatever the challenges ahead, Hirak has already forced change on Algeria’s political order, in a context where real opposition was consistently hindered, gagged and co-opted during Bouteflika’s two decades at the helm.
And above all, in maintaining an overwhelmingly peaceful line, the movement has “succeeded in ensuring there has been no bloody confrontation or brutal repression,” said historian Karima Direche.
This marks a contrast with other countries, and also Algeria’s own past experience.
“To see Algerians congregating every Friday for the last year — women, men, Berbers... Muslim Brothers and secularists — in the streets is extraordinary,” said Ghanem.
“A wall of fear... has been destroyed by this new, heavily politicized generation, which knows what it wants,” she added.
Direche sees the coming year as allowing “stock-taking of what Algerians want collectively.”
If the movement succeeds, “Algeria could become a case study,” Direche hopes, with much resting on the coming year.