The 2019 Algerian protests known as the Hirak began on February 22, 2019, 12 days after the country’s aging and ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his candidacy for a fifth presidential term. The peaceful protests compelled the military to insist on Bouteflika’s immediate resignation, which took place on April 2, 2019. By early May, a significant number of powerbrokers close to the deposed administration had been arrested, including the former president’s younger brother Said. But protesters have not gone home, and many have vowed to stay until the underlying structure of rule in Algeria changes and its ruling elite–known as Le Pouvoir (the power)–are expelled from power. The protesters are demanding that an entirely new system–which some call a new revolution–be put in place. MERIP spoke with Robert P. Parks, a political scientist and the Director of the Centre d’Études Maghrébines en Algérie in November 2019 about the ongoing situation in Algeria, where he lives and works.
What drove protestors into the streets in Algeria in the first place? What were their grievances?
The immediate trigger for the protests was the February 10, 2019 announcement that former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-2019) would stand for a fifth mandate. But the Hirak reflects an accumulation of grievances with the political system that evolved out of the Algerian civil war and with that system’s management of state resources, especially following the president’s 2013 stroke. Most observers, including myself, were surprised by the intensity and scope of the protests—which have occurred every Friday since February 22 (and on Tuesdays for students). But Algerian citizens have frequently shown dissatisfaction with the political system through both exit and voice strategies, although not at this level of national public protest.
Most visibly, participation in national and local elections has declined precipitously over the last two decades. While 46 percent of registered voters participated in legislative elections in 2002, participation has fallen to just over a third of registered voters in 2017. Citizens were clearly exiting the participative side of politics and had been doing so for some time. They were unhappy with their political choices and unconvinced that participation would lead to the types of substantive change they desired.
During the same period, citizens increasingly took to the streets to voice dissatisfaction with ineffective (yet generous) state services, sometimes high-handed government policy, or the regime itself. Some instances received Western media coverage, such as demonstrations in Kabylia in 2001–2002 (incorrectly painted as an ethnic struggle) and the widespread housing and cost of living protests that rocked the country in late December 2010 and early January 2011.
But most of the protests were overlooked, especially in the case of protesta that marked the period from the mid-2000s to the period just prior to February 2019. During this period, the Algerian Ministry of Interior recorded tens of thousands of protesta: small, highly localized non-violent demonstrations, often on a particular intersection of a street, in which people loudly make claims directed at government authorities. While distributed equally in rural villages and large urban centers across the country, protesta were generally highly localized, and in large cities generally only concerned specific neighborhoods, parts of neighborhoods or even specific streets in sub-districts of neighborhoods. Protesta demonstrators block intersections, burn tires and call for authorities to address promises made by the central government but not applied by local representatives, such as the right to safe housing and access to municipal water or gas.
Two interesting aspects of protesta were how both citizen and state learned from them. While sometimes the government’s reaction was heavy-handed, in many instances it used protesta as a way of identifying and addressing basic citizen complaints. Citizens in adjacent neighborhoods witnessed the potential success of protesta as a means of getting basic service provision. In a sense, then, loud claim-making had already become an informal political articulation mechanism prior to the Hirak.
In essence, the protesta are a form of “rightful resistance.” While such demands fit into a bundle of economic, infrastructural or basic household demands, by making loud claims on state-promised rights, citizens are simultaneously calling into question the state’s ability to manage its resources. While protesta call into question the management of state resources–a political question–the types of immediate, material demands placed on the state effectively localized citizen demands and state responses, parceling nation-wide demands to localities.
But two important structural shifts occurred in 2013 and 2014 that began to direct the focus upward: President Bouteflika’s 2013 stroke and 2014 re-election, and the 2014 drop in international hydrocarbon prices. In April 2013, Bouteflika–hitherto still quite popular–suffered a massive stroke that seriously incapacitated his ability to appear in public, thus jeopardizing a potential 2014 re-election campaign. The president did not actively participate in the campaign, which was run by proxy. His public appearances were limited to carefully tailored clips of him receiving foreign dignitaries or in mal-à-droit commemorative events, where his presence (absence) was marked by a framed photo. Citizen sympathy toward the ailing president generated a tandem sense of public and national humiliation. In late 2018, for example, soccer fans were chanting: “We don’t have a president, we have a photo.”
While many Algerians continued to see the president as the ultimate broker in the political system, the public absence of the president during his fourth mandate (2014–2019) and the prominence of businessmen said to be linked to the president’s brother, Said Bouteflika, generated the narrative that the president was an ailing hostage, captive to extra-constitutional forces (‘isaba) bent on securing their own financial well-being to the detriment of the Algerian national economy. This perception was exacerbated by the 2014 collapse in international oil prices and the inability of a succession of governments to communicate a realistic and effective economic reform program that would promote growth while protecting the government’s popular social welfare and human capacity investment programs. What citizens saw instead was a series of prime ministers and ministers of finance discussing austerity measures while businessmen close to Said Bouteflika were increasingly involved in matters of national economy. To many citizens, such images created anxiety for the future and anger at the immediate past and present.
Under such conditions, the February 10 announcement that Bouteflika would run for a fifth mandate sparked widespread anxiety and outcry, leading to the protests on February 22 and every Friday since. The Hirak was able to annul the April 2019 elections, force Bouteflika to resign and overturn the scheduled July 2019 elections, although it was unable to prevent the December 12 polls. One of the remarkable aspects of the Hirak is that it represents citizens from all socio-economic classes of society–the unemployed, poor, middle classes and wealthy. While a plurality of protesters is young men, all age groups and genders are represented and entire families frequently participate in the marches.
Why did these protests happen in 2019 and not in 2011 when so many other regional uprisings took place, including Algeria’s neighbors Tunisia and Libya?
Explaining why something didn’t happen is never easy. But compared with the regimes affected by the 2011 Arab uprisings, Bouteflika’s management style was politically permissive and Algerian society fairly egalitarian. Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Qaddhafi’s Libya and Asad’s Syria, among others, were brutally repressive regimes—a far cry from Algeria then and now. More importantly, in 2011 Algeria was in a fairly good place, and people were relatively happy with their quality of life. Bouteflika, then in his twelfth year in office, had negotiated the end of the bloody civil war of the 1990s and oil prices were high enough to allow his administration to play an active role internationally and domestically. Algeria reasserted itself as a regional player not just in the Mediterranean, North Africa or the Sahel but also in French politics, where presidential hopefuls actively sought meetings with Bouteflika in their hopes to win the French Algerian (if not Maghribi) vote.
Moreover, the government had close to $170 billion in reserves and was massively injecting monies into housing and other infrastructure projects that benefitted Algerian citizens. Social and infrastructural spending was high and bearing fruit and GDP per capita was at all-time highs. Algeria currently tops the African continent in the Human Development Index. The regular protesta that preceded (and followed) this period were not directed against the regime but rather aimed for gaining a greater share of access to the state. They were a way for Algerians to decry the mismanagement of officials who were local and not necessarily national.
So why 2019? I think in the context of the 2014 hydrocarbon crash, discussions of austerity and the narrative of corrupt businessmen hijacking the fourth mandate, Algerian began to see problems as not just local, but rather as a national management problem in the absence of a healthy president. The problem was intensified with the specter of reduced cash flow from oil and gas, and a problem which, it became increasingly clear, could not be managed by Bouteflika’s numerous governments. So, in a sense, citizens are demanding more transparent democratic practices under a new polity just as much as they are calling for a more careful, just and equitable management of state resources. I do not believe, however, that most Algerians support changes to the government’s social and human welfare investment policies, which will likely remain a constant regardless of Algeria’s political fate.
With Bouteflika now out of the picture, why do protests persist?
The Algeria protests persist over the question of presidential elections and citizens are engaged in the debate of whether elections can, if at all, lead to a significant change in the way of doing politics in Algeria and under which conditions this could occur. Elections were postponed twice. Bouteflika attempted to freeze the April 18 elections while still in power. Following his removal from office and the invocation of Article 102 of the constitution, elections were rescheduled for July 4. Under intense opposition from the street—and after failing to attract any serious candidates for the office—interim president Abdelkader Bensalah cancelled the scheduled elections, which were eventually held on December 12.
The Hirak’s initial objective was to block Bouteflika from running for a fifth mandate. His gambit on March 11 to postpone polls (until after the convocation of a National Conference to draft a new constitution) was widely viewed as a ploy to gain more time. Algerians widely rejected that effort, which led to the military’s fairly rapid defection in favor of a controlled, constitutionally mandated solution to the crisis. On March 30, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Vice Minister of Defense and head of the military, forcefully stated that the president had lost the legal authority to rule and invoked Article 102 of the constitution, which concerns the incapacitation of the president. A day later, on March 31, Bouteflika named a new government led by former minister of the interior Noureddine Bedoui (2015-2019). On April 2, Bouteflika resigned and was replaced by Senate president Abdelkader Bensalah, who was tasked with organizing elections within 90 days and constitutionally barred from modifying the sitting cabinet.
For many, elections at this stage might still have offered a viable solution to the crisis if they could be organized in a transparent and credible manner. But the Hirak viewed neither Bedoui nor Bensalah—figures from the Bouteflika era—as credible caretakers of the interim government; nor were they transparent arbiters for anticipated elections. The Hirak called for their resignation and the creation of a neutral government that could usher in new elections.
The Hirak applauded the interim government’s efforts to show good faith in cleaning up corruption by arresting former political leaders and businessmen with close connections to Bouteflika–those most vilified during the fourth mandate, including former prime ministers Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal and businessman Ali Haddad. But as the protests persisted, those efforts were no longer viewed as sufficient.
Positions hardened over the summer, and the movement transformed into what some call Hirak 2.0. Efforts by self-designated groups of former politicians and opposition parties to set out a road map to move forward were rejected by many participating in the Hirak as well as by the military, which framed such efforts as extra-constitutional. The government continued to arrest businessmen and politicians implicated in corruption, while several hundred protestors and militants were arrested on a variety of charges. These arrests sent mixed messages and sparked the ire of the Hirak. On September 15, Bensalah called for elections to be held on December 12 and announced the creation of an independent national election authority. The Hirak rejected those elections and called for the dissolution of government and the creation of a second republic.
Can the Hirak sustain its ongoing mobilization?
Writing in the tenth month of the Hirak and after 42 successive marches and the December 12 elections, one gets the feeling that while many citizens are still willing to take to the streets on Fridays and Tuesdays to push for substantive political reforms, many others are relieved the elections have occurred and now attentively await reforms followed by a return to the normal order of things. The Hirak certainly has created a moment of invigorated political imagination and hope for many Algerians. But the prolonged nature of the crisis worries many others, including those reliant on the state for basic support, those with vested economic interests and those fearful that further escalation of the protests could swing out of control politically. Without polling data, however, our only observable is the number of citizens taking to the streets, not the intentions or preferences of those who remain at home.
Such was the position of candidate Ali Benflis, the former prime minister (2000-2003) who ran against Bouteflika in elections in 2004 and 2014. Although an outspoken proponent of the Hirak, Benflis advocated that the best solution to the ongoing crisis was a presidential election, followed by profound constitutional reform. He was one of five candidates who ran for the presidency; others included two former Bouteflika Prime Ministers, two former Bouteflika ministers, and the former head of the FLN youth—all of whom shared Benflis’ basic stance. The campaigns were all lackluster: None were able to rally significant numbers of citizens to their meetings, and all were regularly heckled in public since announcing their candidacies. And here I think it is important to note, however, that being in favor of a return to a constitutional order via presidential elections did not mean that one would actually participate in the polls, as reflected in the low voter turnout. None of the five candidates was particularly charismatic, and all were linked in various ways to the old order.
The key question is whether the Hirak will persist, now that elections have been held. Undeniably, the Hirak has stirred the popular imagination in ways not seen in Algeria since the late 1980s. The Hirak also brought together hundreds of thousands of Algerian citizens under a series of (evolving) demands, which succeeded in removing a sitting president from power, and in many ways overturned the political status quo. Perhaps most importantly, it has invigorated a new generation of activists, who over the last ten months have learned new repertoires of placing demands on the state, not dissimilar from the localized protesta of the past decade. Algeria’s new president–and future government–will need to contend with this new political landscape in their attempts to reconcile the nation and to push forward much needed institutional and political reform.
ENDNOTES“Voter Participation and Loud Claim Making in Algeria,” Middle East Report 281 (Winter 2016).
 For an instance of citizens invoking President Abdelaziz Bouteflika over a property dispute, see Robert P. Parks, “From the War of National Liberation to Gentrification: Conflicting Claims over Property in Algeria,” Middle East Report Online, August 10, 2018.