Thomas Serres: Algeria has been relatively isolated from the outside world since the beginning of the pandemic, with the closure of borders and the cancellation of most flights. What is the situation on the ground after several months of lockdown and repression? How has the Hirak navigated the pandemic?
Hakim Addad: The Hirak persisted under different forms beyond the weekly marches. After the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020, Hirakists organized a solidarity campaign to support destitute families and medical practitioners. In addition, social media and various well-known apps have also allowed for the organization of online meetings. Subsequently, new collectives have been formed and the various initiatives that were in standby mode were relaunched in the fall. Notable among them is Nida-22, an initiative of civil society actors, which came up with a series of propositions for ending the crisis and giving back sovereignty to the people. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the Hirak is functioning as well as it did before COVID-19. But the movement is trying to keep up and to be ready for what will come once this is over. We should keep in mind that marches in the capital are [currently] strictly banned and the regime is cracking down on all of those, individuals or collectives, who try to remain politically active.
Thomas: You have been politically active in Algeria since the beginning of the 1990s. When you compare the repression under President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and what happened in the past during the civil war (1992–1999) or the Black Spring (2001–2002), what are the most striking differences? Is there a continuity in repressive tactics?
Hakim: The first thing to say is that the regime was born in violence [with the elimination of the political wing of the National Liberation Front (FLN) by its bureaucratic-military apparatus at the end of the war of independence] and has always managed this country through violence. So, there is an obvious continuity since Tebboune became president in December 2019 and Maj. General [Saïd] Chengriha took charge of the Ministry of Defense. This regime hasn’t changed the way it manages society. During the current repression, the targeting of peaceful activists is almost unprecedented.
Since Tebboune became president, the crackdown has targeted a number of sectors of society even though they are following the law. In the past, we used to know when we risked our freedom. The few hundred activists who denounced Bouteflika and his cronies were under threat. And even they were rarely sent to jail. Today, not only activists but also regular citizens who post the wrong message on Facebook or who record a sensitive scene without permission in a hospital or a public space with their phone can be prosecuted by what is called the “justice system.” We’re all potential targets. Obviously, this repressive surge aims to suppress the Hirak but also all those who dare to criticize the regime, in the street or on social media. In October, a woman from Jijel, a labor organizer and a member of the Workers’ Party, was found guilty of “undermining a state institution.” The reason was that she wrote a comment on Facebook denouncing police brutality against women. This happened in March. Six months later, she was summoned to the police station and brought before a judge. With this show of force, the authorities want to make it clear that as long as you openly say what you think, you will never be safe.
Thomas: There is something else that seems genuinely new: the centrality of the notion of cyber-criminality that serves to destroy what is left of the Algerian public space during the pandemic.
Hakim: Of course, once the Hirakists announced the suspension of their marches, people used social media to make their claims and express themselves freely. This made online surveillance a crucial tool to control citizens and activists, but in combination with other legal measures.
Thomas: There were already forms of censorship and arbitrary arrests under Bouteflika, notably targeting labor organizers or bloggers, but it was possible to criticize the president and his associates. Repression under Tebboune is more widespread and in complete contradiction with the promises he made when he first rose to power. Is there still a way to believe in what the spokespersons of the regime say?
Hakim: Personally, I didn’t expect much from Tebboune. Now most people are also tired of the situation of uncertainty that followed Bouteflika’s resignation. Some believed that the situation would improve under Tebboune and that the Hirak’s demands would be met. But reality caught up to us rapidly. Despite all the promises and reforms—including the new constitution that guarantees once again the rights and freedoms of citizens—none of them will be enforced. Lies are not a surprise anymore, even if we weren’t prepared for such an attempt to quell the Hirak. Now, people have understood that Tebboune was just another way to impose a fifth presidential term [for Bouteflika].
Thomas: You have been arrested twice over the past year and incarcerated for three months between October 2019 and January 2020. You were accused of “undermining the integrity of the state,” among other charges. What is your experience of the justice system in Algeria? How does one continue to be politically active as an opponent when pending trial?
Hakim: I don’t pretend to have a unique experience. When I was released, I returned to my political activities, because this is who I am. Even if I know that I am still under surveillance and I have been granted interim release, I am an activist. I was there in the 1990s, when we risked our lives, not jail. And I believe in what I’m fighting for. It doesn’t mean that I am not scared or that I am not at times demoralized. It doesn’t mean that I don’t fear prison or the other things that could happen to me. But we fought for more than 25 years to arrive at this new hope that is the Hirak, so I’m not going to stop after three months in jail.
This is likely the reason why they came up with the plan for arresting me a second time, on June 14, in order to add a second round of charges. The irony is that this time, I was arrested while doing nothing. Marches were suspended. Meetings were suspended. But they found Facebook posts where I demanded the liberation of prisoners of conscience. So, they arrested me again and I am now under judicial review. I guess that this is supposed to prevent me from participating in meetings and talking with the press. But after a couple of weeks, I resumed my political activities. I wasn’t going to wait for them to give me the explicit green light to take part in meetings. I’m not the only one in that situation. There are many former political prisoners who continue [their activism], but with caution. We try to take into account that which could lead them to incarcerate us once again. At the same time, it is impossible to be absolutely safe, because it would mean being absolutely silent.
Thomas: So when you post on Facebook, you keep in mind that this is a space of surveillance and repression.
Hakim: Yes, I have been especially cautious in the weeks since my second arrest. The problem is that when I look at my posts, there is nothing blameworthy, including in the posts that they used to justify the arrest. For instance, I demanded the liberation of two Hirakists who had been arrested in Timimoun, in the south of the country. They did nothing other than march with four or five others in the streets of Timimoun when the Hirak movement was still operating in person. When he presented the content of my file, the investigating judge asked me: “Why are you demanding their liberation, you don’t know their file?” If this is the reason that justifies arresting me, what can I say? To be safe is to be mute. In another incriminating post, he blamed me for writing “Tebboune” rather than “Mr. Tebboune.” This is how they build their cases. I am not calling for a violent uprising. I write the word “peaceful,” “peaceful,” “peaceful” in almost every post. But I have to keep speaking out about political change, about political prisoners, about the Hirak or they win. Some friends, lawyers and activists tell me that I should just not write anything political. Some of the prominent figures who were visible during the first phase of the Hirak and were subsequently arrested have gone silent. Something has changed. Those who are the most vocal since 2020, notably on social media, are the new activists who entered politics through the Hirak, young and old alike.
Thomas: The Hirak protests were a foundational experience that led to the mobilization of many sectors of society. Now, there seems to be a transition between two generations of activists in Algeria. What is your take on this transition, on the new activism of hundreds, maybe thousands, of young Algerians who position themselves as a new vanguard in the struggle for democratic and social freedoms?
Hakim: When the marches were still happening and journalists asked me about the most positive thing about this movement, I answered that it was the mobilization of the youth, this new generation that has joined the struggles. This is something that I experienced personally after October 1988, the massive engagement of a new generation of activists.
We don’t hear experienced politicians as much as we used to. It is never the right time, according to them. But when we organize meetings or small marches, in Algiers or in the rest of the country, the youth show up. This generation has joined the struggle at the moment when the previous one has totally withdrawn from it. This is also a problem. After 1988, my generation was supported by older activists. They taught us the basics of organizing into political parties, associations and so on. Now, this new generation should also benefit from a similar transmission of experience. People who are maybe slightly younger than me should share what they have learned. There are tools, practices that one uses to avoid saying or doing stupid things. The challenge for people like me is to support the generation that entered politics through the Hirak and that is trying to keep up with its mobilization in a context of permanent repression.
Thomas: Speaking about challenges, there is also some sharp criticism targeting the Hirak, as some denounce its lack of clear representatives. Others present the Hirak as an immature and unrealistic movement, incapable of proposing anything concrete. What is your opinion regarding this alleged inability to offer a political alternative to the regime?
Hakim: Criticism is absolutely normal. One should not avoid reality. We must admit that the Hirak may have failed in some respects, notably in its effort to organize itself independently. Those who were the most visible when the Hirak was at its zenith, people like Karim Tabbou or Mustapha Bouchachi, may have lacked the courage or the opportunity to clearly say that the Hirak needed a structure. Of course, there were youth collectives, student collectives, artist collectives, journalist collectives, neighborhood collectives. But we failed to unify these initiatives. Those who could have said something, including me, chose to go along with the Hirak when it rejected centralized organization and spokespersons. But there is a difference between organization and having a spokesperson. The former is necessary, the latter is not. So here we are, with this organizational deficit, and to acknowledge this is just to accept reality.
But there are also a few isolated individuals, such as Kamel Daoud, who say that the Hirak has failed as a whole, and this is a shame. Even the regime doesn’t say that the Hirak has failed. They claim that it has facilitated the birth of a new Algeria and is now over. Let me be clear: Kamel Daoud has the right to write whatever he wants, even if this is mostly for his audience in France. But claiming that the Hirak has failed is ignoring the thousands of young people who strive to improve the state of their country by joining the social and political struggle. It’s overlooking very concrete propositions that have been formulated but ignored by the regime.
Thomas: Because of colonization and emigration, Algerian politics are also integrated in a broader international framework. There is a constant tension between a very nationalist political culture, and the de facto transnationalization of political struggles. You are yourself binational, Algerian and French, yet unable to leave the country. At a more macro level, the Algerian diaspora has been very active in supporting the Hirak, in Paris, London, Montreal and elsewhere. I have met some very committed Hirakists in the Bay Area of California. But the borders of the country have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic. In this context, what is the impact of the support of these Algerians living abroad? Can it make up for the fact that most Hirakists are currently trapped within national borders in Algeria?
Hakim: Personally, I fight for a cause in one of my two countries, and I am not obsessed with Algeria all day long. But my internationalism certainly clashes with the reality of a specific political culture centered on the nation, which is wary of foreign interference. Of course, being binational doesn’t help, because the regime has done everything for decades, since independence, to fuel suspicion [of binationals]. People have been trained to be afraid of and reject any discourse that comes from abroad. It is also true for cultural elites that are falling into the regime’s trap and overlooking the contribution of Algerians living abroad. Yet, with the Hirak, and even more under the pandemic and the unfolding repression, Algerians living abroad support us tremendously, with all their intellectual work, with their efforts to maintain the mobilization and support for political prisoners. But the culture of suspicion and some legal measures introduced by the regime prevent them from being fully recognized as citizens and essential contributors to the revolution. I have experienced it here. Being discredited by the regime is not a surprise. But some partners, and even friends active in the democratic forces, see binationals as inherently suspect and less legitimate, despite all their contributions.
This brings us to the question of our limited mobility. If I had the possibility to travel, to go to the other side, I would certainly be able to contribute more to the Hirak, to organize solidarity efforts across the Mediterranean and to denounce in the French media what is happening here. This is crippling for everybody. Being unable to travel, to get out of the country, is not easy. We’re going in circles. To be fair, it was already the case for many Algerians before the pandemic. But COVID-19, the repression and the economic crisis made it much worse. There are very few flights to Europe. Traveling inside the country is quite difficult too. Many Hirakists cannot move from one city to another. Only lawyers are constantly on the road to attend trials.
We’re returning to a feeling of claustrophobia, of enclosure—an accentuated version of what we already experienced under Bouteflika. From the perspective of an activist, the first thing is to hold firm. Then we must keep organizing, with the support of Algerians living abroad. The goal is to be ready to start the struggle again as soon as we can.
Further Reading From the MERIP Archives:
Robert Parks, “From Protesta to Hirak to Algeria’s New Revolutionary Moment,” Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).
Ahmed Aghrout and Yahia Zoubir, “Introducing Algeria’s President-For-Life,” Middle East Report Online, April 1, 2009.
James McDougall, “After the War: Algeria’s Transition to Uncertainty,” Middle East Report 245 (Winter 2007).
Heba Saleh, “Algerian Insurrection,” Middle East Report 220 (Fall 2001).
Paul Silverstein, “Regimes of (Un)Truth: Conspiracy Theory and the Transnationalization of the Algerian Civil War,” Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000).
 The Kabyle Black Spring was a protest movement sparked by the killing of high school student Massinissa Guermah in April 2001 by a military gendarme, which led to several months of unrest and rioting in Kabylia and in Algiers. The unrest was met with a brutal police response killing more than 100 protesters.
 In order to secure his position and balance the influence of military officers, Bouteflika constituted a network of political affiliates and crony capitalists united by shared interests rather than convictions. While marked by a relative stability and the end of political violence, his tenure was also characterized by economic fragility, social unrest, pervasive corruption and the profound discrediting of the political class.
 The Casbah is the old city situated in the heart of Algiers. During the Battle of Algiers (1956–1957), this neighborhood was a hotbed of anticolonial resistance and particularly targeted by French paratroopers. After independence, it remained a working-class neighborhood and a symbol of popular resistance that is located near the Government Palace and the People’s National Assembly.
 Karim Tabbou is a political opponent, leader of the Democratic and Social Union. He was incarcerated by the regime from September 2019 to July 2020. Mustapha Bouchachi is a well-known human-rights activist and a former president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH).
 Kamel Daoud is an award-winning Francophone author. While he positions himself as an opponent to the regime, he has sparked multiple controversies by portraying his fellow citizens in derogatory terms and declaring that the Hirak has failed. Daoud is especially well received in France where he resides.