Algeria’s president has made token gestures to appease protestors and promised new elections, while being confronted with a popular movement that is a shadow of its former self.
Thousands of Algerian protesters took to the streets of the nation’s capital on Monday, marking two years since the Hiraak popular movement brought an end to President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s 20 year rule.
As crowds converged on public squares in the capital, police and gendarmerie initially tried to prevent access, but stood aside after being outnumbered.
The protestors chanted rhythmic cries of “We come here not to celebrate, but to free ourselves”, “Independence”, and “The military state must fall”.
But why are protests resuming now, after nearly a year of hiatus?
Smoke and mirrors
Public sentiment was stirred after current President Abdelaziz Tebboune dissolved parliament and released a number of protestors, a number of whom served as prominent figures of the unorganised public movement.
The measures came ahead of the second anniversary of the Hiraak, in a visible attempt to appease protestors and prevent protests.
Among the freed prisoners was Rachid Nekkaz, who was arrested at the University hospital in Geneva on Friday March 8, where Bouteflika was being treated. Nekkaz trespassed in the process of trying to find out the medical condition of the ailing President.
"There are 40 million Algerians who want to know where the president is," Nekkaz told a crowd of a few dozen people outside the hospital, shortly before being arrested.
Nekkaz, a savvy social media user, quickly rose to prominence in the anti-Bouteflika protests before being barred from running in elections due to electoral laws on nationality, given that he once held French citizenship, which he gave up in 2014 when he attempted to run for office.
President Tebboune made sweeping promises of reform and change when he took office, which was widely viewed with cynicism after he forced an early election before protestors could organise an effective opposition.
Throughout the Hiraak movement, Algerians remained staunch on purging the government from any formerly serving members of Bouteflika’s ‘Old Guard’.
Tebboune has faced significant challenges however, as Algeria continues to struggle with a recurring deficit, heavy economic downturn amid the global covid-19 pandemic, further exacerbated by shrinking reserves, and declining petroleum exports.
To address this challenge, he replaced former Energy minister Abdelmajid Attar with a former minister Mohamed Arkab, who was initially purged following Tebboune’s election. To appease public dissatisfaction, his dissolution of parliament was followed by an announcement that elections would be held soon.
It remains to be seen when they will be held, or to what extent Algeria’s parliament is still relevant after sweeping constitutional changes in 2019 that concentrated more power in the executive.
Algerian youth have been largely dismissive of the recent announcements, referring to earlier promises of employment, development and reform that have not been fulfilled.
Protestors actively seek the rebuilding of Algeria’s government from the ground up, claiming it is ruled by a shadowy cabal of business interests, military generals and corrupt politicians.
Algeria’s military has played an active role in politics in the name of preserving the revolution ever since it led the war of independence against France to victory in 1962. When protests began after Bouteflika sought to change the constitution a third time to extend his 20-year tenure, the entrenched political elite were caught off guard by the intensity of the protests.
In spite of lip service and commitment to reform, Algeria’s authoritarian policies remain unchanged.
To mark the anniversary of the Hiraak, Amnesty International released a statement detailing the arrest of nearly 73 journalists and protestors, describing it as a part of a concerted strategy to eliminate dissent.
Algeria’s draconian Lese-majeste laws allow the government to crack down on blog posts and journalism deemed ‘incitement’ or ‘harming’ the integrity of the elected government or its military.
To mollify the population, Algeria’s Foreign Minister took to the radio, emphasising that while the right to protest is enshrined in Algeria’s constitution, public health considerations must prevail.
For now, it is not apparent whether the popular movement can regain the momentum that saw it’s longest serving president step down.