Requiem for a Revolution

Algeria’s aborted democratic dream offers lessons for the rest of the Arab world

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Requiem for a Revolution
Algerian students gather to protest against the fifth term of Abdelaziz Bouteflika on February 26, 2019/ Farouk Batiche/ Anadolu Agency/ Getty Images/ Newlines

The 22nd day of February, 2019, was a day like no other.

Like millions of fellow Algerians, I still hold dearly its memory. I remember calling friends and family as the news seemed like wishful thinking. Millions had taken to the streets to protest the fifth re-election bid of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a resurgence of hope after decades of rule by a mysterious military junta and a civil war that turned aspirational dreams of freedom into a national trauma. For so long, Algeria had seemed consigned to slumber, haunted by the memories of the war’s atrocities, lest its demons rise again. It would not last – that sense of unity or the political movement it birthed – but that day, we were all able to dream.

For someone who was part of the Algerian diaspora, that day was characterized by an overwhelming wave of revolutionary sentiment – pride, but also regret at not being there to help shape the future of my country. As a young Algerian whose family fought French colonialism and participated in the counter-insurgency efforts in the 1990s, this unexpected uprising felt like the culmination of a familial and national struggle.

My grandfather was among the ranks of the National Liberation Front in the anti-colonial fight. Years afterward, my father was in the Algerian military. For me, the February revolution was certainly not a new war but an opportunity to stand up for the values I was taught as a child. There was a common feeling of commitment and responsibility, that the moment had come for us, Algeria’s youths, to serve our country.

Feb. 22, 2019, was, without a doubt, the most significant political moment in the country’s recent history. Algerian streets were filled with a civilized, peaceful, and committed protest movement that is today known as the “Hirak.” Millions of non-partisan Algerian youths and women engaged, for the first time, in a genuine political movement. They believed in their right and duty, as concerned citizens, to take their destiny into their own hands. After decades of disengagement from politics, Algerians finally allowed themselves to dream, again, of a better country. The humiliating pictures of an ill, absent president, the strangling socioeconomic conditions, and the oppressive nature of the system were, for Algerians, far worse than the possibility of another civil war if they decided to speak up.

Over five weeks of Friday protests, the facade of the Algerian regime cracked. On April 2, Bouteflika resigned from office after 20 years as president, yet millions of protesters kept chanting anti-regime slogans and demanding radical political change. For many, including myself, the resignation of Bouteflika was a victory but not the end of our democratic endeavor. Sofiane Bakir Turki, an ordinary 33-year-old protester, had paved the way for more demonstrations when he summarized the Hirak’s demands in the famous “Yetnahaw Gaa!” [“all out!”] slogan that essentially meant the departure of every political figure responsible for the country’s predicament. Even as Algerians celebrated the resignation of Bouteflika, they were convinced that they were still far from achieving their goal.

The protest movement continued to hold biweekly demonstrations. The student body was mobilized on Tuesdays but also joined the mass Friday anti-regime rallies. Algerians maintained popular pressure on the interim head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, and the entire political establishment. They refused to accept Bouteflika’s departure as the end goal of their protest movement and reaffirmed, week after week, their commitment to democracy, freedom, and radical change.

But their opponent was a longstanding regime that had survived a civil war and was notorious for manipulating public sentiment by playing on ideological and ethnic tensions, co-opting opposition figures, and spreading propaganda. Nevertheless, we, as a nation, marched through the summer season and Ramadan; we stood in windy, rainy weather, and under the hot summer sun; we struggled with conspiracy theories, arbitrary arrests, and online propaganda campaigns.

On Sept. 2, Algeria’s new strongman, Ahmed Gaid Salah, who had served as the army’s chief of staff since 2004, called for urgent presidential elections to end the political crisis. This call showed that the ruling military junta saw no room for popular demands of a radical change and a genuine transition. Many would argue that elections are the only viable democratic tool for change. That is a correct assumption in a democracy, and Algeria is not one. Elections were mainly meant to renew the civilian facade of the system rather than ensuring a democratic transition. The military leadership did little to guarantee a free and fair environment. Gaid Salah’s call was divisive and reaffirmed, once again, that Algerians were living under military rule.

It was no surprise that protesters opposed Gaid Salah. He adopted racist and divisive rhetoric and banned the Amazigh flag, a symbol of Algeria’s indigenous communities, portraying it as a threat to national security. Gaid Salah’s discriminatory statements were hurtful to Berbers like myself because they flagrantly attacked our common heritage and social cohesion. Algeria is lucky to have a rich and diverse history, and Berbers have also shed bled for their country. It became clear to all, especially those directly targeted by such rhetoric, that the military leadership was not willing to make any further concessions. Nonetheless, we decided to defy this leadership as we deeply believed that the February revolution was our only hope to get our popular sovereignty back.

Soon after Gaid Salah’s call for presidential elections, the protest movement, once united, started to suffer from the limitations of its unorganized and leaderless nature. Online pro-establishment social media pages took part in a divisive campaign that portrayed the Hirak as a foreign conspiracy. The government benefited from Algerians’ skepticism and fear of foreign interference, warning them of chaos and war if they refused to adhere to the military leadership’s electoral agenda. I remember surfing social media platforms only to see pictures of friends who had made sacrifices for Algeria accused of serving foreign intelligence agencies. For me, it was clearly a manipulation strategy. But it unfortunately worked on many of my fellow citizens.

“When we go out to protest, we don’t know if we’ll make it back home safely.”

Not long after this campaign, dozens of activists were jailed for threatening national unity and undermining the morale of the army, and journalists were pressured not to cover the biweekly protests. It was a period characterized by frequent calls between friends to find out who was the latest to get arrested. One friend, after miraculously escaping arrest, summarized the situation: “When we go out to protest, we don’t know if we’ll make it back home safely.”

At the same time, a pro-establishment Dialogue Committee was established, allegedly to promote mutual understanding between the rulers and the Hirak and find consensus, but it was only meant to legitimize the upcoming presidential elections. It was insulting to our collective intelligence that we were being repeatedly promised a “New Algeria” while the entire security apparatus was engaged in a “hunting race” to throw as many activists in jail as possible.

Amid the political tensions, the Hirak was a victim of systematic repression but also of its own reluctance to work on a political alternative. As elections approached, Algerians who once agreed on a common goal failed to form a vision for the future of their country. We all rejected the political establishment and our country’s reality. But political and social actors were not on the same page regarding the way forward. They could not work on a pragmatic and realistic roadmap. The system invested in these divisions, and as much as protesters tried to overcome their disagreements, the Hirak fragmented into small groups.

Algerian Hirak activists had different visions. On the one hand, there was hope for an emerging liberal, open-minded, and inclusive Algeria – one that embraced Islamic teachings but also its indigenous Berber identity and Arabist political and popular identity. But on the other hand was a more traditionalist, conservative, and discreet Algeria – one that still recalled the trauma of the 1990s civil war and the 150,000 dead and was not willing to engage in any uncertain process of change because the status quo ensured a facade of stability. Algeria entered a dangerous state of political uncertainty that made December’s presidential elections an undemocratic, unwanted, yet unavoidable outcome.

Elections took place Dec. 12 as thousands of protesters gathered in central Algiers to reject the vote. Since the civil war, Algeria had not witnessed such political tensions. The pro-elections camp saw ballots as the safest option, while Hirak protesters considered the vote an attempt to rehabilitate the system. It was on that day that I had the sensation, for the first time, that I did not share the same aspirations with some of my fellow citizens. I fully understood the reasons and fears that led them to vote, but still it felt like the end of a dream. My friends were in jail, and yet other Algerians, who supposedly shared our grievances and trauma, proudly sought to preserve the regime.

I concede that both parties had their valid arguments and that we both were incapable of holding a respectful debate, and some of us resorted, eventually, to insults. However, the pro-elections and anti-Berber racist camps enjoyed the protection and implicit backing of the military leadership. At the same time, as much as we felt betrayed by fellow citizens who chose to trust Gaid Salah and the elite around him, we did not provide any alternative in case elections were canceled.

At last, former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune was inaugurated as president on Dec. 19, in a ceremony attended by Gaid Salah, who then passed away a few days later. For many, Tebboune was a product of the regime, raised at the heart of the ruling FLN (National Liberation Front) party only to become a loyal soldier of the system. He had served in successive governments during Bouteflika’s reign and was responsible for a notorious state-sponsored housing policy that is associated in many Algerians’ minds with corruption and nepotism allegations.

December’s elections imposed a new political reality where Tebboune enjoys constitutional legitimacy. He nevertheless lacked popular confidence, which pushed him to promise radical changes to appease those who boycotted elections. Many of us did not recognize either the elections or Tebboune, but we were all stuck in the vicious cycle of “All out!” that remained a slogan with no follow-up plan. We were victims of the revolutionary excitement that may bring down the system but is surely not a valid political platform.

We shared this failure with other countries in the region where regimes came back to power after massive protests. Today, it is clear to me why this was the case: We took some of the establishment’s incompetent decisions as a sign of its weakness. It is not weak; it would not have survived for decades if it were.

Regardless of how elections took place, and regardless of whether a former prime minister from Bouteflika’s era truly represented the nation, Algerians were facing a new balance of powers where Tebboune was, by law, the head of state. This encouraged some political and social actors to engage in a dialogue with the system to attain whatever was possible of the unfulfilled demands of the February revolution.

The new president took a pro-Hirak stand, at least publicly, and made a commitment to listen to everyone, including those who rejected him. This, in addition to Gaid Salah’s death, gave many Algerians some hope that they would be able to make a change after all. On Jan. 2, 2020, dozens of political prisoners were released, reportedly by the order of the president. Soon after, a technocratic government was appointed as Tebboune vowed to amend the constitution, give youths the opportunity to engage in political life and put an end to the repressive practices of the Bouteflika era. However, even if he had a genuine interest in promoting democracy, Tebboune had to face the military’s old guard.

As the new inhabitant of Mouradia Palace began his term, he quickly fell short of delivering on his promises. The old pro-system elites were back in power while pro-Hirak activists were marginalized and prosecuted. Simultaneously, the Bouteflika clans and Gaid Salah’s coterie were slowly pushed aside. Tebboune was seemingly hoping to change the structure of the system, but only to build his own elite rather than to honor his pledges to Algerians. He quickly brought back some, old disgraced figures but also promoted his close circle of associates and entrusted advisers.

Protests flared up again but were cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. On March 22, the Hirak halted its demonstrations to safeguard public health. But this did not end arbitrary arrests, with the security apparatus taking the pandemic as an opportunity to decisively crush the revolution and jail dozens of protesters.

For the past few months, as Algeria entered total lockdown, the system invigorated its old clientele networks and reconfigured its civilian facade. Tebboune took advantage of the calmness imposed by the pandemic to pursue his own agenda and reaffirm his power and legitimacy through a series of shifts at the heart of the state’s institutions. The president appointed governors, advisers, and senior military officials and even set up new institutes, entities, and governmental bodies. He managed to co-opt several opposition figures as the Hirak struggled with an existential crisis.

Still, the president’s plans continuously faced hurdles due to the dire economic situation, the broader awakening of public consciousness, and the February revolutionary spirit. His soft public posture toward secularist revolutionaries eroded his own pan-Arabist and conservative popular base, a silent majority in Algeria’s rural and disadvantaged areas.

At the same time, the protest movement, once so powerful, became extremely divided, polarized and promising nothing but political uncertainty. More than a year and a half after the Hirak’s inception, it is today debatable whether the movement still exists or is simply a nostalgic term for a lost chance for change. Algerians had been desperately hoping to find a consensus that overrides their ideological and regional divisions. Now this seems impossible under the glare of repression, generational splits, and fears of a political vacuum.

Protesters were so caught up in the revolutionary hype that they disregarded the fact that they lacked any pragmatic tools of change

Protesters were so caught up in the revolutionary hype that they disregarded the fact that they lacked any pragmatic tools of change. They took their unity against Bouteflika as a false sign of social cohesion; they were so engrossed by their ability to mobilize the streets that they mistakenly thought massive protests could build states.

Amid the system’s stagnation and the Hirak’s dilemmas, Algeria prepared for a constitutional referendum on Nov. 1 and snap legislative elections. It is yet another step toward the vaunted “change” promised by President Tebboune, but it is unlikely that it will appease Algerians. The Hirak is absent, if it is indeed still alive, but socio-economic conditions will inevitably spark another wave of protests, sooner or later.

Algeria has long been closed off; a forgotten land defined by the legacy of the 1954 revolution against French colonialism. Its internal politics remained forbidden territory for most Algerians, whose country was governed by a tight circle of post-colonial elites. Since its independence in 1962, Algerians have preserved and defended the country’s reputation as a “Mecca of Revolutions.” It is known among Arabs as the “country of a million martyrs” and for decades has cultivated support for anti-colonial, nationalist movements in developing nations, despite languishing under the autocratic rule of a mysterious military junta.

In 1988, Algerians revolted against the system and aspired to establish a real democracy, only to endure a terrible civil war that lasted for an entire decade and cost the lives of approximately 150,000 civilians and military personnel. Algerians paid a heavy price for their democratic aspirations and lived through a collective trauma for about 20 years. Thousands of innocent people were slaughtered, tortured, forcibly disappeared, and jailed without a fair trial.

Algerians, who had high expectations on the eve of the war, ended up trapped between military repression and Islamism. This trauma arrested their dreams of changing their country, forcing them to endure corruption, repression and nepotism even as the entire Middle East stood up against tyranny in 2011.

It is safe to say that the 2019 transition period was aborted, much as the transition in 1988 was delayed. However, when the military leadership decided to postpone reforms in the 1990s, Algeria sank deep into turmoil. Today, a transition period may not be as tempting as the comfort of the current status quo, but the price of suspending change will be severe, given Algeria’s geopolitical and economic realities.

Algerian youths do not see the “New Algeria” that lives in the president’s speeches. Activists are jailed for social media posts and memes, and the entire nation feels abandoned by both the political establishment and the traditional opposition.

But the Bouteflika experience proved that maintaining the status quo could be costly and could never be truly sustainable. Algeria today is not the same as the Algeria of the ‘90s, nor is it the same as Bouteflika’s Algeria. The February 2019 revolution was a clear sign that the country is on the verge of a social explosion.

Tebboune may disregard popular discontent, and he might even strengthen his current administration internally through changes within the military institution and internationally by playing up Algeria’s role in resolving crises in neighboring Mali and Libya. Nevertheless, there is no escape from dialogue this time, and any attempt to avoid it could demolish the very existence of the Algerian nation-state. Unless the tight security approach is replaced with a genuine process of democratization, the streets will rise up again. This time they will not just threaten the president’s term in office but may usher in a revolution of the hungry and destitute.

Algeria’s youths may be pondering leaving the country. Perhaps they will lose hope as they contemplate the same old faces. Some might even romanticize the old Bouteflika days. But while we may blame the international community for not sufficiently siding with us, or the regime as the only party responsible for today’s gloomy reality, it is time to assume responsibility for our own failures, misjudgments and miscalculations.

Is there still hope? I sincerely believe there is, as long as Algerians also believe in it. The road ahead will be bumpy and ill-defined and will require much sacrifice, but Algerians are known for their useful stubbornness. Algeria’s aborted democratic dream is no exception in a region that has been living through wars and conflicts for the past decade. Even in the midst of pessimism, exhaustion, and temporary loss of hope, dreaming is still permitted regardless of Algeria’s numerous issues.

In fact, these issues will probably give birth to another democratic attempt in which Algerians must apply today’s lessons. This entire region needs to stop imagining change it does not work for. The political regimes framed our suffering, but we are responsible for planning our rescue.

Majida El Roumi, the Lebanese artist, once said in describing Beirut: “Revolution is born from the womb of sorrows.” Except that verse does not only describe Beirut: It is the recurrent melody for an entire devastated region, including Algeria.

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