The Algerian Hirak: a case study on the mobilisation of protest in the Maghreb

Historian Karima Dirèche-Slimani explained at Casa Árabe's latest event the framework set by the Hirak in Algeria
Atalayar_Hirak Argelia

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The genesis of the term Hirak dates back to 2007, in Yemen, where the Hirak al-Janoubi (Southern Movement) emerged, referring to a separatist political grouping. In 2016, the term reappeared to refer to demonstrations in the Moroccan Rif and on 22 February 2019, Algeria developed its own Hirak. 

The latter is defined as a national, peaceful and popular movement with strong political demands.

In the latest conference at Casa Árabe, in collaboration with the Master’s Degree in International Politics: Sectorial and Area Studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, historian Karima Dirèche-Slimani tackled the case of the Algerian Hirak, dismantling the representations of a depoliticised nation trapped in the trauma of the 1990s to better understand the dynamics of change that the multiple components of Algerian society have built, from below and in silence.

The ninth session of the Aula Árabe Universitaria 2 (AAU2) programme at Casa Árabe was presented by Rafael Bustos, professor of International Relations at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM) and coordinator of this Master's programme, and by Karim Hauser, Casa Árabe's Coordinator of International Relations.  

Atalayar_Casa árabe argeliaAlgeria is a country rich in hydrocarbons, which characterise an economy that revolves around this sector. The army is very present in the North African country and can be said to be omnipotent. A popular rumour ran through the streets, "a whisper" as Karima Dirèche-Slimani describes it, because there was very little freedom of expression when it came to comments on the situation of former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The president, who was and is very old, was said to be very ill. However, the president said he would opt to take office once again, which would have meant his fifth term in office.

" In the 1990s in Algeria there was a confrontation in 1991-2002, which were years of civil war. There was a sense of an Algerian society traumatised by this violence that had taken refuge in conservative religious practices," she added. We thought that Algerian society was totally depoliticised and did not care about politics," she said.

However, on 22 February 2019 (it started a little earlier, on February 16), something came along that took Algerians by surprise. There were mass mobilisations, of people taking to the streets expressing themselves for the first time since Algeria's independence. These people did not want a fifth Bouterfika mandate.

"What happened was collective psychology, suddenly Algerians felt humiliated that they were represented by a man who was incapable of governing, because it was a team that was in charge of governing," Dirèche-Slimani said. 

Atalayar_Casa árabe argeliaThis liberated Algerian expression and from then on we have seen crowds in the streets. It happened in every city in Algeria, every Friday and Tuesday, with Tuesday being the day of the student demonstrations demanding: "We don't want a fifth term". There was a massive rejection by a part of Algerians, with their diversities, a general consensus emerged saying "we don't want this man anymore".

"This mobilisation was surprising and also fascinating, given the modus operandi," she explained. It was inspired by the demonstrations of the Arab revolutions of 2011. And the most special thing about this movement is that it lacks leadership, it is horizontal, there is no political personality leading the demonstration.

It was a philosophical, peaceful movement; with "a lot of joy in the beginning there were banners that called for laughter, that is, a lot of humour. There was a whole series of expressions that were used; funny, innovative, sometimes very tremendous. Very striking slogans 'we are looking for a non-stick seat so that the next president won't stick', 'there is only Chanel for a No5'," such as those mentioned by Dirèche-Slimani.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the Hirak and a large number of well-known demonstrators were imprisoned for showing their opinion: a blogger, a Facebook user, a journalist... But now Algerians have taken to the streets again for the anniversary of the Hirak and have taken back the public space to say the same things as in 2020. 
Atalayar_Casa árabe argeliaThere is a huge gap between a self-disciplined and horizontal citizenry and an oligarchic and vertical system. "When we see the images and go into the protests, this approach is very striking," Dirèche-Slimani said.  

Many men and women overflowing with vitality demand a higher level of education focused on young people. The historian clarified that since 2016 the Algerian birth rate is among the highest in the world, Algerian society has one million births per year. And the number of births has multiplied between 2016 and 2017, Algeria has 43 million inhabitants, it is going to be the first demographic power in the Mediterranean. The Hirak shows a very young population.

We have a youth that is exhausted, it has 2 million students and the state has interfered in territorial decentralisation.

The population, which was depoliticised, has now become the opposite and has been politicised for a long time. And now with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune the same story is repeating itself, the new president is the same as the previous one. There is no political alternative, as explained.

Despite the pandemic, Algerians are once again taking to the streets and cities and continue to fight for their rights.