North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

Hirak anniversary: Political prisoners freed as Algerians continue to protest

Two years on from the Hirak movement that brought down the former regime, people in Algeria are again taking to the streets to demand democracy

Latefa Guemar Jessica Northey
1 March 2021, 1.34pm
Algerians attend an anti-government demonstration in Algiers on 26 February 2021
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APP/NurPhoto/PA Images

Following an emotional week marking two years of the Algerian Hirak – the massive social movement launched in February 2019, which brought down the former president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika – Algerians have once again taken to the streets in peaceful protests.

People across the country, and in the worldwide diaspora, marched throughout the past week, calling for meaningful reform, a civil state and political transition.

On Monday 22 February, thousands marched in the capital of Algier, and in many other cities across Algeria. The following day, student marches took place – as they had done every Tuesday before the pandemic hit – though these were repressed and some students were arrested (before being released on the same day). On Friday 26 February, there were marches in almost all cities – and the coming weeks are likely to see further demonstrations across Algeria, with potential for repression.

The number of protesters has dropped since 2019, in part due to COVID-19 – which has largely been brought under control in the country – but also because of the withdrawal of a number of social movements, including some feminists, who feel they have been excluded.

But other feminist activists such as Fadila Chitour of the Wassila network were still marching on Friday 26 February, in support of the “eminently political objectives of the marches”.

Days earlier, on 18 February, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had announced the release of dozens of political prisoners who had been imprisoned following the Hirak. The decision, made shortly before the Hirak’s second anniversary, was a move to appease the protesters.

Demands for justice are accompanied by a recognition that change must happen at all levels, across the administration and society

In highly emotional scenes after the announcement, crowds gathered outside prisons nationwide to greet the freed activists and journalists – most of whom had been arrested during the Hirak marches, or for social media activity, with many charged with ‘harming state authorities’.

Among those released was the prominent journalist, Khaled Drareni, who worked for French broadcasters, and Rachid Nekkaz, a businessman and political activist who ran for the presidential elections in 2014, and union activist Dalila Touat.

Algerian civil society’s calls for clemency seemed to reach the presidency, with Tebboune having recently returned from the German hospital where he was being treated for COVID-19. The political prisoners' release comes as a huge relief for the families, campaigners, and lawyers. Algerian civil society continues to demand an independent judicial system, justice and rule of law.

One of the most shocking cases, which may have contributed to the government’s turnaround on the detainees, is that of Walid Nekkiche. The student, aged just 25, was arrested for ‘plotting against the state’ in November 2019 and sentenced to life imprisonment on 1 February 2021. He was accused of being active in a separatist movement seeking the autonomy of the province of Kabylia, which he denied.

In a swift reversal, Nekkiche was released on the same day he was sentenced, after his jail time was reduced to six months, despite him having already served fourteen in detention. In the trial, Nekkiche made accusations of torture and rape about members of the security services department, where he had spent six days before being transferred to a detention centre in Algiers. This case had shocked and angered Algerians at home and abroad, and has fed into the renewed demands for justice and reform, as demonstrated on the streets across Algeria this past week.

In his same speech on 18 February, Tebboune declared that he would continue to implement the roadmap of his presidency, consisting principally of the new 2020 constitution, adopted following a referendum with a very low turnout, followed by new parliamentary and local elections. Tebboune announced a ministerial reshuffle while calling for parliamentary elections, and referred to his vision of a ‘New Algeria’ in which the “youth will play a prominent role”. But this was seemingly contradicted by the nomination of 90-year-old Salah Goudjil to the head of the Senate, the second most powerful post after the presidency, which further angered the Hirak and protesters.

Two years of protests

The Hirak movement began on 22 February 2019, and for 54 consecutive weeks, peaceful protests were held across Algerian cities in an unprecedented and inspiring challenge to the political system. Commentators noted that 26 February 2021 marked the 106th Friday of protests in the country.

Presidential elections that had been planned for April 2019, then July 2019, were cancelled twice, before eventually being held on 12 December 2019, when Tebboune was elected in a contested vote in which all candidates were accused of having links to the former regime.

Ever since, Algerian civil society groups and personalities have continued to press for political reforms, for meaningful dialogue and for an independent and transparent justice system. They voiced their demands first in the year-long demonstrations, and then, owing to the pandemic, in an array of online debates.

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Algerians protesting Bouteflika's fifth term in office, in February 2019 | Ammi Louiza/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

Now, despite COVID-19, they are back on the streets. On 16 February 2021, thousands marched in the town of Kherrata, the site of the very first demonstrations in 2019. In recent weeks marches and demonstrations have also taken place in Montreal, Paris and around the world among the diaspora.

Yet not all Algerians believe taking to the streets is the best way forward. A young woman entrepreneur living in Algiers, who wished to remain anonymous, explained to us why she would not be marching, despite having been active in the movement in February 2019. “I don’t believe that the street can bring solutions to the crisis we face, we need to create another space of struggle,” she said.

The Hirak is “refusing to include social, workers’ and women’s rights, delaying these matters to later”, she continued. The young woman deplored that many figures of the Hirak failed to consider the seriousness of the pandemic and its aftermath.

What comes next?

If the Hirak refuses Tebboune’s roadmap, it must propose its own. Those who have left the Hirak, if only physically, argue for more profound solutions to the crisis to avoid the same impasse Algeria was in back in December 2019.

Despite the dark cloud cast over Algerian civil society by the atrocities of the ‘Black Decade’ – the civil conflict that pitted Islamists against the military during the 1990s, in which more than 200,000 Algerians lost their lives – the spirit of the Hirak has steadily been contributing to an increasingly resilient collective will among the people. Young Algerians are especially committed to bringing about real change, towards a free, democratic and just Algeria.

Demands for justice are accompanied by a recognition that change must happen at all levels, across the administration and society, and that everyone is responsible for achieving it. There is a feeling among the protesters that, having been fooled once, they cannot and will not allow the situation to degenerate into the horrors of the Black Decade again.

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