(This interview was conducted by for Status/الوضع by Bassam Haddad with Muriam Haleh Davis and Thomas Serres at the Sorbonne, Paris, on 4 July 2019.)
It has been a long summer in Algeria. The revolutionary movement, which began in February, has continued despite predictions that the month of Ramadan, and the summer vacation, would weaken popular mobilization. Moreover, state repression has been on the rise. Thus, in addition to the inspiring images and humorous slogans, observers are now faced with a more complicated picture and a protracted stalemate between the people and the regime.
In order to capture both the remarkable horizons and possibilities that the movement has created over the last six months, as well as the very real threat of counter-revolution, we have decided to present two analysis’ here, which should be taken together in order to understand the shifting context of the Hirak.
First, we present an interview recorded in early July, on the heels of the movement’s successful demand that the regime cancel presidential elections for the second time. Second, this longer article describes the events of the first half of September. It depicts the unfolding counter-revolution as a new school year gets underway and protests continue in intensity. We do not intend for these two analyses to represent a progression from hope to despair. Rather, they can elucidate how the Hirak has shifted from a war of movement to a war of position.
Une Saison de Hirak, entre espoir et trahisons
L'été a été long en Algérie. Le mouvement révolutionnaire qui a débuté en Février s'est poursuivi en dépit des augures qui prédisaient que le mois de Ramadhan et les vacances universitaires auraient raison du mouvement. La répression s'est néanmoins intensifiée. Ainsi, en plus des images inspirantes et des slogans plein d'humour, les observateurs sont désormais confrontés à un tableau plus compliqué et à un statu quo prolongé entre les manifestants et le régime.
Afin de capturer à la fois les possibilités remarquables créées par le mouvement depuis six mois et la menace bien réelle d'un succès de la contre-révolution, nous avons décidé de présenter ici deux analyses qui, prises ensemble, permettent de mieux saisir les évolutions du Hirak.
D'abord, nous présentons une interview réalisée au début du mois de Juillet, alors que le mouvement avait réussi à contraindre le régime à annuler les élections présidentielles une seconde fois. Ensuite, nous publions un article revenant sur la situation en ce début de septembre. Il décrit la contre-révolution en cours en ce début d'année académique, alors que les manifestations continuent. Avec ces deux analyses, nous ne souhaitons pas laissez croire à un basculement de l'espoir au désespoir. Il s'agit plutôt de montrer comment le Hirak est passée d'une guerre de mouvement à une guerre de position.
The Hirak at the Time of Treason, September 2019
by Thomas Serres
In recent weeks, the bureaucratic-military apparatus that still controls the Algerian state has intensified its efforts to finish off the Hirak. Since mid-June, the chief of staff of the army, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, and his accomplices have tried to make the people fall into line. They have maintained that holding a presidential election is an absolute necessity and criminalized peaceful opponents who have been accused of posing a danger to the integrity of the nation. During this time, international partners have oscillated between complicit silence and active support for the regime. Moreover, the non-elected government of Noureddine Bedoui has prepared the next step: the liberalization of the economy in the face of a budgetary crisis.
Repression and Impunity
The Algerian authorities were caught off guard by the sheer size of the popular mobilization that began in February, the skillful organization of the protesters, and the resolutely peaceful character of the protests themselves. The Hirak did not fit any of the established categories that the police-state was trained to confront by relying on anti-riot police units, the harassment of individual militants, or counter-terrorist tactics.
Over time, however, the state has adapted, benefiting from the routinization of the movement and the fragmentation of political oppositions. Despite the death of the Mozabite defender of human rights Kamal Eddine Fekhar in prison, the Algerian police continued to pursue its strategy of harassing militants. At the beginning of September, several members of RAJ (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse) were briefly arrested in Béjaïa, including its president Abdelwahab Fersaoui, in order to prevent the summer school of the movement from taking place. This police harassment has been accompanied by a violence that is non-lethal but nevertheless profoundly traumatic, notably for those who sustained eye injuries from tear gas grenades or rubber bullets. Attempts to hold spontaneous gatherings have also been met by a massive police presence and a series of preventative arrests that sought to limit the movement to the schedule tolerated by the regime.
Yet despite the summer, the passing of time and violent repression, the Hirak has persisted. It is important to point out that this movement is not only comprised of Friday protests. For thirty weeks, students have gathered every Tuesday to demand the departure of the policio-militaro-economic clique that has embezzled the wealth of the country for twenty years. While the regime instrumentalizes exhaustion and implements repression in order to survive the revolutionary movement, the determination and resilience of the students is central for the success of the Hirak. At the same time, the forces of the “Democratic Alternative,” which brings together half a dozen parties and associations that are mostly on the left, has attempted to resist administrative obstacles and propose a response to the roadmap introduced by the regime.
It was in this context that the leader of the Democratic and Social Union, Karim Tabou, was arrested on 11 September on fictitious charges of “damaging the moral of the army.” The following Friday (13 September) confirmed the growing repression of the regime and saw the arrest of dozens of protesters, in spite of a large mobilization that continued to demand the radical uprooting of the system as a necessary pre-condition for the organization of any election. On Monday, 16 September, the ex-figure of the movement Barakat and prominent actor of the Hirak, Samir Belarbi was arrested outside of his residence by agents in civilian clothing. At the same time, the most corrupt accomplices of Gaïd Salah, notably Bahaeddine Tliba et Amar Saâdani, remain free.
The Election and the Hare
While the forces for a Democratic Alternative attempt to oppose the designs of the regime with a clear program, the Bedoui government seems to have completed its mission. Chosen by Bouteflika at the beginning of the Hirak, the prime minister took great pains to defend the interests of the military-bureaucratic machine that controls the Algerian state, displaying a remarkable steadfastness. Indeed, Bedoui is the perfect incarnation of the security-based and technocratic nature of the regime: a graduate of the prestigious National School of Administration (ENA, École Nationale d’Administration) he served as a wali three times before joining the government. He notably served as the minister of the interior for almost four years and thus watched over the “proper functioning” of the elections. While his imminent departure is being presented as a way to appease the protesters, he will nevertheless be leaving after putting in place the framework for presidential elections on the 12 December: two drafts for organic laws that would create an Independent National Electoral Authority and a revision of the electoral law.
A legitimate question emerges: why reject a presidential election when a non-elected government has run the country for the last six months? Those who demand a government of national unity and a constituent assembly have at least three good reasons for so doing. First, the election of a constituent assembly would allow for the establishment of a viable political system and infuse a new dose of confidence in its functioning. At the present time, the institutions of the state have been too discredited for an elected president to enjoy any real legitimacy. Secondly, a constituent assembly would allow for the reorganization of an extremely fragmented political landscape so that each camp can take stock of their forces and prepare their strategies and alliances. With dozens of parties with no real social base, the political field is too balkanized for coherent and audible political projects to emerge. Lastly, given the influence of the bureaucratic-military machine in the country, there is little doubt that it will be capable of imposing its preferred presidential candidate. The man who is currently at the head of the National Electoral Authority Mohamed Charfi, is also a graduate of the ENA and held the position of minister multiple times under Bouteflika.
The preferred candidate for the elections called for by Gaïd Salah is none other than Ali Benflis, the president of Talaie El-Houriat party. A former secretary-general of the FLN and prime minister, Benflis already defied Bouteflika during the presidential elections of 2004, enjoying the support of the Chief of the Army Staff Mohamed Lamari. After his defeat, he then became one of the “opposition” figures who participated in rigged elections (often referred to as “hares” in Algeria). Familiar with the regime but trying hard to present himself as a liberal alternative, Benflis also enjoys the goodwill of Western governments and a relatively positive (sometimes overtly hagiographic) media coverage in Europe. This did not stop him, however, from withholding solidarity from the real opponents of the regime or from jumping at the opportunity to hold presidential elections in December.
For the regime, the ideal candidate to run against Benflis would be the leader of the Islamist party Harakat Mujtama'a Es-Silm (HMS, or MSP in French), Abderrazak Makri. While he has been critical of the electoral process, he does not hide his desire to swiftly hold presidential elections. This scenario would allow the regime to boost participation in the elections while staging an opposition between “liberal seculars” versus” moderate Islamists,” in a recipe similar to the presidential elections that saw the success of Liamine Zerroual (a “secular” ex-military figure) against Mahfoudh Nahnah (the founder of the MSP) in 1995.
The International of Hypocrites
In this context, the foreign partners of the regime are watching the situation closely while making sure not to do anything that might endanger their own interests. With the exception of the United Arab Emirates, which had no scruples promoting their security-based vision of the Arab world, the dominant response has been cowardice. The few audacious voices have been drowned in an ocean of uncomfortable collusion. On 14 July, the French ambassador in Algeria nevertheless courageously expressed his support for the ongoing revolution, and admitted his own blindness regarding the thirst of the Algerian people for liberty. But in France, it is the president of the republic who has the monopoly on the Algerian question. The Élysée first mistakenly supported Bouteflika, before coldly welcoming the new strong man, Gaïd Salah. Mindful of preserving French economic interests, and notably of ensuring Total’s purchase of Anadarko, Macron nevertheless sought to reconnect with the chief of staff of the army. France has thus abstained from expressing any form of solidarity with the Hirak. Instead, it has displayed a silence that effectively signifies a tacit support for the regime.
Outside of France, Europeans are displaying similar symptoms: even though the president of the Sub-Committee on Human Rights at the European Parliament, Maria Arena, denounced the arbitrary arrests of the past few days, those really responsible for European diplomacy have remained silent. As for the Americans, they had also bet on the re-election of Bouteflika for reasons that were essentially economic (notably hoping replace Total with ExxonMobil) and they subsequently accepted the leadership of Gaïd Salah so as not to risk future complications. Despite the claims that have circulated in the French media, the Russians are no less ambiguous in their tacit support for military figures.
Waiting for the Feast
Undoubtedly, the hypocritical allies of the Algerian regime are impatiently waiting for the feast to begin. The time has come to liberalize the economy due to the pressure of a severe budgetary crisis that is the direct result of two decades of mismanagement, misappropriation, and capital flight (notably to France, Canada, and Switzerland). Foreign companies and local businessmen, the bribers of yesterday and today, will thus be able to partake in the dismantlement of the system that they worked to sabotage.
Everything is already in place. In 2014 Ali Benflis announced his conviction that the solution to the Algerian crisis resided in the complete liberalization of the national economy in an interview published by the French neoliberal daily Les Echos. The Europeans are doing their part to promote a model of a social market economy, especially by working to develop the capacities of young entrepreneurs through cooperation programs. Others have not even made the effort to adapt to the socialist political culture still alive in Algeria and are instead attempting to impose a new cultural hegemony. With a characteristic lack of finesse, the Americans are implementing a form of pro-market, neoliberal propaganda by financing the reality show Andi Hulm, a kind of Algerian Shark Tank that will be broadcast on the channel Echorouk.
For its part, the Bedoui government has drafted the 2020 finance law, which notably foresees the following: a return to foreign indebtedness (and thus a higher dependence on international financial institutions), an abandonment of the 51-49 law, which limited foreign investments for non-strategic sectors (something Europeans have long requested), and a reorganization of the public procurement code to prioritize “young entrepreneurs and start-ups.”