In 2020, the Algerian uprising embarked on its second year and despite the immense difficulties and challenges encountered in the first year, the movement has not disappeared. We are in a situation of relative equilibrium in the balance of forces on the ground. The Hirak (movement) could not topple the regime, and the latter could not exhaust the movement. Due to the global health crisis caused by COVID-19, the Hirak decided to halt its weekly protests and marches in mid-March.
But the amazing energy and dynamic created by this magnificent revolution has not disappeared. In fact, it metamorphosed into health campaigns and solidarity actions with the needy and most vulnerable in society during these difficult times. We have seen several initiatives of cleaning up and disinfecting public spaces, caravans of solidarity to Blida, which is the epicenter of the pandemic in the country, campaigns to raise awareness about the disease, and other creative actions to keep the Hirak’s flame alive.
Meanwhile, the authoritarian and reactionary regime is doubling down on its actions to suppress and repress journalists and activists. Many activists are being judicially harassed, and several journalists have been jailed since the start of the lockdown. Dozens of protestors, political activists, and journalists are currently in jail, many of whom were arrested for social media posts and charged with “threatening the integrity of national territory.” The regime has also introduced a new penal code in order to further its crackdown on basic freedoms. The amendments stifle dissent further and criminalize certain actions that are deemed to “undermine state security and national unity,” accusations that have been levelled at many activists and journalists of the Hirak for well over a year. According to the new penal code, activists could also spend three years in jail for “propagating false information,” and be punished for “receiving foreign funding.” Moreover, the regime continues tightening restrictions on online media by blocking access to several dissenting sites, such as Radio M, Maghreb Emergent, and Interlignes.
COVID-19 has been a blessing to the ruling classes in Algeria. However, the popular movement has not said its last word yet. These times of confinement and temporary truce must be taken as a moment of collective reflection and learning about the achievements as well as the shortcomings and mistakes of the popular uprising. The system will not yield easily. For this reason, the balance of forces must be shifted significantly toward the masses by maintaining the resistance (acts of civil disobedience that don’t endanger people’s health and lives in the exceptional times of COVID-19 or preparations for actions post-pandemic) to force the regime to give way to people’s demands for radical democratic change, and the enshrinement of individual and collective rights and freedoms. There is no doubt that the Hirak will resume after this pandemic subsides, because the same conditions that gave rise to it are still present if not exacerbated by the current health crisis (a crisis that reveals the dire state of the public health sector that has been hollowed by decades of underfunding and mismanagement), as well as the crumbling oil prices (currently fluctuating between $20 and $30 a barrel).
To consolidate itself, the Hirak needs to realize other gains and victories and this can be done through:
- Structuring the movement at the grassroots level by pushing and encouraging local self-organization at the workplace, through neighborhood committees, student and women’s collectives, independent local representations and the opening up of more spaces for discussion, debate and reflection in order to have a solid platform or a coherent program. This will inscribe the dynamic in the medium and long term and might enforce a situation of dual power.
- Insisting on individual and collective freedoms of expression and organizing and campaigning tirelessly for the release of all political prisoners. The Hirak cannot afford a setback, as democratic space is shrinking week after week.
- Wedding social justice and socio-economic rights to democratic demands. If Algeria continues on the path of liberalization and privatization, Algerians will definitely see more social explosions and discontent. Social consensus cannot be achieved while pauperization, unemployment, and inequality continue. The recent slump in oil prices might be the final nail in the coffin of a rentier system that is highly dependent on oil and gas exports for its survival.
In this context, evocative of the calm before the storm, Algerians will not dig their own graves by halting their revolution halfway. If the reactionary Algerian regime thinks that it can bury the Hirak during the pandemic, it knows little of the revolutionary youth, who are like seeds waiting to grow again, hopefully with more vigor and energy. The struggle for democratization will be long and will go on.