After Bouteflika

A 2019 attempt to prolong the regime of Algeria’s incapacitated president Abdelaziz Bouteflika inspired the Hirak protest movement. Bouteflika died on September 17, 2021, but the Hirak marches on around the world

Image courtesy Michael de Vulpillieres.

Every Saturday in Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle at around 2:30 PM, Hamid Lellou, 54, can be found in the northwest corner of the park carefully placing dozens of Algerian flags and banners in the ground.

Once his setup is complete and he is surrounded by the colors of Algeria and slogans like “You are not alone” and “They all must go,” Lellou positions a tripod, clips in his cell phone, and begins broadcasting live around the world on Facebook.

More than 4,000 miles from the Algerian capital, Lellou and the handful of men and women who join him represent a transformational protest movement, the Hirak as it is called, that took hold across the North African nation and throughout its diaspora starting in early 2019.

The Hirak—a term derived from the Arabic word for movement—began in February of 2019 as weekly street demonstrations protesting the announcement that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s then 81-year-old president, largely incapacitated after a series of strokes, would stand for a fifth term. The Hirak quickly gained momentum across the country, bringing out millions from all walks of life via peaceful marches.

In the months prior to leaving Algeria for the US in the fall of 2019, Malik, a New York City-based activist who preferred not to give his last name, took part in massive Hirak demonstrations in the coastal city of Béjaïa, not far from his hometown. When asked to describe the power and emotion of those moments, marching the streets alongside hundreds of thousands of fellow Algerians, he pauses and answers softly: “We had tears in our eyes.”

Speaking of the octogenarian leader who served as president from April 27, 1999 to April 2, 2019, and passed away on Friday, September 17th,  he adds: “He just hated the people.”

But the movement’s grievances were much broader than the removal of a sick and corrupt leader. Bouteflika represented decades of state repression, inequality, economic stagnation, graft, and political inertia. Since its independence from France in 1962, Algeria has been largely ruled by the same regime—le pouvoir as it is called—an unelected military and business elite who wield the levers of power behind the scenes, despite the veil of elections and democracy.

Brahim Rouabah, an Algerian-born political scientist at Brooklyn College (City University of New York) who regularly attends Hirak protests in New York, paints the picture of a nation marked by acute “pauperization and unemployment,” despite vast natural resources and human capital, and a state more intent on serving foreign interests than addressing the dire health, education, and infrastructure needs of its people. He refers to the “organized abandonment of the people by the military oligarchy that controls the economy, that dominates political life and denies the people genuine self-determination.” The Algerian population, he says, “feel like they live under colonialism with an indigenous face.”

As a mass movement calling for civilian rule, the leaderless Hirak cuts across class, ethnicity, gender, age, and religious observance. Rouabah explains this diversity noting ironically how injustice is the only fact of life that is “fairly distributed” in Algeria.

The Hirak also extends across a large diaspora around the world, approximately seven million according to the National Institute of Demographic Studies, a French public research organization specializing in population studies. These activists living abroad do not view themselves as separate and apart from their compatriots living within Algeria’s borders and their actions echo those of their countrymen and women back home.

Image courtesy Michael de Vulpillieres.

In her paper, “The role of Hirak abroad: a renaissance for the Algerian Diaspora?,” Algerian academic Hayette Rouibah writes about the impact the Hirak has on Algerians living abroad, bringing them “closer to the everyday affairs of their home country” and “allowing them to be part the change taking place in their country.” The diaspora, she writes, “has become an important factor in the Hirak movement.” She contrasts the current moment with earlier periods of disconnect between Algerians of the “interior” and “exterior.” Hayette adds: “Since the start of the Hirak, we’ve noticed an unprecedented mobilization of the Algerian diaspora, via networks, associations and virtual communities on social media.”

While the largest demonstrations outside Algeria take place in France and Canada, small yet vociferous Hirak communities in the US have formed.

For Hamid Lellou, originally from Oran and a resident of Northern Virginia since 2006, the Hirak has been transformative. In many ways, it helped re-orient his time, his energy, and his passion.

“When I saw Hirak, I jumped in. For me it was something natural,” he says. “I’m a dual citizen, I have no problem with that. But I am deeply Algerian, and I am proud to help Algerian people. This is what keeps me going.”

Lellou, a mediator and conflict resolution specialist by training and experience, began his Hirak in early 2019 by standing in front of the Algerian Embassy in Washington, DC every week with other protesters voicing their anger with the regime and calling for civilian rule. After the start of the pandemic and with the permission of DC officials, Lellou moved to a park near the US Capitol where he began bringing flags with him, one for every Algerian wilaya or province. Shortly after the January 6 insurrection this year on Capitol Hill, these small demonstrations found their permanent home in Dupont Circle, in the heart of Washington, where Lellou is joined by five to 12 activists every Saturday.

Expatriates like Ahmed (who preferred not to give his last name) meet up with Lellou regularly. Despite having lived all over the world since leaving Algeria as a child, Ahmed remains deeply connected to his country, traveling back nearly every year. In the fall of 2019, he made the trip specifically to see the Hirak protests for himself, an experience he describes as “awe inspiring.”

The Washington, DC Hirak also mobilizes online, sharing videos from Algeria, sharing videos from DC, debating next steps, posting memes, highlighting government abuses, and simply making statements of solidarity and support. Lellou manages several different social media networks, broadcasting live twice a week: once from his home in Virginia and once from Dupont Circle. His audience varies from hundreds to tens of thousands per video. His goal is to facilitate a conversation about the Hirak, to discuss the implications of current events and to envision what a future Algerian state could look like.

A lot has happened in Algeria since February 2019, though in some respects, very little has changed. Weekly street marches turned into twice weekly demonstrations. In April 2019, President Bouteflika was forced to step down, and a new leader was put in place by the military regime. Elections were held—presidential, a constitutional referendum and a legislative vote—though on terms dictated by the ruling powers. The legitimacy of these and other “cosmetic” reforms have been discredited by feeble voter turnout and the tenacity of the Hirak.

The COVID-19 health crisis represented a major challenge and forced the movement to pause or at least take a different form for a while. Activists decided to halt in-person demonstrations due to public health concerns and for nearly a year, the streets were quiet. During this time, the state cracked down harder on descent. Journalists, activists, and social media users were arrested on trumped up charges, arbitrarily detained and even kidnapped and tortured.

A big question for the Hirak, a movement where street demonstrations represented so much, was what it would look like on the other side of the pandemic. Ultimately, online activism picked up and this helped prime the physical and digital terrain for the full return to in-person demonstrations that occurred starting in February of 2021.

Since this spring, the government has taken a more heavy-handed approach to the weekly marches. In May, they began banning protests in many cities outright, while continuing to weaponize the judiciary to mute the peaceful protestors, all under the approval and watchful eye of a supposedly new and reformed government. According to the CNLD, an Algerian citizen rights and watchdog group, approximately 200 individuals are imprisoned today for crimes ostensibly linked to the Hirak.

On why the government has taken the step to forbid marches and silence peaceful protestors, Rouabah, the Algerian political scientist, explains: “They are, more and more, realizing that this is not going away. This is not a party or a festival. This is a popular revolution to remove them from power. The more they realize that, the more berserk they go: arrests, kidnap, torture…a judiciary weaponized to abort this revolution. But the more they do this, the more people lose faith in their reformability and become even more convinced of the necessity of uprooting them.”

In the context of the movement in the USs, Algerians in New York, San Francisco and Washington, DC have maintained an in-person and digital presence supporting a Hirak network around the globe.

“You cannot believe how many Algerians I know now, from all over the world,” says Lelloua. Highlighting the freer space in the US to communicate and organize, he adds: “and we can do it because there are no security forces coming for us.”

On a warm afternoon this past June, protest chants echo down a quiet street in midtown Manhattan where a small group of Hirak protesters gather in front of the Algerian consulate.

Farida Bouattoura, who left Algeria 27 years ago when she was a young girl, is among those present. She traveled more than an hour from her Long Island home to take part in the weekly rally, bringing with her signs documenting human rights abuses by the state.

Bouattoura is new to activism. When the Hirak began more than two-and-a-half years ago, she followed events from afar but did not take an active role. Everything changed for this 36-year-old teacher in April of this year after learning that her two first cousins were detained and imprisoned in Algeria. Since then, Bouattoura has become a fervent participant in the Hirak.

“I remember how beautiful the gardens were there,” she says, sharing memories of her early childhood growing up in the Algerian capital. She adds: “It’s hard to explain, there is something about the sun there…The ray of light, it’s like perpetual peace.”

But there were dark memories as well, of an undeclared war marked by state violence and terrorism. What Bouattoura refers to as the “black decade” lasted from 1991 to 2002 and deeply scarred this nation of 44 million. She recalls a bomb exploding at the airport where her father worked when she was nine: “We didn’t know what terminal, and I remember waiting at the gate in anticipation…As a child you know how much your life will be impacted if you lost your father. It was such a great moment when I saw him.”

The family ultimately emigrated to New York in 1994 where they found a permanent home. “We were very fortunate,” says Bouattoura. “My parents knew how and what to do to leave.”

Despite the challenges of starting over, alone, in an anglophone country where they did not speak the language, the family rebuilt their lives in Queens and then Long Island, occasionally traveling back to Algeria to visit family. The last time was in 2016 for a wedding. But Bouattoura never found the same country of her early childhood memories, prior to the war. “To be honest, when I go back, I’m quite disappointed. I want to go back to the way it was,” she says with regret.

In early 2021, news of her cousins’ arrests in Algeria represented a shock for her, one that brought her much closer to the country she left as a child. These were the boys she played with when they were young kids and the sons of her beloved aunt.

On April 5, 2021, Ahmed Tarek Debaghi, 25, an active participant in the peaceful demonstrations since early 2019, was detained with friends for posts they had shared on social media. A few weeks later, his older brother Ismail was arrested, according to Bouattoura, after walking down a street of Algiers holding a photo of his detained brother.

Image courtesy Michael de Vulpillieres.

There is much uncertainty around their cases and the Debaghi brothers remain detained to this day, with limited contact with the outside world. Initially, Bouattoura’s activism was about her family but soon their imprisonment came to represent much more to her. This is what drove Farida to the Hirak.

“I felt morally obligated [to help]…The protests have been peaceful. Even to this day there has only been brutality from the state,” she says with a quiet Queens accent. “They act in a fascist way. They use intimidation. The Algerian public understands that they have to stand up to it. It cannot be allowed.”

Since April, Bouattoura has connected with Algerian activists from around the world, including Lellou. She has started petitions calling for the release of her cousins and all political detainees. To draw attention to human rights abuses by the Algerian state, she reached out to US media as well as her local and national elected officials. And she began attending the weekly protests in Manhattan in front of the consulate where every Saturday a diverse group, all with their own unique background that brought them to New York, gathers in the name of the Hirak.

Early on during the marches in Algiers, street art could be seen around the capital city with the words, “For once I’m not thinking of leaving you, my Algeria,” symbolic of the dire prospects for most Algerians, the large number of citizens emigrating, and the new-found hope inspired by the Hirak.

This change in consciousness can be felt from Oran to Paris to Washington, DC and has opened a new rapport between Algerians. Brahim Rouabah explains this by contrasting the current moment with the 30 years that preceded it, a period of time that saw “the atomization of Algerians,” where the population “didn’t get together, didn’t laugh together, didn’t think together.” But that taboo has fallen. What is evident today, despite considerable roadblocks put in place by a rigid and desperate state, is a population finally able to “dream together.”

Hamid Lellou last traveled to Algeria in 2017 to visit his sick father. He spent ten days in his hometown of Oran.

He recalls feelings of resignation that went through his head, four years ago, as he left his country of birth: “Deep inside me I had this conflicting feeling that bothered me…I had that conviction that Algeria and Algerian people are done, that they are dead, that they will never come back. I was so disappointed by the fact that people were giving up. They weren’t trying anything. They had no hope for change. ‘Why is it this way?’ I asked myself.”

He carried this grief with him until February 2019, when the events across Algeria awoke something in him: hope. “We need hope,” he says. “Even if the situation is desperate. Even if you are at the bottom of the bottom, if you keep that hope, nobody can kill you, nobody can overtake anything from you.”

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