Algeria’s year of protest: how the ‘revolution of smiles’ remained peaceful against impunity

The Hirak movement has been cautious to avoid a flare-up of violence of the sort witnessed on the streets of Beirut and Baghdad

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While 2019 will likely be remembered as the year of protests, few have been as surprising or as peaceful as Algeria's "revolution of smiles".

Beginning in February, the Hirak – as the protests are referred to, a reference to the Arabic word for movement – had toppled long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika by April.

But protesters continued to take to the streets to press for political reform, undeterred even when a new president was sworn in earlier this month after an election that some called "illegitimate".

Yet while hundreds have been killed and many more wounded in the months-long demonstrations that have raged in Iraq, Lebanon, Bolivia, Hong Kong and Sudan, among others, Algeria’s protests have stayed remarkably calm by comparison. So calm that they have often disappeared from the news agenda entirely.

We, since the beginning, said we are going to stay peaceful until we realise our goals... It takes more time, but we will succeed in the end

That is, Algerians say, because they are committed to achieving the change they desire through the unusual means of radical non-violence.

"Violence, we think, does not lead to democracy," Mustapha Bouchachi, the unofficial figurehead of the protests and a human rights lawyer and activist, told The National at his office in Algiers.

"When there is internal instability, when the people want to fight for democracy, they must do it peacefully because the dictators have more arms, they have more means and they have more support from western countries," he said.

"If you use violence, you legitimise their violence."

The Hirak movement was sparked by Mr Bouteflika's intention to stand for a fifth term, in contravention of the country's constitution. Mr Bouteflika had already been in power for two decades but was  absent from public life since suffering a debilitating stroke in 2013.

Hirak members have demanded that the old guard give up its power and called for an end to corruption and  military involvement in politics

They have also rejected any election – such as the one won by former prime minister and now President Abdelmadjid Tebbounne on December 12 – that is held while the old guard retains power, saying such elections are meaningless.

The death this week of de facto interim ruler, army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah who was also the face of the political elite the protesters oppose, had little impact on support for the movement, with protesters vowing to carry on until they get full and transparent democracy.

Protesters carry photos of political detainees as they take to the streets in the capital Algiers to reject the presidential elections and protest against the government, in Algeria, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Toufik Doudou)
Protesters carry photos of political detainees as they take to the streets in the capital Algiers to reject the presidential elections and protest against the government, in Algeria, Friday, December 27, 2019. AP

The Hirak has no formal leadership and is organised through discussions on social media, mostly Facebook. They meet after Friday prayers each week, with students also coming out on Tuesdays, but go home after it gets dark around 6pm to avoid the temptation for escalation.

Some say it is the inclusive nature of the movement that has helped ensure that the protests remain peaceful.

“On a sociological level, it is a very diverse uprising,” Louisa Dris-Ait-Hamadouche, a political scientist at the University of Algiers, said.

“The presence of women has remained constant and there is an extremely visible trans-generational aspect, which means that the presence of children and the elderly contributes to maintaining the peaceful nature of the demonstrations.”

Although there have been some clashes with police, many during the early days of the protests, things have been a far cry from the heavy-handed crackdowns seen elsewhere, with few casualties reported.

There are no official injury figures available, but Red Crescent medics on the ground in Algiers said they treated a few protesters who were wounded during  run-ins with police on election day.

But they were the first observed in ten months of protests, they said.

“We have seen heart attacks, medication complications, injuries from falling, but nothing from police until today,” a volunteer who gave his name only as Hisham said.

That is not to say there has been no reaction from the government.

Police have targeted protesters with waves of arrests, often against those carrying minority Amazigh (or Berber) flags, as well as dissenting voices such as artists and journalists.

Mention of the protests in local media has been heavily restricted, the internet is slowed in popular protests areas and, at times, social media has been blocked.

Yet the regime has resisted the temptation to attempt to force an end to the unrest with violence. Instead, it tried to appease protesters with anti-corruption arrests and the ousting of Mr Bouteflika.

Ask anyone on the street why this is and they will have a very straight answer – “le decade noir”.

Having fought and won a bloody independence war against France that ended in 1962, the country was seen as a centre for revolutionary resistance. But a brutal civil war between 1992 and 2002, referred to as the black decade, killed 200,000 people.

It stemmed from protests that called for reform, and the memory of it now looms large in the psyche of Algerians.

“The violent decade remains in the collective memory as a trauma that we have never tried to cure,” said Ms Dris-Ait-Hamadouche.

While many believe those memories are too raw for anyone to want to risk a return to the fear and tragedy of war, Ms Dris-Ait-Hamadouche said the government had only capitalised on this sentiment.

“It is used in official discourse to try to dissuade Hirakists, frighten a part of the population and therefore create horizontal divisions,” she said

She said that the "discourse of fear" had not been entirely successful in keeping people from protesting this time around because "it was too predictable and too often used".

“The National People's Army [Algeria’s armed forces] is also subject to the trauma of the '90s. The worst thing for them would be to find themselves once again violently face to face with the population.

“I think that everything that has been done was to avoid this scenario and that it is still a strategic choice,” she said.

Lessons have also been learnt from the Arab uprisings that took place in 2011, particularly Libya, where the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi made life worse life for many.

The Hirak have decided to play the long game to achieve their means because, as one Canadian who lives in Algiers put it, "they want change, but they are not willing to die for it".

Mr Bouchachi echoes that sentiment.

“We, since the beginning, said we are going to stay peaceful until we realise our goals,” he said. “It takes more time, but we will succeed in the end.”