Eight months after the start of the anti-government protests in Algeria, the popular movement known as Hirak (the movement) is seeking to step up its actions. The standoff between Hirak and the regime is reaching an unprecedented climax. After Army Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah imposed a crackdown on political activists and opposition members, arresting hundreds since February, Hirak has hardened its position against the military command, and vividly voiced its rejection of the upcoming presidential election.
The gap between the people and the regime has grown significantly since the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika last April. Despite the imprisonment of various former government officials for corruption and conspiracy against the state and the promise of deep political reforms, protesters continue to demand the removal of remnants of the Bouteflika regime and denounce a military power grab (TSA-Algerie, April 6). General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was once considered a savior for pushing the former president out of office, has become the main target of the popular movement and is widely seen as the obstacle to a better future. The general has repeatedly tried to break the momentum of Hirak since the summer season. The army chief banned the Amazigh flag during the protests and ordered the arrest of those carrying them, triggering outrage among the Berber community (Elwatan, June 16). In September, he blockaded the entire capital in an effort to curtail protest turnout after stating that obscure parties were seeking to destabilize the country. Most recently, he ordered the arrest of opposition leaders, including two of the main Hirak figures, Karim Tabbou and Samir Benlarbi for “undermining the army’s morale” and “inciting riots” (Liberte Algerie, September 18).
The most unexpected move that the army chief has made, however, remains the large-scale reshuffling of the military and police, which has allowed him to install loyal officers in high-ranking positions (Algerie Toute Heure, September 10). This signals fears of a possible overthrow attempt, amid growing reports of dissensions within the military (L’Obs, September 8). The army chief-of-staff’s relationship with Interim President Abdelkader Bensalah has been worsening in recent months, due to political disagreements. The former has reportedly refused to sign a decree submitted to him by the Ministry of Defense to give more power to Gaid Salah (Algerie Part, September 2).
The political crisis has fueled social unrest at the local level. Emboldened by Hirak, populations across Algeria have been denouncing poor living conditions, unemployment, and infrastructure problems in uncoordinated protests which have led to road closures, strikes, and the shutting down of government buildings. An uptick in illegal immigration toward Europe via the Mediterranean Sea also shows that Algerian youths are losing faith in deep and meaningful change (Elwatan, September 30).
Hirak protesters and leaders are seeking to send strong signals to the army chief-of-staff and the interim president about the boycott of the presidential election. The protesters believe that, under the current circumstances, a transparent and legitimate election cannot be guaranteed. Interim President Bensalah and General Gaid Salah are however adamant that holding the election before year-end is the only way out of the crisis. Hirak has flatly rejected the election schedule, and more than 100 elected officials refused to take part in the election process in Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Algiers, among other provinces. In addition to fears of election fraud, the lack of fresh blood in the political arena is a major concern. Former Prime Ministers (PM) Abelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, both of whom served under Abdelaziz Bouteflika, maybe the most recognizable candidates, but they have failed to rally enough support among voters to be considered major contenders. A large number of opposition parties have refused to take part in the election. The Alternative Democratic Forces (FAD), a coalition of opposition parties, human rights groups and other NGOs, recently came out against holding the election, which they claim are being “shoved down the throats” of the Algerian people. AFD called for a longer transition period, governed by a constituent assembly (APS, September 9).
In this respect, the forthcoming election has heightened the likelihood of civil disobedience. While the protests have been mainly peaceful since February 22, Hirak members are now pondering joining strike actions. Twelve independent trade unions announced a plan to launch nationwide strikes and sit-ins to oppose the elections. Such actions would paralyze many sectors, including education, public administration, trade, healthcare, and construction. This would further incapacitate an already struggling economy, at a time when the government is seriously considering foreign financial help for the first time in more than a decade.
The crisis will persist in Algeria in the near to mid-term, and it will likely worsen before the upcoming presidential election, as Hirak and the authorities seem unwilling to make compromises. The popular movement will strive to give young civilians greater access to governance, so as to rekindle hope in the Algerian youth, and pave the way for deep political, social, and economic reforms. Despite the peaceful aim of the protest movement, strategic miscalculations or responses by the military as well as hostile groups’ efforts to hijack the movement leaves Algeria in a combustible and precarious position.