The Hirak, how the current contemporary liberation movement is known, gives Algerians a renewed sense of purpose.
On July 5, Algeria’s Independence Day, the country’s citizens defiantly demonstrated that they, not the former revolutionaries clinging to power, are the true successors of Algeria’s revolution. The national holiday happened to fall on a Friday, the day that has been dedicated to protesting the military-controlled government for the past 20 weeks. What was just a coincidence of the calendar took on a deeper resonance: parallels and contradictions between the old and new liberation movements (the latter is known as the Hirak) rose to the surface.
“The past year, on July 5 2018, framed pictures of [ousted president Abdelaziz] Bouteflika were carried down the streets of Algiers,” said C., a protester who did not want his name published for fear of reprisal. “This year it’s the people celebrating their independence.”
For 57 years, Independence Day belonged to the ruling party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), which won Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. The political class is still largely made up of veterans of that struggle, including the 92-year-old Bouteflika. Now, Algeria must be liberated anew from a political elite that drew its legitimacy from the revolution. As a popular protest sign has it, the land was freed in 1962; now to free the people.
“It’s almost like a new independence for us,” university student Fatima Boumediene (no relation to deposed Algerian president Houari Boumediene) said. “Personally it kind of hurts my heart too, because FLN is what got us independence in the first place.”
But Algerians distinguish the revolutionaries, who they have a strong emotional attachment to, from the current power holders. The FLN as it exists today has left the country, as it was under French colonialism, “a rich country with poor people,” in the words of Roza Fidila, an exile from Bejaia who I spoke to at a solidarity protest in New York this spring.
Mohammed Mouaki was also among the many who left Algeria reluctantly but felt they had no choice. “I lost both my sisters in their age of 50 for not having health care. My sister went to the hospital for a breathing problem, passed away three days after,” Mouaki told me via text. “The military go to France to be treated when sick and let the people die in Algeria.”
The FLN has come to exemplify everything it originally fought against and should be challenged in the name of the original liberation movement, said Khadidja Bouchellia, a PhD student who protested in Algiers.
“The remnants of the French colonization are manifested in a neocolonial regime that robbed the people of its freedom,” Bouchellia said. “I went to the protests on Independence Day to honor the legacy of my grandparents and to support my fellow Algerians in their fight.”
The difference between the revolutionary FLN and the party as an oppressive cartel has become more apparent as former freedom fighters like Djamila Bouhired and Lakhdar Bouregaa spoke out against the government. As reported by local media, Bouregaa, 86, was jailed on June 29 after criticizing military chief, and de facto holder of power, General Ahmed Gaid Salah.
Protesters on Friday were seen carrying pictures of Bouregaa. Drifa Ben M’hidi, the sister of revolutionary leader Larbi Ben M’hidi, who was assassinated by the French in 1957 and remains a national hero.
Thousands, defied a heightened police presence and blazing heat after noon prayers. Many volunteers in Algiers were seen spraying crowds with water to help cool them down, with the temperature reaching highs of 35°C.
C., who said he had been protesting in the suburbs of Algiers since early March, felt that a unique atmosphere reigned.
“There were men, women, old people and younger people among us,” C. said. “It was very special because it had the feel of a party.”
Massive popular opposition to the government in the streets seemed unlikely even a year ago, with the pall of the Black Decade—a devastating civil war waged by the FLN against suspected Islamists—hanging over the country and a ban on protesting in the capital technically still in effect. Boumediene said that after witnessing the Arab Spring, part of her hoped no uprising would happen at all.
All the protesters who spoke to me said they had not expected anything like this.
“On 21 February, I didn’t believe it was possible,” said C., referring to the day before the first protest began. “On the 22nd, I saw on social media that everyone had come to yell ‘silmiya silmiya, matalibna char3ia’ (“Peaceful, peaceful, our demands are legitimate”) and that it wasn’t just in my city. It brought tears to my eyes.”
The government has made a few adjustments as a sop to the protesters, including holding a national dialogue with opposition and civil society leaders (an odd, if probably unintentional, echo to Emmanuel Macron’s response to the Gilets Jaunes). It’s abundantly clear this will not suffice.
“Calling for a national dialogue among parties seems far-fetched,” said Benchellia. “There’s a mistrust and a complete rejection of the old regime and its remnants. Parties partaking in this dialogue will lose the support of the people.”
After all, protesters did not take to the streets to demand a day-long conference between a couple dozen suits. They have clamored for the removal of the military from the levers of power; for an end to hogra, the humiliation of daily life; for a stop to the oppression and marginalization of indigenous Amazigh people and the disenfranchisement of the youth.
The powerful are not confused about how to do the right thing; they are simply unwilling to do it, which is why the cri de coeur of one young man interviewed on Sky News struck such a chord: “yetnahaw ga3,” he said with a sweep of his hand, matter-of-factly. “All of them must go.”