'Everyone is afraid': In Algeria, state repression has extinguished Hirak
By Basma El Atti, The New Arab, 22 February 2023
In-depth: Four years on from the Hirak movement, prominent activists look back on the once euphoric protests for freedom as repression and fear force Algerians to remain silent in the face of an emboldened authoritarian regime.
Once upon a time, Zaki Hannache, a young Algerian activist, marched in the streets of Algiers chanting with tens of thousands of his compatriots to oust the two-decade-long regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
That was only four years ago, but it feels like a fever dream for Zaki, who now lives in exile in Tunisia, running from one shelter to another in fear of being found by Algerian and Tunisian intelligence agencies, who work together in a witch hunt of their critics.
“It was a real revolution with real requests. But it failed because the authoritarian state managed to rebuild itself quickly and become stronger,” Zaki told The New Arab.
On 22 February 2019, millions of Algerians marched through the North African country’s key cities to oppose a fifth term for the state’s President Bouteflika, who had been in power for two decades.
Algeria's revolutionary wave came eight years later than its Arab Spring neighbours, but Algerians believed that they would write its ending differently.
Each Friday, a symbolic day for revolutions in the region, Algerian protesters marched through the streets chanting in one voice, 'Jibu El Bri ou zidou Saa’iqa, makach el khamssa ya Bouteflika', in English, 'Bring the Intervention Brigades and the Special Forces, there will be no fifth term for Bouteflika'.
Two months later, the Hirak movement forced Bouteflika’s resignation. Still, the weekly protests continued to sweep the country’s streets calling for the dismantlement of the “deep state” and the arrest of “the mafia”, the oligarchy that surrounded Bouteflika. However, authorities decided to hold presidential elections in the same year without first putting reforms in place.
Algerian police soon started arresting the perceived leaders of the informal movement, putting more than sixty activists in custody for Hirak-related charges. The crackdown intensified after the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president in December 2019, who quickly proved to be a new authoritarian president in the making.
Tebboune, a member of the National Liberation Front Central Committee (FDI), Bouteflika’s party, is the first non-military president of Algeria. However, the ex-PM and loyalist of the former leader was immediately rejected by Hirak leaders after his election.
While Tebboune first hailed the Hirak movement as an opportunity for reform, he quickly began arresting its leaders on charges of terrorism.
For protesters, the 77-year-old politician’s election was a badly written sequel of Bouteflika’s era: a civilian facade on the ruling military system.
“Many people boycotted the election day. Tebboune’s election was a calculated move from the state to legitimise its rule,” Zaki Hannache explained to The New Arab.
A state within a state: The role of the military
Since its independence, the Algerian military has exercised a great influence on political power in the country, and is often described as a state within a state. Many believe that, despite having an officially civilian president, the military continues to be the real ruling power in the country.
The legitimacy and supremacy of the Algerian army’s legacy in the political sphere are due to the legacy of its role in fighting French colonisation. Reports say the presidency and the intelligence service have always competed with military elites in Algerian politics.
Today, Tebboune lacks the influence and the power to fight the military's well-established authority.
The power wielded by Algeria's military leadership is seen by experts as one of the biggest obstacles to Algeria's transition to a democratic model and its emergence from the vortex of internal economic crises that are often accompanied by corruption.
Conflating activism with terrorism
Emboldened by an overly broad definition of terrorism, in the aftermath of Hirak the state arrested hundreds of activists, journalists, and supporters of the movement. As of March 2022, 280 people were still in jail on terrorism charges.
In June 2021, President Tebboune expanded Algeria's already overbroad definition of "terrorism" in article 87 of the penal code to include "to work for or to incite by any means, to accede to power or change the system of governance by non-constitutional means" and to "harm the integrity of national territory or to incite doing so, by any means."
Last April, Hakim Debbazi, a 55-year-old Algerian man, died in police custody after being arrested for sharing pro-Hirak posts with his 91 Facebook friends, according to local Radio M and the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH).
Later last year, authorities dissolved LADDH, driving its leaders to seek refuge in other countries. Meanwhile, Ihsane El-Kadi, director of Radio M, was arrested on 24 December and put in custody for the cliché charges of terrorism and undermining state security.
“Today, we are in a worse era than during Bouteflika. Before [the Hirak] there was no independence, but there was some space to speak up. Today, [...] a post can get you sentenced to up to life imprisonment or the death penalty, and all that because of the exploitation of the terrorism article in the penal code," said Rachid Aouine, the director of Shoaa for Human Rights, to The New Arab.
Spending years in prison, dying of maltreatment or escaping to a foreign country are a few of the choices that anti-state activists have today in Algeria.
"I never wanted to leave Algeria. It is my country, my land. It is where I fought. It is the circumstances that forced me to leave. The pressure became unbearable,” Amira Bouraoui told the press upon her arrival to France after a chaotic escape from Tunisia.
Bouraoui, a Franco-Algerian journalist and activist, managed to board her flight from Tunis to Algiers after an intervention by the French embassy in Tunisia.
Her mother and sister, who live in Algeria, were soon arrested while Algiers recalled its ambassador in Paris in protest of “France intervention in Algeria’s interior affairs”.
Zaki believes he is the next on the list, and with no “international backup,” he risks extradition at any minute.
On 24 February 2022, Zaki appeared before an investigative judge, and was indicted on several charges including “praising terrorism”, “receiving funds from an institution inside or outside the country”, and “undermining state security”. If convicted, he could face 35 years to life imprisonment, and even the death penalty.
Zaki managed to leave Algeria for Tunisia six months ago. However, he says Tunisian and Algerian authorities have started tracking his location in Tunisia since November.
“I change my location every few months. I am in danger. I am living discreetly away from my homeland and my family,” Zaki said. Despite being granted refugee status, Zaki always lives in fear that he may face a similar fate as Suleiman Bouhafs.
Bouhafs, who was granted refugee status in Tunisia in 2018, was kidnapped in 2021 and brought back to Algeria, where he faces criminal charges for “offending Islam.”
For now, Zaki, like many exiled activists, has decided to stop fighting against the Algerian state, instead striving to save his own life.
“Fear is stronger than the opposition now in Algeria. The state has managed to terrorise the people, unfortunately I don’t think a possible revolution will happen in the country now. Everyone is afraid.”