Algeria: Sequencing the Movement.

Painting by Patrick Altes

The following analysis, written soon after Algeria’s 12 December presidential election, is amongst the most sustained of the country’s Hirak (‘Movement’), and hence needs no elaborate introduction. It was written in French by Hocine Belalloufi, a leading figure of the Algerian Parti socialiste des travailleurs (PST).

Readers should note that the translators have on occasion used the past tense in place of Belalloufi’s présent; the phrase ‘le pouvoir’ (literally, ‘the Power’), widely used in Algeria to refer to the state, has been retained. 

The original title is: ‘Algérie: dix mois après, où en est le Hirak et où va-t-il?’
We thank Hocine Belalloufi and the editors of
Contretemps, where the essay was published in the final days of 2019.

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After ten months of popular contest of enormous extent, the Algerian political situation is marked by two, contradictory facts. 

The first is the 12 December 2019 vote, which saw the election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune as President of the Republic; the second is the continuance and the strengthening of the popular movement contesting the regime, al-Hirak. These two facts confirm a situation of relative equilibrium between the two forces that have since 22 February 2019 faced one another. 

But what is the real balance of power between these two protagonists? How might this develop? What course should the Hirak take to achieve its struggle, for the establishment of a regime that would, finally, embody the free expression of popular sovereignty? 

To answer these questions, it is imperative to begin by analysing the ten months of popular contestation, with hindsight allowing a political sequencing of events.

Phase 1: Hirak on the Offensive 

This first sequence stretches from 22 February to 4 July 2019. It is marked by the sudden, massive irruption of the popular masses onto the political scene, and as a major actor. From that moment Algerian political life unfolded not only, or even principally, between factions of the pouvoir, but between the latter and Movement, which found itself on the strategic offensive. The Movement was not content to merely oppose the prospect of Bouteflika’s fifth mandate; it contested the entirety of the regime, and announced itself more and more clearly as for a democratic transition. Taken by surprise, the pouvoir found itself on the defensive: It was fighting for the survival of a regime, with no attractive project to propose to its people. 

In turn, this first sequence is divided into two acts. The first ran from 22 February to 2 April, the latter being the date of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, during which Hirak achieved a series of tactical victories. 

Under protestors’ constant pressure, Bouteflika renounced his standing in the 18 April presidential election, which he then simply cancelled; he dismissed Ahmed Ouyahia, the Prime Minister, despised by the population, and his government; but, his attempt at initiating a controlled transition through the convocation of a ‘National Conference of Inclusive Dialogue’ met with no success. It was this departing from the constitution [i.e., the cancellation] that pushed the High Command of the Armée nationale populaire (ANP), led by Chief of Staff and Vice Minister of defence, General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, to fully dismiss the President of the Republic who – according to that well-known scenario – ‘resigned of his own accord’.

The second act stretches from 3 April to 4 July. The pouvoir réel, the Army High Command, had to fight on two fronts. It concentrated the bulk of its forces on dismantling the components parts of the House of Bouteflika, namely the political personnel (the leaders of the state bureaucracy and the parties of the presidential coalition), security personnel (the principal figures of the military and police security services), and financial personnages (the principal oligarchs of the country) – for which the judicial machine was powered up, to charge and then imprison this beau monde

At the same time the pouvoir réel confronted the Movement, and attempted to impose an exit from the very ‘constitutional’ crisis which preserved the regime [1]. Article 102 of the Loi fondamentale was deployed to allow the interim Head of State – the President of the Council of the Nation [the Senate], Abdelkader Bensalah – to prepare to hold a presidential election on 4 July. The active opposition of al-Hirak, and the refusal of both magistrates and the presidents of the Assemblées Populaires Communales [APCs; ‘presidents’, their mayor-like leaders] to take charge of the preparation for this deadline, forced the pouvoir to cancel the election. 

The second act thus ended with this tactical victory of the Movement – one demanding, on the strategic level, nothing less than a change of regime. 

Phase 2: the Movement, on the offensive strategically, on the defensive tactically 

This second sequence spanned from 5 July to 12 December, and was marked by the pouvoir’s offensive against the Movement. The latter remained in a strategically offensive position, in the sense of having maintained its demand for a transition – still with a view to a change of regime – and indeed, the pouvoir remained unable to repress it, or even reduce it at all substantially through the sowing of division. But, the Movement lost the initiative, finding itself in a tactically defensive position, due both to a certain subsiding of its mobilisation, and the very difficulty of establishing suitable tactical objectives. It no longer advanced towards the realisation of its own project but, on the contrary, attempted to prevent the pouvoir réel from imposing its new presidential agenda. Such was the principal issue of the second sequence, which again is divided into two acts. 

The first ran from the 5 July (and in fact a little earlier) until 31 October. The ANP’s High Command concentrated its essential political – though not military – forces to counter the Movement. It had already placed the Bouteflika faction out of harm’s way. But from 9 July the High Command found itself outside the framework of the very constitution to which it had so much held [i.e., following the second cancelled presidential vote]. Thereby exposed, it was faced directly with the people, and had to rapidly rebuild the democratic façade which had – at least in the eyes of the more credulous – hidden its real power. Gaining from the popular mobilisation’s summer drop-off, and the absence of a hegemonic force within al-Hirak, the High Command imposed a fake consultation (as is its habit) through the establishment of an Instance nationale de dialogue et de médiation (INDM) – which was, in the event, largely boycotted. In early September the presidential election was fixed for 12 December and, immediately after, both electoral- and organic laws relating to the Autorité nationale indépendante chargée des élections (ANIE; the electoral commission) were rapidly passed by the Assembly’s two chambers. 

In parallel – really, since the end of June – al-Hirak was struck with represion. Every Friday, the capital was subjected to confinement by police forces and the gendarmerie, blocking access by outside protestors to the city. A number of well-known militants, political and associational figures, and protestors – in particular those carrying the Amazigh [‘Berber’] flag – were arrested, tried and sentenced. With the major public and private outlets blocked, the Movement disappeared from those medias beamed from above; several meetings of the more organised forces were prohibited; public meeting places were closed to the population. 

Al-Hirak thus found itself hindered in its action and its organisation. Moreover, it had to face a drop in the student mobilisation, which itself allowed the pouvoir to suppress the students’ weekly rally on Tuesday 8 March. On the trade union side, the movement for the re-capturing of the Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens (UGTA) had entirely disappeared, following the union’s extraordinary congress held in June. The Confédération des syndicats autonomes (CSA) experienced the greatest difficulty in engaging in unified political action, whilst nevertheless leading the struggle on the economic and social levels. The Confédération générale autonome des travailleurs en Algérie (CGATA) adopted clearer political positions, though remains isolated and unable to unify all the sections of workers (this weakness of the trade union movement would weigh heavily at the moment of the general strike). And finally, the massive resumption of al-Haragah [clandestine migration] symbolically confirmed that al-Hirak had found itself on the tactical defensive.

The second, short act was from 1 November to 12 December. The weekly protests were ever more massive, matching those of March and April; in some towns, they happened on a daily basis; and the student and university movement increasingly organised and acted together. The presidential electoral campaign was widely protested, with the candidates unable to hold their meetings, or even place posters, without being heckled.

But al-Hirak’s return to force proved too late to block the pouvoir’s coming to strength [passage en force] via a number of tactical victories. In early November, it succeeded in breaking the strike of judges – those who, refusing to supervise it the 4 July election, had contributed to its defeat. But, the magistrature corps did not organise against the 12 December presidential election. Outside the Kabylie, the APC presidents did not announce a refusal to take charge of the election’s organisation, again contrary to 4 July. Several organisations of the ‘Revolutionary Family’ (the Organisation nationale des Moudjahidine, ONM; the Organisation des enfants de Chouhada, ONEC) remained silent [2]. The pouvoir managed to play on the fears of certain social groups (traders; artisans) worried about the political impasse, the political vacuum, and the call for boycott of the elections brandished by a Movement (without having in fact, the means to do the daunting work of persuasion). Similarly, le pouvoir benefited from the limitations of autonomous unions, which prevented al-Hirak from enacting the call for general strike. 

Finally, the direct broadcast of the trials of former prime ministers (Ouyahia, Sellal), former ministers, and business leaders of the Bouteflika House (Youssefi, Haddad, etc.) aimed to demonstrate the pouvoir’s determination to fight corruption. 

These tactical victories ultimately allowed the pouvoir to force its return, to win its bet. On 12 December the presidential election was successfully held, and its candidate, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was elected in the first round without any protest from his competitors. Organised by an illegal and illegitimate regime, the result is not credible – the minimum conditions of fairness were not met, and abstention majoritarian: More than 60% if the official figures are cleaved to, and still more according to opponents. 

But one thing though was certain. The election, even if it was contested, denounced, refused, indeed took place: and al-Hirak was not able to prevent it. 

Phase Three: Which Tactic? 

It is imperative that the Movement’s actors are conscious of this – the regime’s return to strength [passage en force] has been achieved. It helps not at all to deny this reality. On the contrary, it is advisable to objectively and lucidly take the lessons of the previous sequence, in order to allow al-Hirak to pursue its struggle for the political and social emancipation of the Algerian people, against the anti-national political economic program followed over the past four decades. 

On the 12 December, the pouvoir laid the cornerstone of a new, democratic façade of an authoritarian regime, one concentrated in the hands of the High Command of the ANP, which – as ever – prevents Algerians from becoming the exclusive wielders of popular sovereignty.  The population finds itself systematically recorded, surveilled, and punished by the regime’s various police corps, and robbed of any recourse, judicial or otherwise. 

Yet the pouvoir still remains in a strategically defensive situation. It has won a battle, but has no project; it has not overcome the Movement  – a Movement which has displayed, even the day after the election, a remarkable vitality and power. A still harder task remains for the authoritarian pouvoir, which can no longer govern as before, and is hence fatally prone to compromise, unless it establishes an openly dictatorial regime. The people mobilised through al-Hirak have not renounced [the Movement], and more than ever refuse to support its “democratic” visage. 

More than ever, we find ourselves in a situation of relative equilibrium. To this day, al-Hirak has not had the strength to overturn the regime, whilst the regime cannot today overcome this popular mobilisation. Everything then will depend on the future political struggle – on the third sequence, begun on 13 December by the gigantic protests in Algiers and across the country’s cities. 

The Movement must develop tactics according to the situation, and acquire the means to achieve them. To do this, it must resolve the contradiction between the revolutionary character of its demands (“overthrow the regime”) and the fact of it being a radical reform movement. As we have been saying since 22 February, Algeria is not in a revolutionary situation. [3] Al-Hirak is objectively not in a dynamic of overthrowing the pouvoir. If it had been, the boycott – the prevention of the election – would have been achieved across the entire country and particularly in the capital, rather across only a few wilayat [administrative units]. Ditto for the general strike, which would have paralysed every social and economic sector. As for the problem of self-organisation, it would have been resolved through the appearance of a dual-power dynamic, in the course of which, as in Kabylie in 2001, popular committees would have emerged as substitutes for the APCs [4]. A provisional revolutionary government would have emerged; fraternisation or, at least, active neutrality from the deployed police forces would have occurred – yet nothing like this has happened. On the contrary, the repression has been massive in Oran and the country’s other western cities. It is necessary then to return to an objective appreciation for the limits and the contradictions of the Hirak, if we truly intend to strengthen it. 

This affirmation of the non-revolutionary character of the situation does not signify that a revolutionary situation will not occur in the months to come. The Algerian crisis has taken on, at certain moments, the form of a pre-revolutionary crisis: and it may become one. But, one does not pursue [définit] a revolutionary tactic other than in a revolutionary situation – not in a pre- or non-revolutionary one. Those who mean to act usefully must not allow themselves to be guided by their sentiments. Lucidity is necessary to advance Hirak, in order to come out of this crisis still stronger, in a victorious position – not weakened, demoralised, and defeated. 

For all these reasons, one must pursue a tactic that accounts for what is truly possible to take up and accomplish. Understanding that he is incapable at this moment of ignoring al-Hirak, and still less of attacking it frontally, Abdelmadjid Tebboune affirms his wanting to build a new Algeria, one far from the practices of the past. The Movement should take him at his word, without any illusion. 

Tebboune wants dialogue – why not? However, only after his accepting certain preconditions, which include: 

– The unconditional liberation of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience and the cancellation of sentences and fines imposed 

– The opening of mass media to citizens and political forces, unions, and associations; the immediate halting of harassment of workers in the press.

– The end of the confinement of the capital on demonstration days, and changing of the police’s current posture, which serves as provocation in the face of a peaceful movement.

– The immediate and effective recognition of the right of assembly, constrained since 1992, in order to permit the Movement and citizens to hold assemblies and to organise themselves as they judge necessary, and to encourage the development or the creation of new parties, unions, associations, and committees. 

– The immediate end of constraints against the right to strike and trade union freedoms.  

– The defense of national sovereignty, as threatened by a political economic program conducted until today to the profit of multinationals, banks and foreigners and oligarchical benefits. 

– The end to attacks against the spending-power and the gains of workers and popular layers [couches populaires]. 

When Tebboune satisfies these conditions, it will be possible to negotiate an exit of the crisis,  including the elaboration of a new constitution and the opening of a true transition towards a civil regime. Meanwhile, it is for such preconditions that Hirak should fight over the coming weeks in order to both make new gains and to reinforce itself. It has a need for tactical, concrete objectives to reach for, in order to not lose momentum and exhaust itself. 

It must at the same time be conscious of its errors and correct them. Since the start, the Hirak has always taken care to distinguish the army from the higher levels of the military hierarchy. It must do the same with the police, instead of denouncing and insulting all the police officers without distinction. Similarly, the injunction made against citizens to not vote, or the orders given to traders to shut their shops, have been shown to be counter-productive. Al-Hirak must remain a movement which makes propositions  to the people, not one which imposes itself on them. It must be a unifier, towards building a powerful alternative. 

It must also take notice of its weaknesses and its limits in order to better be able to overcome them. The trade union question remains at the heart of the challenges still to be surmounted; the movement of organised workers in all the country’s regions and sectors of social life might become its backbone. Moreover, the Hirak must give unshakeable support to those lawyers and judges of integrity and conscience who struggle for independent justice, and to workers in both the public and private media who fight for the freedom of the press, and for social and union rights. 

First conclusions and perspectives 

Close to ten months after its emergence, the Movement remains in a strategically offensive position. It still intends to change the regime via transition, and not simply the president. For its part, the pouvoir has succeeded in forcing through the 12 December election, and has thus won a tactical victory. But, it remains in a defensive position on the strategic level, seeking only to gain time in order to preserve the current regime. 

The Hirak must therefore continue its fight by demonstrating as much determination and mobilisation as it does political intelligence and inventiveness. In particular, in order to pursue the fight, it must set intermediate slogans and objectives, since this struggle will be a long one. In the sequence begun the very morning after the election, the Movement must seize new victories – they will be partial, certainly – but essential for its consolidation. And, if it is necessary at some moment to negotiate with le pouvoir, it must do so: The negotiation must not be demonised as such; everything depends on the results obtained.

The partisans of the defense of national sovereignty in the face of imperialism, of social justice in the face of liberal and ultra-liberal forces, and of democracy in the face of authoritarian currents, must converge in order to fight this battle together, whilst respecting their differences and divergences. 

Lastly, militants claiming to adhere to the fight of workers and socialism must debate and act together to build, with conscious workers, a party which finally allows the proletariat of Algeria to grasp its independence as a class.

Algiers, 16 December 2019

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[1] ‘Le pouvoir réel affronte en même temps le Hirak et tente de lui imposer une sortie de crise « constitutionnelle » qui préserve le régime’, i.e.: the constitutionalising of the contest – rendering it ‘political-technical’ rather than ‘social’ – was itself a means of preserving the wider regime. 

[2] ONM, an organisation founded to support veterans of the national liberation war; ONEC, founded to support the children of the war’s martyrs. 

[3] ‘Nous’, the PST. 

[4] That is, the (subjective) question over the issue of dual-power would have been resolved by the (objective) appearance of auto-organisations. 

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