What if an entrenched elite held a presidential election featuring some of its longtime members, but no one came? Or worse, what if the masses did turn out, not to vote but to protest the attempt of said elite to maintain itself?
That is exactly what happened to 79-year-old General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the country’s top general and the true ruler of Algeria, on December 12. The regime solemnly announced that one of his hand-picked candidates, 74-year-old Abdelmadjid Tebboune, reportedly Salah’s favorite, miraculously won a 58% landslide against the other four. Moreover, congratulations poured in immediately from the three biggest global powers: the US, China, and Russia.
But an entirely different reality emerged on the streets, as the ground continued to shake under the Algerian “system,” as the protestors call it. For on this farcical election day, massive anti-election demonstrations took place, while turnout was extremely light. In the capital, Algiers, a polling station in the center of the city was shut down for a while by protestors, who surged across the city despite massive and brutal police efforts to stop them. Slogans included, “Stand Up, Stand Up!,” “The Generals into the Garbage Can,” and “A Civil State, Not a Military One.” (Frédéric Bobin and Madjid Zerrouky, “L’Algérie boude une présidentielle controversé,” Le Monde, Dec. 14, 2019).
In Kabylia, the stronghold of the Berber minority, unrest broke out after peaceful demonstrators were attacked by police. The protestors managed to close down dozens of polling places, throwing ballots and ballot boxes into the streets.
The Algerian Human Rights League assailed the regime’s claim of a 40% turnout as “completely false” (Adam Nossiter, “Vote in Algeria Has a Winner but Is Lacking in Credibility,” New York Times, Dec. 14, 2019).
The day after the election, demonstrators again poured into the streets of Algiers and other cities, still chanting anti-regime slogans. Some carried signs in English declaring “Not My President,” in an effort to garner international support that suggested connections to the anti-Trump protests in the US. In Algiers, demonstrators carried the Berber flag, as slogans like “Kabylia, Bravo to You, the Capital Is Proud of You” wafted through the air. This signaled support for Berber cultural autonomy, something that is anathema to the military-nationalist regime in power since 1962, and which jailed people earlier this year for carrying the Berber flag. That flag has often been displayed by crowds alongside the Algerian national flag, in a sign of intersectional solidarity by members of the Arabic-speaking majority toward an oppressed ethno-linguistic group (Madjid Zerrouky, “L’Algérie face a son nouveau president,” Le Monde, De. 15-16, 2019).
Calling itself the Hirak movement, the nearly yearlong peaceful insurrection against the regime has been organized in an entirely horizontal manner, albeit with tremendous discipline and persistence. Since it began in February, a substantial number of women have always been among the participants. Dominated by urban youth, among them women, the movement has also rejected attempts by Islamist groups to influence it.
One of the most widespread Hirak slogans has been “a new independence,” as participants identify themselves with the 1954-62 national liberation struggle against French colonialism, while also decrying how that struggle was confiscated by the military-nationalist elite that has held power until now.
As Mohammed Harbi, the famous Algerian historian and anti-Stalinist Marxist put it: “They think that French domination was replaced by the domination of the Algerian army. This began in 1962. When people saw that the promises of the National Liberation Front (FLN) were not kept, they began to remark, ‘It’s as if France never left.’ Even if it doesn’t correspond to my vision of things, Hirak has shown a type of creativity — even of a destructive sort — that I admire, as I do its grassroots sagacity in the face of the authorities” (“En Algérie, la regression Culturelle est une désastre,” interview with Christophe Ayad, Le Monde, Dec. 8-9, 2019).
While Hirak has been demanding a political rather than a social revolution, its resonance among the youth has deep socio-economic roots. The official unemployment rate for the 16-24 age group stands at a staggering 29%, with the true reality probably even worse, while that of the general population is around 12%. This is a type of economic stagnation that prevents younger people, even those with medical degrees, from entering the labor force unless they “know” somebody. This is exactly the type of economy that existed in Egypt and Tunisia at the time of their 2011 revolutions, as noted in studies of 2011 by Gilbert Achcar.
The Hirak movement has again and again brought millions into the streets in a multi-class movement. In April, it forced the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power for two decades. Since then, the country has been in a stalemate, with the General Salah and the military clinging to power while the Hirak movement has demanded not just new elections, but the end of the existing political system.
In the run-up to the election, regime media and propagandists warned that protests would bring back the terrible years of the 1990s, when the regime fought off radical Islamists in a civil war that took thousands of lives. They also warned of a Syrian-type civil war, if Berber demands for autonomy were allowed any leeway. And finally, they used the tried-and-true accusation of a foreign hand behind the demonstrations.
But the Hirak movement — and seemingly, the Algerian people — would have none of it. As one demonstrator declared during the massive anti-election demonstrations of December 7, which were as large as the gigantic ones last spring, “This vote, if it takes place, will not impede the movement. Hirak will continue because what we are demanding is systemic change. We will not allow the authorities to regenerate themselves” (“Madjid Zerrouky, “En Algérie, l’impossible campagne,” Le Monde, Dec. 11, 2019).
During the campaign, the candidates held few public appearances, due to a constant threat of massive counter-demonstrations; or they did so, to small gatherings surrounded by a massive police presence. Their posters were also ripped down everywhere.
Clearly, Algeria is still in play after this farce of an election, and its Hirak movement bears both watching and emulation from those all over the world struggling for human emancipation. Such forms of positive and humanist resistance to the existing order, which is by no means limited to Algeria, should not be forgotten, even as rightwing populism continues to surge across the globe, most recently in Britain.