The heavy silence of Algeria’s democratic aspirations, five years later

When he thinks back to February 22, 2019 in the streets of Algiers, Zakaria Hannache tells himself that he must try to talk about it without “starting to cry”.

“It was something extraordinary,” says the young man in his late thirties, sitting in a Montreal café. Suddenly, the taboos created by the Algerian government for decades collapsed under the effect of this first spontaneous demonstration. A feminist could walk with a bearded Islamist. The young were with the old. The diversity of society met in the street to defend the same cause, carry the same messages, and suddenly understood its strength, its power and its wealth,” continues the man who at the time was only a “simple apolitical civil servant”, he specifies.

Hirak, this movement calling for the democratization of Algeria born a few days earlier in the small town of Kherrata, 300 kilometers east of Algiers, before reaching the capital, five years ago this week, was going to do it to someone else.

Inspired by this cry for freedom, carried away by this so-called revolution of smiles, Zaki – that is his nickname – will become one of its pillars, a seen and recognized activist who comes daily to the defense of people arbitrarily arrested by the regime for having demanded freedom of expression, the independence of justice, the construction of a rule of law… And this, with all the risks that this entails in an authoritarian and closed regime.

He was also hunted down by the police authorities in recent years, harassed, intimidated, thrown in prison in 2022 for 35 days, before managing to leave Algeria to continue his commitment from the outside, first in ” going to get air in Tunisia, to breathe better,” he said, then landing in Montreal last December to start a new life.

It is from here that he remembers the movement that repression silenced and disappeared. A forced silence that will last “until when?” “, he asks himself.

“I can assure you that there are currently, as February 22 approaches, more plainclothes police officers than ordinary citizens in the streets of Algiers,” said Zakaria Hannache, smiling, speaking of a regime who, this year again, “will do everything to prevent the Hirak from finding a new lease of life and regaining shape”.

“The government rebuilt the wall of fear with aggressive political policing and a repressive strategy that worked very well. But he didn’t win yet. Hirak may no longer be on the streets, but the idea is still very much alive among the population,” he assures.

Alive, perhaps, but more than ever constrained by the regime of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who, after the relative tolerance displayed during the first weeks of these demonstrations repeated every Friday in the streets of major Algerian cities, seized the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic, at the beginning of 2020, to stem these calls for modernization and democratization of the country, dangerous for its survival.

The failure of a spring

Born in reaction to the announcement made at the beginning of 2019 by the ghostly ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a fifth term, despite his illness, his worrying state and his absence, Hirak quickly transformed into a movement demanding the end of clan power established by the country’s military groups after independence in 1962. In the streets, slogans then called for the end of this military regime and the establishment of a civil state, demanding justice and a free press and independent, in addition to demanding a multi-party system that is not just a facade or even the release of all prisoners of conscience. A loud cry that will not have made spring…

At the beginning of December, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in Algeria, Mary Lawlor, denounced in an incisive report “continued judicial harassment”, the “dissolution of key human rights organizations “, “limitations on freedom of movement”, “intimidation and surveillance” targeting Hirak activists, asserting that this framework harmed the social reforms that the regime in place seeks to promote.

A slap, which echoed that given three months earlier by another UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, who, after a stay in Algeria , denounced the “climate of fear” put in place by the regime of Abdelmadjid Tebboune to silence all opposition.

Their two reports highlighted the changes made in June 2021 to the country’s Penal Code so as to be able to prosecute Hirak activists by accusing them of advocating terrorism for simply having published a text on social networks or having taken part in rallies calling for reforms in the country. This also targets Algerians living abroad.

“These are loaded accusations in a country still traumatized by its dark decade,” said Zakaria Hannache, referring to the Algerian civil war which, between 1992 and 2002, tipped the country into the terror of a clash between the government and Islamic groups. “But ironically, the state of freedoms today is worse than during this dark era in our history when violations of rights were as numerous as they were terrible. »

Terror and crimes of opinion

Five years after the birth of Hirak, the results are hardly rosy for the Algerian regime, which still has 237 prisoners of conscience in its jails, human rights defenders denounce, 198 of whom are being prosecuted for “apology of terrorism.” “. “And this does not take into account all the arrests which are not denounced by the families, ashamed to see one of their own hit by such accusations,” says Mr. Hannache.

This climate of repression has targeted several figures from the political opposition or the media, such as the journalist Ihsane El Kadi, director of Interface Médias (which includes Radio M and the emerging Maghreb news site), sentenced last June to seven years in prison, including five years in prison, for a series of opinion texts on Hirak. The courts, in the pay of those in power, considered that his work as a journalist undermined the security of the State.

At the end of January, the young poet Mohamed Tadjadit, a popular and unifying figure in Hirak, was arrested in the suburbs of Algiers, “probably to prevent him from speaking as the fifth anniversary approaches,” says Mr. Hannache.

An anniversary which, far from being experienced as a disappointment, a failed act or a failure by the activists of this singular movement, above all rekindles among them the hope of one day seeing their aspirations shake the pillars of power for good.

“We are not fooled: obtaining a radical change in a system controlled by the army is necessarily difficult and complicated,” adds Zakaria Hannache. But five years ago, by taking to the streets, many Algerians understood that they could live another Algeria, that they could dream of another political and social framework. Beyond the slogans, it is also a political maturity which was expressed and which is still there. The Hirak planted a seed that continues to germinate. »

He adds: “No one, not even the regime, believed it possible that the people would take to the streets on February 22, 2019. And that is why this thing can happen again without warning, at any time. »

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