Algerian leader praises protest movement, warns against 'infiltration'

"I’m personally committed to achieving all demands of the Hirak," said Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
Sunday 23/02/2020
Algerian protesters shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration in Algiers, February 21. (AFP)
Soul-searching Algerian protesters shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration in Algiers, February 21. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune lauded the country’s protest movement, which is entering its second year, as "a foundation for democracy" but warned that hostile forces were attempting to infiltrate it.

Algerian government leaders and the opposition hailed the pro-democracy movement, known as Hirak, as a milestone in the country’s social and political transformation. Tebboune declared February 22 a “national day of brotherhood and cohesion between the people and its army for democracy.”

The peaceful movement has seen Algerians from across the country take to the streets in huge numbers since February 22, 2019, when they mobilised to oppose long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid to seek a fifth term in office. Bouteflika was ousted in April but protesters’ demands grew to include broad reforms of the military-dominated government.

Months of protests yielded results and many figures in Bouteflika’s regime once believed to be untouchable were jailed. However, efforts to stop presidential elections were unsuccessful and Tebboune, a former prime minister, was elected in December

Tebboune, who briefly served under Bouteflika, has reached out to protesters, praising the movement as “democratic” and giving them some concessions. He recently said: “The blessed Hirak saved the country from a total collapse.”

“The state was about to collapse completely as was the case of some countries that are today seeking foreign mediations to solve their problems,” Tebboune said February 20, referring to conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

“The collapse of the state means the collapse of all the state institutions. All evidence pointed to such a scenario in Algeria. Thank God, the people foiled this plot. They have achieved many of their claims thanks to their maturity,” he said.

Asked whether he would support continuing protests, Tebboune said: “It is a right for the people to participate in the Hirak. It is a foundation for democracy, all the more when the people protest in an organised manner without destruction and trouble.”

However, he warned against the movement being "infiltrated" by hostile actors from Algeria or abroad.

“I urge my sons who march Friday to be vigilant against the infiltration of their movement because there are signals of infiltration both from inside and outside Algeria,” he said.

He promised to satisfy all the protesters’ demands and transform Algeria into “a new state of democracy.”

“We are focusing on that task because I’m personally committed to achieving all demands of the Hirak,” Tebboune said, citing plans to amend the constitution, change electoral laws and reorganise state institutions.

Tebboune’s embrace of the pro-democracy movement and the peaceful nature of the protests largely set Algeria's transformative events apart from the “Arab spring” protests of 2010-11, which included bloodshed and destruction in many countries where Islamists played a role in the upheavals with the support of foreign powers.

Not all parties in Algeria are impressed by the government's public support for the movement. Secular opposition parties at the forefront of the protests dismissed Tebboune’s outreach as a ploy to gain time to subvert the movement and rebuild the regime.

“On the eve of the celebrations of the [anniversary] of the revolution of February 22, the de facto authorities multiplied the acts of repression against the population,” said the Democratic Alternative Pact, an alliance of major secularist opposition groups. It said police blocked people from outside Algiers from reaching the capital, engaged in a crackdown on striking workers and sanctioned judges for throwing out protesters’ sentences.

“The illegitimacy of the regime remains whole,” said the coalition, which called for more protests.

The coalition includes the Culture and Democracy Party, the Socialist Forces Front and the Workers' Party, which provide the Hirak with its main organisers and activists.

Some analysts said Tebboune needs the protests to overcome “resistance” from inside the regime.

Many Algerians are proud that the Hirak has shown a new, progressive vision of society that respects women and tolerates political and identity differences.

“The massive participation of women cemented the unity and the peacefulness of the protesters,” said Abderrahmane Arar from the Civic Forum. “Do not forget that Algiers was off-limits to protests during 20 years. The Hirak changed it and gained the rights of the population to protest freely.”

Former Algerian central bank Governor Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer said the pro-democracy movement had become so strong that it would be difficult to end it even through brutal force or “manipulation.”

“The high level of mobilisation and the political maturity of the movement make it impossible to use violence against the Hirak,” he said. “It is no longer possible to ignore the Hirak, which is continually strengthened by the national contractions that find their solutions in the movement. For example, feminists, communists and Islamists march together with no problem.”

“The Hirak becomes a revolutionary force even when only the word ‘Hirak’ is used. The Hirak means a movement but that does not say where it goes. This is its force and such movement will push for change without violence,”  Hadj Nacer said.