Thousands of Algerians march on second anniversary of Hirak

In Kherrata, east of Algiers, 50,000 Algerians defy the protest ban to call for a renewal of the mass street movement.
Wednesday 17/02/2021
Algerians rally in the northern town of Kherrata, marking some of the first Hirak protests on February 16, 2021. (AFP)
Algerians rally in the northern town of Kherrata, marking some of the first Hirak protests on February 16, 2021. (AFP)

ALGIERS - Tens of thousands of Algerians flocked to the city of Kherrata, east of the capital, to mark the second anniversary of the start of Algeria’s popular protest movement, waving Algerian and Amazigh flags.

They chanted the usual slogans of the Hirak, such as “For the independence of Algeria,” “President Tebboune is a forger brought in by the army” and “the generals in the trash.”

Kherrata, which is 300km east of Algiers, is considered the cradle of the Hirak. On February 16, 2019, thousands of Algerians gathered spontaneously, calling for comprehensive political change and the total removal of the powers in place.

Eyewitnesses told The Arab Weekly that the city of Kherrata has in recent days turned into a magnet for the popular protest movement’s influential figures and opposition activists, welcoming thousands of Algerians from various cities and governorates who took part in Monday’s mass rally.

Algerian crowds assemble in the northern town of Kherrata, on February 16, 2021. (AFP)
Algerian crowds assemble in the northern town of Kherrata, on February 16, 2021. (AFP)

About 50,000 city residents and out-of-town visitors violated the social distancing measures and the ban on marches. The huge demonstration brought back memories of the political protests that swept Algeria between 2019 and 2020 before the global outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, after which the country entered a stage of political calm that proved to be temporary.

The protesters maintained the same slogans and discourse that were used before the suspension of the political protests. There were calls for “a civilian, not military state,” “the release of detainees” and “the exit of the authorities and the generals,” as well as chants stressing “the illegitimacy of President Tebboune.”

Political figures from the opposition participated in the march, among them Karim Tabbou, a former prisoner and a spokesperson for the newly created Democratic Social Union, Mohcine Belabbas, head of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, Zoubida Assoul, a lawyer in the Defence Committee for the Hirak Detainees and the head of the party of the Union for Change and Progress, representatives of the Socialist Forces Front and a number of activists and lawyers affiliated with the coordination committee to “defend prisoners of conscience,” such as Mustapha Bouchachi.

Analysts say that the protests come at a difficult moment for the authorities, which could now be compelled  to make new concessions to try to appease protesters.

They point out that President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s health status and differences within the military establishment do not leave a huge margin of manoeuvre for authorities to contain popular demands. This is especially true as former regime figures who were close to former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika are tempted to give support to the protests in order to push the ruling elite to retreat and scramble for deals and concessions while they try to put their house in order.

The crowds that assembled in Kherrata to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak sent a powerful message that there is a new vision that will pave the way for political protests to expand and reach the capital and other regions of the country, making the protests a tangible reality and not just a weekly demonstration that does not bother the authorities.

Activist and reporter Abdelkrim Zeghileche, who was previously imprisoned due to his role in the popular protest movement, carried a banner that summed up a widely circulated political message that there is a “need to organise the movement and transform it into an alternative to the existing authorities.”

Zeghileche told The Arab Weekly that “the popular protest movement is now in dire need of re-organisation and of a charter that shields it against manoeuvres and infiltration ploys. Past experience has taught us that the authorities possess tools that enable it to absorb shocks and pressures.”

“Without a new strategy and a rejuvenated approach, the movement will be doomed to failure,” he said. “Based on the authorities’ exploitation of the coronavirus pandemic, it became obvious that the movement’s structure was fragile, and it has become imperative for its members to provide it with elements of cohesion, solidarity and immunity.”

Slogans that reverberated throughout the city made it clear that the protesters are concerned about the situation of “prisoners of conscience.” They chanted the name of the young student Walid Nekkiche, who said during his trial that he had been subjected to “torture and rape,” as well as the name of detained activist Rachid Nekkaz, whose lawyers reported that he was subjected to repeated psychological and mental torture, even though he suffered from several diseases in prison and his life was in danger.

Algerian demonstrators call for “a civilian state, not a military state” and “freedom of expression” in the northern town of Kherrata, marking some of the first Hirak protests on February 16, 2021. (AFP)
Algerian demonstrators call for “a civilian state, not a military state” and “freedom of expression” in the northern town of Kherrata, marking some of the first Hirak protests on February 16, 2021. (AFP)

Opposition activists launched a large campaign on social media to mobilise the street again against authorities and to turn the movement’s second anniversary into a launchpad for a new wave of anti-authority protests.

The so-called “Call 22” organised a series of open seminars on social media to flesh out new ideas and visions to end the stalemate and stem the disintegration of the movement. They highlighted authorities’ refusal to change their practices, such as muzzling free expression and prosecuting activists, and said their slogans calling for change have not been  matched by any real openness or clear intent by the government to fulfill the movement’s basic demands.

The local media, both governmental and private, have continued their attempts to ignore or cover-up the Kherrata march and how it could signal the movement’s imminent comeback. The situation is reminiscent of the situation in Algeria two years ago, when the street was boiling while local media paid no attention to unfolding events, hence further galavanising the movement.

The new regime led by Tebboune included the popular protest movement in the preamble to the country’s new constitution, which recognises “February 22nd as a national day of fusion between the people and the army.” The authorities scheduled demonstrations and celebrations to mark the event. This is likely to put them in an odd position when dealing with the anniversary as they will be torn between disrupting political protests and abiding by the provisions of the constitution.