On an early October afternoon in 2020, hundreds flooded the previously barren streets of Algiers to march for an end to the military-dominated state. This event marked one of the first Hirak protest movement marches since the sudden halt due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Prior to lockdown, protests had occurred every Friday on a national scale since February 22, 2019. The leaderless movement reconvened in 2020, despite a ban on protests amid the pandemic, to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the 1988 October Riots. These riots sparked a transition to multiparty democracy that ended fatefully in the decade-long civil war of 1991.
The Algerian civil war began with the 1991 military coup following an electoral victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). After the FIS succeeded in local elections and was favored to win parliamentary elections, the military intervened to cancel elections and reinstate the National Liberation Front (FLN) as the sole ruling party. Algerian Islamists responded by initiating jihad against the military, forming the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA), and ushering in a decade of bloody, guerilla warfare.
The splintering of the country along political and religious lines and the inhumane crimes that occurred during the civil war required intense healing through transitional justice mechanisms in order for the families of victims to obtain justice and for the country to move forward.
“We’ve never really addressed our past, neither the Algerian revolution against French colonialism, nor the multiple activism episodes throughout Algeria’s history, and lately we haven't even acknowledged what happened during the 90s, it's a historical taboo,” Zine Labidine Ghebouli, an Algerian activist and postgraduate student at the University of Glasgow, said about the country’s relationship with its national history.
The lack of transitional justice following the atrocities committed by both Islamic insurgents and the military during the war has fostered the current political climate in Algeria in which the people are angry, hurt, and, most of all, tired of the status quo. This shared national trauma has greatly contributed to the rise of the 2019 Hirak protest movement.
“I think it's the main reason why the protest movement has been initiated, why we are still stuck in this situation,” said Ghebouli, referring to the lack of transitional justice following the war.
Transitional justice, as defined by The International Center for Transitional Justice, refers to measures of accountability for violent, systematic abuses, as well as recognition of the dignity and humanity of the victims. Specifically, transitional justice seeks to establish a shared truth of what was done to victims and by who, allowing victims to speak truth to power about their experiences. These methods can consist of judicial and non-judicial methods, such as trial, prosecution, reparations, truth establishment, and more.
There was essentially a complete lack of transitional justice following the formal end of the war, in part due to the amnesty laws that were adopted in September 2006 to encourage both sides to lay down their weapons, ensuring that in turn, they would not be arrested. These laws provided that no justice would be given to the victims of the war or their families.
Groups such as the Collective for the Families of the Disappeared continue to advocate for reconciliation, justice, and healing from the conflict. However, due to the amnesty laws, it would be logistically and politically difficult to enact any kind of retroactive restorative justice, without reversing the laws altogether.
This is an issue that remains at the forefront of the national consciousness. There still remains a massive amount of disappearances, unaccounted-for Algerians. Despite the efficacy of these amnesty laws, they have not contributed to healing and reconciliation of the nation.
Yasmina Allouche, a researcher and journalist specializing in North Africa with a specific focus on Algerians, shared their thoughts about this national trauma and the manipulation of the government. “The regime has used the strategy of manipulating national memory to legitimize its position and instill fear in the population that they do not hold the tools to know what way the country should be run in,” stated Allouche.
“When the Hirak began in February 2019, many officials, including the late army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, came forward warning Algerians that if they continued taking to the streets to protest they would see the country regress to the same levels of violence witnessed during the black decade,” noted Allouche. “However, due to the fact much of the young generation was born post-civil war, who did not grow up experiencing the atrocities firsthand, those scare tactics have not worked and we see protests continue.”
In the face of government inaction to work toward transitional justice following the Algerian civil war, the country finds itself at a crossroads, wanting political change for the future, but not having reckoned with the past.
Faouzia Zeraoulia, an Algerian activist and expert in conflict studies, shared her personal background in regards to the Algerian civil war. As a young girl growing up in a small town in the east of Algeria that suffered greatly from the civil war of 1991, Zeraoulia is quite familiar with the lingering national pain felt from the conflict.
Zeraoulia states that the memory of the war is something that lingers in the consciousness of almost every Algerian. However, these open wounds of conflict have in many ways propelled this movement forward.
She believes that the government is likely aware of the power this legacy holds, and that it has tried to dissuade the public from joining or sympathizing with Hirak protesters, by manipulating the national memory of the war. To put an end to the Hirak movement, the government argued that this movement would lead to similar violence seen in the civil war.
Zeraoulia’s work seeks to combat this narrative imposed by the military-led state as she collects sensitive narratives from victims or families of the victims of this violence. She elaborated on the difficulties of gathering these stories, due to the sensitive subject matter and the great emotion surrounding these conversations. Many Algerians still remain missing and none of the perpetrators have been prosecuted on either side, creating a painful environment surrounding the conflict. Zeraoulia also spoke of the complete lack of transparency of the Algerian government about the number of victims, which makes uncovering these narratives and moving toward transitional justice even more difficult. Despite these challenges, Zeraoulia has continued her work, looking at this issue from both an academic and advocacy-based perspective.
In terms of where to go from here, the Hirak protest movement has succeeded in getting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in April 2019, but the military still holds significant power in the government. Shortly after Bouteflika’s resignation, elections were held in December 2019 where Abdelmadjid Tebboune won, but in the view of protesters he is a part of the old guard and was installed by the military in order to continue to exert influence over governance. Protests have continued despite COVID-19-related restrictions on public gatherings and an outright ban on protests with the movement gathering in February 2021 on the anniversary of the protests commencing.
Ghebouli noted that the removal of Bouteflika is not the end of the Hirak movement and that in his view, the ultimate goal of the protest is to dismantle the military-run state and establish a true democracy. He stated that the country cannot move forward from this tragic decade under the leadership of the same governing powers that partook in the conflict and have done little to help the country heal. However, with the limited capacity for retroactive-restorative justice and the uncertainty within the movement of what the future of the country should look like, progress toward democracy is complicated.
“We all agree (within the protest movement) that the system must go, we all agree that we need a different form of governance, but we don't know how to reach there and we don’t know because we didn’t really discuss, we kept saying we want the old system out, but we haven't provided an alternative, we haven't discussed a future vision for Algeria,” said Ghebouli.
In order to move forward, according to Ghebouli, the country needs to have an honest discussion about what it wants and how it is going to achieve it. Overcoming the military state and establishing a democratic future is a difficult feat, one that Ghebouli and Zeraoulia find to be impossible if the country does not first attempt to reckon with its past.
Conflict and Peace Building