In February 2019, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared his intention to run for a fifth term. This message was released through state media as Bouteflika could no longer make public speeches, after suffering a stroke in 2013. Instead, he had been represented at government rallies by a framed portrait. His bid for reelection proved to be the final straw for Algerians, outraged by the blatant nepotism of ‘le Pouvoir,’ the oligarchy profiting from Boutflika’s continued leadership. Millions of Algerians took to the streets to protest the corruption of the regime (see bird’s eye view of Algiers, 3/15/19), and the Hirak movement was born.
In her study of protests in Senegal, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, anthropologist Janette Yarwood emphasizes the power of youth-driven mass mobilization to reverse a ‘constitutional coup d’état’ and democratic backsliding. The Algerian Hirak movement offers a similar case, where nationwide protests forced the incumbent president to withdraw his bid for another term. Hirak, however, also has its flaws; it is a decentralized, leaderless movement that has not yet provided political alternatives to the regime. I will focus on how social media, a key instrument of the movement, has contributed to its strengths, while simultaneously exacerbating its weaknesses. My aim is to give insight into the effectiveness of mass mobilization against democratic erosion in the 21st century.
First, the role social media played in facilitating the Algerian Hirak movement should not be understated. With 70% of the population under the age of 30, social media, particularly Facebook, organized the youth into a grassroots movement. The initial anonymous calls for mass protest first emerged on Facebook pages. Unlike ‘Y’en a Marre’ in Senegal and ‘Le Balai Citoyen’ in Burkina Faso, the Hirak movement has no focal point of organization, although university students play a considerable role. Perhaps its lack of affiliation contributed to Hirak’s widespread appeal across socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The fragmented Facebook pages run by activists furthered this decentralization, while encouraging public participation. For instance, one Facebook page, Ekteb Doustourek, encouraged users to write and submit their own constitution. Even protest slogans had to be voted on online.
Social media allowed Hirak to be more than simply organized demonstrations; it rapidly evolved into a cultural movement. Another Facebook page, Ekteb, functioned as the ‘diary of the revolution,’ a space where users could submit personal reflections and emotions. This creativity was also present on YouTube, where ordinary Algerians as well as popular artists, released resistance music and spoken word (see, for example, Raja Meziane’s Allo le Systeme!, Soolking’s Liberte, both with English subtitles). Humor was frequently adopted as a strategic tactic used to critique the regime online. A Hirak meme page, for instance, was created. Social media, then, could provide a platform that encouraged creativity and satire as resistance, thereby strengthening the nonviolent ethos of the movement. A good example of this occurred when activists leaked the contact information for the Swiss hospital where Bouteflika was recovering, resulting in hundreds of prank calls to the clinic.
The initial mass mobilization of the Hirak movement was undeniably a major success: it pressured Bouteflika to resign, resulting in new elections and a constitutional referendum. However, the Hirak protests have not yet dismantled the entire ‘Pouvoir’ as planned. As a leaderless, decentralized popular movement, Hirak did not offer genuine political alternatives. Yarwood concludes that “protest in and of itself is not a solution” and recommends that “younger citizens” take part in the political process. The absence of Hirak leadership meant that the presidential candidates of the December 2019 election were previously loyalists of the regime and military; unsurprisingly, the turnout rate proved exceptionally low. The constitutional referendum in November 2020 attracted an even lower public participation.
These weaknesses of the Hirak left its strengths exposed. The lack of political leadership highlighted the movement’s dependence on social media platforms for public engagement. As a result, although not initially tech-savvy, the regime quickly turned its attention online. Their cyber campaign aimed to divide the Hirak and dilute their virtual presence. Marc Owen Jones documents the rise of fake social media accounts used to spread propaganda and disinformation, particularly before the election. Ironically, Facebook’s response has not been to take these accounts down; out of sheer ignorance, moderators deactivated pro-Hirak accounts that had been reported for misconduct by trolls. This virtual activity conducted by the regime has accompanied the mass arrests of activists, explicitly for their Facebook posts. Even the creator of the meme page, Walid Kechida, was not spared. It sent the message that even virtual platforms are not safe. That said, the Hirak movement has recognized the existence of government-sponsored accounts, nicknamed the “electronic flies,” and has fought back. One Facebook page, Fake News DZ, was created by activists to debunk disinformation. Chants, before protests were prohibited for the pandemic, taunted the fake accounts, “Where are you, [electronic] flies?” This mass solidarity, however, is less apparent in a climate of pandemic regulations, increased repression and self-censorship, and state-sponsored cyber campaigns.
Given these circumstances, the ideal path forward for Hirak is to develop political leadership and establish specific demands. This would prevent fragmentation and dissolution of the movement. Social media enabled an unprecedented mobilization of Algerians, yet the rapid and wide-reaching online call to protest does not ensure lasting change. That said, successful revolutions do not happen overnight. The reverberations of the Hirak movement will undoubtedly be felt by Algeria and the broader Maghrebi region for decades to come.
Yarwood, Janette. “The struggle over terms limits in Africa: The power of protest.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 3 (2016): 51-60