The Algerian Hirak: what role for civil society?

Algiers protest

It has been almost one year since the beginning of the popular uprising known as the “Hirak”, a movement marked by its innovation, its pacifism and its quest for justice and equality. Is it time for the first self-assessment of civil society?

This article aims at starting a debate about the actual role of civil society organizations and the movement, and discusses the mechanisms by which more effective and transparent participation can exist.

Civil society organizations, being associations, interest groups, unions or lobbies, usually play a crucial role in governance, at diverse levels and at different stages of its mechanisms. They exist as a counter-power whose role is central in ensuring rights are respected, resources are well consumed, and transparency guaranteed. Furthermore, in countries facing political instability, civil society organizations play a balancing role, taking full responsibility in constituting a defence front for the populations and interfaces for the regimes. Finally, they are especially concerned with the important role they are expected to play in transitional periods. One might easily interrogate our current reality in Algeria, what was the role of civil society organizations since the beginning of the Algerian Hirak? What Impact did they really have on the development of the situation? Were they of actual usefulness for the movement; or, on the contrary, accomplices of the status quo?

Since the beginning of the Hirak almost one year ago, many things have changed, dynamics were broken, and hopes quickly raised to become strict and sacred conditions for actual change to happen. Moreover, a particular mood dominated the streets of several Algerian cities for months, where contestation became a rule and where support for the cause became a sine qua non condition. Millions of Algerians protested the stubbornness of the regime and its willingness to subsist despite a strong rejection from the constituents. Still, many civil society organizations failed at supporting this quest for freedom and became in many cases tools for the rulers to spread their hegemony.

In Algeria, associative activities are not easy to implement; furthermore, the 12-06 association law makes it very difficult to defend certain causes or to tackle certain issues. In fact, this liberticidal law, with its conditions for obtaining registration or its national and international funding policies, puts many of these associations in uncomfortable situations. It is, on the one hand, difficult to stand for freedom and on the other hand, more difficult to be independent of the state. There are thus many types of these organizations: first, associations that are fully supportive of state policies and doctrines which benefit from its protection, support and opportunities; second, associations that are neutral in form but conciliate with state policies as long as it guarantees their survival; and third, associations that are in opposition to the state and critical of its policies, they encounter the most difficulty in existing. Let us focus first on the second category: the undecided or the “opportunists”.

For relatively “free” civil society organizations, there are not many options that are offered. They are most often persecuted by the state, which judges their existence as a threat because they tackle sensitive social or political issues. One option leads them into accepting dependence to state funding, and therefore, putting some of their missions aside if they contradict state interest. Another one leads them into accepting international funding, which considerably jeopardizes their legal existence because of rigid conditions for this type of funding in the 12-06 law. Finally, a third option is for them to survive without funding, which truly diminishes their potential social and organizational impact. The most reluctant and passionate chose the third option, the “opportunists” follow the “rules”.

During the Hirak, the impact of civil society organizations was significantly altered because of the very nature of Algerian political realities. Organizations that were the most critical of the state and the most involved in the movement, like RAJ, were persecuted, leading members were imprisoned, and activities were forbidden. In addition to that, these associations clearly lost the trust of the people for most likely not having bolder opinions or more inclusive visions. Meanwhile, some civil society organizations that are traditionally conciliating with the regime, have reflected ambiguous opinions about the Hirak and certainly very “smooth” criticism of the institutions. These organizations, like SIDRA or NADA, have usually worked with government institutions and accepted the status quo, going much further than neutrality and closely following and implementing parts of the official agenda.

In summer 2019, some organizations gathered to form and implement two distinct political forum initiatives: The Collective for Change, formed by organizations like the Algerian League of Human Rights Defense, RAJ or NABNI and the Civil Society Forum for Change, formed by organizations like SIDRA, NADA, The Scouts, and the Muslim Ulema Organization. These two initiatives, along with the Union Confederation, formed by many labour unions, gathered to organize the first Civil Society Conference in Algiers. This conference aimed at proposing a consensual roadmap for the transition period and to adopt a platform that would be later be used as a negotiation basis with the regime. Unfortunately, this conference was subject to great polemic, and for good reasons. First, some of the participating stakeholders disapproved the idea of a strict cut and radical rejection of state proposals, especially that Late Ahmed Gaid Salah, the deceased Chief of the Armies, had started to threaten protestors and to give instructions for arbitrary imprisonment, but also because some of the participating organizations had already a plan in mind to reposition in the frame of a new political reality. The conference and its outcomes were a complete failure. Few months later, the Civil Society Forum for Change welcomed the highly contested and illegitimate coordinator of the “Dialogue Panel” Karim Younes who came to introduce his “Platform” for change to Abderahmane Arar, forum’s coordinator, and future candidate to the most contested Presidential elections Algeria has ever known, elections organized by a Committee that counts, among others, President of Bariq 21, mother association of Messaoud Leftissi, opinion detainee.

It is interesting to observe that the Hirak did not change some of the widespread habits among some Algerian civil society organizations. In fact, some associative actors, who are expected to support the movement, to give it inspiration, to help it grow and consolidate, disappointed their fellow citizens by their passivity and especially by their opportunism. The trust problem that always existed between the people and civil society organizations – often perceived as receptacles of wrongdoing, corruption or opportunism – exacerbated after February 22nd, giving a secondary and insignificant role to associative leaders in this movement. Furthermore, the nature of the movement itself: independence, self-reliance, radical mindset, naturally excluded organized initiatives (like associations), reducing their potential impact in the current context. Of course, some initiatives are still doing positive efforts for concrete change; yet, they usually have a hard time to convince of their good-willing.

The Hirak, after one year of dedication, needs committed and engaged organizations and individuals that will know how to capitalize and promote its significant impact on Algerian society. Aspirations of the people are for most cases very fundamental in nature: freedom, dignity, participation. Will Algerian civil society organizations align with these objectives? Will they understand the added value their genuine engagement would have on the movement? Indeed, history will certainly remember, and the people will never forget if they are betrayed.


A contribution by Nassim Balla, civil society activist based in Algiers.