Algeria’s president Abdelmadjid Tebboune has honored the protest movement that toppled his predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika last year, with a special holiday.
Tebboune, who was elected in December last year, declared Feb. 22 a special holiday to honor the peaceful “smile revolution”.
The announcement of the holiday was made on Wednesday ahead of what are expected to be big protests this week to mark the Hirak movement’s first anniversary.
The move appears to be an attempt to mollify protesters who feel authorities are ignoring their calls for deeper political change.
Protesters are planning their 53rd straight week of marches Friday for what is now called the “Feb. 22 Revolution,” marking the day of the first major nationwide protests against Bouteflika’s rule.
The communications minister called earlier this week for Feb. 22 to be declared “a national holiday of the blessed Hirak”, the Arabic name for the uprising.
It’s a symbolic decision, but a key recognition of the importance of the protest movement that has led to major changes in the leadership of Africa’s largest country.
Tebboune pledges reforms
Tebboune is a product of Algeria’s old power structure, which remained largely in place after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his entourage were pushed out last year.
In an interview with French daily Le Figaro on Thursday, Tebboune pledged to implement radical reforms.
“We cannot reform, repair and restore that which was destroyed over a decade in two months,” Tebboune told Le Figaro.
Tebboune has been slammed by protesters as representing the ruling elite they want removed, having served several times as minister and once briefly as prime minister during Bouteflika’s two-decade rule.
“I am determined to go far in making radical changes to break with bad practices, clean up the political sphere and change the approach to governing,’‘ said the president who “extended a hand” to the Hirak movement after his election.
Revising the constitution is the “priority of priorities”, he said.
“The limits”, he added, are those elements “relating in particular to national identity and national unity.
“Everything else is negotiable”.
“The second area of work will be that of the electoral law”, to give legitimacy to parliament, “which will have to play a larger role”, he said, underscoring the need to “separate money from politics”.
So what next for the Hirak movement?
Should it negotiate with a president who is far from being the fresh face protesters demanded, even if he has himself repeatedly said he was ready to “extend a hand” to cooperate with them?
Should the Hirak build a solid structure for itself and designate representatives?
Experts say the movement is divided on all those questions and faces important decisions.
The protest movement is young “and everything it has done has been spontaneous”, said Karima Direche, a historian and expert on contemporary issues facing North African countries.
They “have to learn to listen to each other, accept that opinions could be different and learn to negotiate in order to reach a consensus.
“We’re not there yet,” said Direche.
She said the Hirak has been “experimenting” since the movement first emerged on the scene in February 2019 to oppose a fifth presidential bid by an ailing Bouteflika.
Pressure from the street forced Bouteflika to resign in April but that has not satisfied the demonstrators who demand the departure of the entire political system in place in Algeria since independence in 1962.
Despite Tebboune’s election, the protest movement is still seeking “political transition” in the oil-rich country and how to achieve it.
“We’re stuck in something quite bizarre: there is still a mobilisation on the streets,” said Direche, referring to the weekly Friday protests that continue to grip Algeria a year on.
Pierre Vermeren, professor of contemporary history at the Paris 1 university, still sees a “peaceful” way out for the Hirak.
He proposes the formation of “political or civil associations to pave the way for local and national elections” and for candidates to “relay the message of the Hirak inside state institutions”.
However, according to Ghanem, the political class appears to have regained the upper hand since Bouteflika’s resignation on April 2.
The Hirak wants to influence the changes promised by the new president but is struggling to structure itself and agree on a future strategy.