In February 2019, following then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's announcement of his intention to run for a fifth consecutive term, Algeria saw a mass protest movement erupt across the country. Millions of citizens took to the streets to demand that the president rescind his candidacy, ultimately driving Bouteflika to step down in April 2019 after two decades in office. Despite the president’s resignation, the protest movement (known in Arabic as the Hirak) continued to hold demonstrations for months thereafter — only halting in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — with protesters' demands expanding to encompass broad-based democratic reform.
Meanwhile, in October 2019, roughly a million demonstrators across Lebanon, constituting nearly a quarter of the country’s population, converged en masse in the streets to rally against their government. Like in Algeria, these protests initially began in response to a particular trigger — in Lebanon’s case, a planned government tax on voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calls — but continued even after the government reversed course on the tax and Prime Minister Saad Hariri tendered his resignation. Lebanese protesters are now focusing on comprehensive political change and are calling for the end of the country’s long-standing sectarian power-sharing arrangement.
While the countries’ protest movements have achieved significant victories, Algeria and Lebanon’s underlying governance structures — and the ruling class that benefits from their retention — have remained fundamentally intact, and protesters’ goals of meaningful, democratic reform remain elusive. Algeria’s December 2019 presidential elections, which featured a set of “approved candidates,” resulted in the victory of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a long-time regime insider who previously served as prime minister under Bouteflika. Although Tebboune has embarked on a transitional reform process since taking office, opposition groups and legal experts have criticized his administration’s proposed changes as cosmetic. And similarly, while Lebanon formed a new “technocratic” government following the dissolution of Hariri’s cabinet, many of the new government members are affiliated with the country’s powerful political parties and business leaders.
As Lebanese protesters look to advance the systemic reforms they seek and contend with an entrenched ruling elite with little incentive to change, they can draw on their Algerian peers’ successes and shortcomings.
Algeria’s successes: Maintaining nonviolence and independence
Non-partisan, non-identitarian character: A core element of the Hirak’s success has been its non-partisan, non-identitarian nature; the movement, at least initially, united citizens from a wide array of generational, economic, demographic, political, and ethnic groups to collectively demand democratic change. While the regime attempted to foment identity-based fissures within the movement — including by arresting demonstrators for holding the Amazigh flag under charges of “undermining national unity” — these tactics failed to undermine the movement’s cohesion, as protesters continued to emphasize their solidarity. This emphasis on inclusion of all identity groups has been a hallmark of the Hirak, strengthening the movement’s perceived legitimacy and clout.
Ethos of peacefulness: Another major factor in the movement’s traction and resilience is its steadfast commitment to nonviolence. Recognizing citizen unease with large demonstrations since the “black decade” of 1991 to 2002, Hirak protesters have been careful to showcase their dedication to peacefulness and their civic-mindedness, including through cleaning up the streets and painting their neighborhoods after holding protests and regularly chanting silmiya (“peaceful”) at demonstrations. Protesters handed out flowers to the police at demonstrations, and in response to the threat of the police firing water cannons at them, Hirak members humorously brought house plants to the protests — ostensibly for watering. These efforts likely went a long way toward gaining support from Algerian citizens, who otherwise might have been apprehensive that the demonstrations would jeopardize the country’s stability, and almost certainly mitigated retribution from security forces.
Algeria’s shortcomings: Lack of leadership or a clear roadmap for reform
Leaderless structure: A defining characteristic of Algeria’s Hirak is its leaderless, consensus-based nature. Instead of a set of representatives who plan and direct demonstrations, the protests are collectively organized by a web of animators on a set of hundreds of Facebook pages, on which activists also vote on protest slogans. This decentralized, grassroots structure has made it difficult for the regime to coopt, discredit, or stifle the movement — but it has also proven to be a double-edged sword, leaving the Hirak without a concrete mechanism for countering internal fragmentation. Hirak members were split on their judgment of the legitimacy of the December 2019 elections, for instance, and the movement has seen diminishing participation since the polls were held. Without a set of leaders who can broker compromises among differing groups and establish a unifying platform for the movement, the Hirak risks being further fragmented and ultimately losing mainstream support.
Lack of a roadmap: An additional weakness of the Hirak is its lack of a coherent strategic vision for Algeria’s future. Although members have convened numerous times to produce manifestos outlining the movement’s shared objectives, the plans that have gained approval among activists have generally reiterated protest slogans and focused on vague, long-term aspirations, with little in the way of immediate, specific, or realistic recommendations. A February 2020 platform produced by members of the Hirak, for instance, underlined the movement’s commitment to a “new political contract representing popular will” and “combating political and economic corruption,” but offered no details on how to achieve these goals. Similarly, a roadmap created by civil society groups in June 2019 included demands for a transitional government and an independent electoral commission — the latter of which the regime implemented — but remained ambiguous on the specific contours or process for establishing these structures. In turn, the movement’s lack of a pragmatic shared vision or master plan has allowed the regime’s limited change program to take up all of the political oxygen and slowly become the only realistic option for reform — without any meaningful input from the Hirak.
The path forward for Lebanon
As it currently stands, in the absence of a compelling reform narrative or realistic, clearly-articulated plan from the Hirak, the Tebboune-fronted version of Algeria’s pouvoir is creating a new normal while changing very little of the power structure the Hirak railed against. Nevertheless, both the successes and shortcomings of Algeria’s Hirak present several takeaways for Lebanese protesters to better position themselves to drive long-term political change.
First, maintaining nonviolence and remaining above the partisan and sectarian fray are necessary for gaining mainstream support and building movement legitimacy. Lebanese protesters would do well to mirror their Algerian counterparts by continuing to resist singling out any particular political or ethnic group and remaining inclusive and peaceful. Second, protesters must work to establish clear goals and strategies for their movement to avoid growing obsolete or falling prey to infighting while the regime advances its own cosmetic reforms. Lebanese activists should work to outline coherent, detailed, and realistic roadmaps for reform. Finally, protest movements without leadership structures and practical roadmaps for reform can be successful in bringing about short-term changes. But to dislodge a firmly embedded ruling elite and force the government to go beyond offering a symbolic sacrifice and moving on, activists must select a group of representatives who can maintain movement discipline and unify protesters under a clear and realistic agenda for change — otherwise, they risk losing relevance and momentum as the regime further entrenches the status quo.
Mahpari Sotoudeh is a senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute. The views expressed in this piece are her own.
Photo by Farouk Batiche/picture alliance via Getty Images