Hirak: An Islamist current divides the regime-defying protest movement in Algeria | International

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Two slogans have been causing for more than a month a great division within the Hirak, the protest movement that was born in Algeria on February 22, 2019 with the aim of establishing democracy: “We know who killed in the nineties ”And“ Intelligence services, terrorists ”. The phrases are wielded by supporters of the Islamist group Rachad, which has a large presence on social networks in the country. Other Hirak activists respond to Islamists by accusing them of ignoring the crimes committed by religious fanatics precisely at the end of the 20th century. And between the two they accuse themselves of favoring the interests of the regime they wish to fight.

The Hirak was driven by thousands of young people, many of whom were not born in the 1990s. At that time, known in Algeria as the black decade, between 150,000 and 200,000 people died in a civil war between the military power and various Islamist groups. Now that the Hirak has returned to the streets after months of lethargy from the pandemic, the movement is at risk of splintering.

The origin of the slogan on torture dates back to last February, when the young activist Walid Nekkiche declared in court that he was “raped and tortured” by the intelligence services after he was arrested in November 2019. The outrage in society It was of such magnitude that the authorities opened an internal investigation. A few days later, in mid-March, Said Chetouane, a minor under 15, also reported having suffered sexual abuse at a police station in Algiers. A video circulated online in which the minor tearfully confessed to other Hirak activists that the police tried to rape him. Various humanitarian associations denounce that the five young people who participated in the recording and dissemination of Said Chetouane's video were also arrested. The police leadership has announced that it will investigate the events.

But now, the debate within Hirak no longer focuses on recent abuses, but on crimes from three decades ago. And, mainly, about the direction that the protest movement should take.

Rachad is an organization whose objective is "to contribute to operating a fundamental change in Algeria", according to its official website. Some of its main leaders live abroad and are former members of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Islamist party that won the first round of legislative elections in 1991 and called for armed struggle when the military staged a coup. that prevented him from ruling. The FIS claimed responsibility for the murders of several intellectuals. However, there are also members of Rachad who have never belonged to the FIS.

The activist and journalist Imad Boubekri points out from Algiers that the members of Rachad maintain the version that in the 1990s only security service agents committed crimes. "But among the members of the Hirak there are victims of the intelligence services and the Islamists as well." Boubekri thinks that, although Rachad has a lot of strength in the networks, he does not have a great real capacity for mobilization. “During the harshest months of the pandemic, its members tried to get people to come out to demonstrate. But the majority decided to protect their health and stay at home, ”he says.

Boubekri believes that for months there has been a bipolarization in the Hirak: “There are secular members who accuse other Islamists, sometimes without reason, of being linked to Rachad. And, on the part of Rachad, there are people who launch smear campaigns on social networks against members of the Hirak ”.

"Whitening the terrorists"

Arezki Metref, contributor to the Algerian newspaper Le SoirNotes via email: “Rachad wants to give the impression that he is the driving force behind the Hirak. He has created a whole system of propaganda through social networks to make believe that they dominate the Hirak. But what is said on the networks is one thing and what is lived on the ground is another. In the streets I have seen banners calling to combat the appropriation that Rachad of the Hirak is doing. This association is whitewashing Islamist terrorists, the same ones who bragged and boasted of the crimes they committed in the nineties. "

In order to Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, it is the regime that tries to foment divisions and entangle the debate. Remember that, from the first months, the authorities prohibited displaying the Amazig flag in the demonstrations. And he explains that the objective of that measure was to isolate the Kabylia region from the rest of the country, whose population is mainly Berber and was always at the forefront of the Hirak.

“Today”, explains Salhi, “power plays the card of Islamism and the traumas of the 1990s. It is confusing the debate, although the question is very simple: Are we Algerians ready, after all that we have suffered, to live together in democracy and diversity? The Hirak has already resolved the issue, it does so at every demonstration. People come out peacefully respecting diversity. And the power wants to act as an arbitrator in this matter ”, he adds.

Salhi believes that the role of military power as referee and "protector" against Islamists follows a logic of the 1990s. “For many years power has stirred the ghost of the black decade, fear of Islamists. But the people were already free of all those fears in February 2019, when the Hirak was born. The young people who took to the streets chanted: “Do not teach me the ghost of the black decade”. Society has changed a lot in recent years, gradually and silently ”. Salhi recalls that while the government tries to "demonize" some Islamists, it pacts with other religious people who support its call for legislative elections in June. "We must not forget that this regime has prosecuted several activists for alleged offenses against Islam," he adds.

An Algerian analyst who requests to speak under anonymity indicates: “What is happening in Algeria is the same that always happens in Muslim countries. Every time people take to the streets to oppose an authoritarian regime, the authorities often say that behind the protests are the intolerant bearded men. And there is always a part of Islamists who come to agree with the regime. The Hirak's goal is to force the regime to make a transition. And anything that deviates from that goal favors the regime. "

The journalist Arezki Metref wields: “The persistence of the Hirak, despite the repression and the pandemic, represents a real problem for power. The movement has nerve, it is not a flower of a day. And that is why power fuels divisions ”. Metref concludes that if the Hirak becomes more radical because of these divisions, the power will have the perfect excuse to repress it without quarter.

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