In February 2019, Algerian people began protesting against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after his announcement that he’d run for a fifth term. The Hirak, meaning “Movement” (also called the Revolution of Smiles), is a peaceful protest movement that calls for total regime change.
The movement is entirely peaceful, as Algeria still finds itself remembering the terror and violence of the 1990s, the “Black Decade.” Upon Boutefika’s ousting later in 2019, the Hirak continued to demand for reforms and legitimate government. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune became the elected president and began, ostensibly, to address some of the Hirak demands. However, the people demanding change believe that more widespread constitutional and governmental reforms are necessary. The protests continued into 2020 because Tebboune’s approved constitutional referendum failed to heed public calls for an independent judiciary and parliament. This new constitution, in practice, failed to limit the powers of the regime. Instead, the amendment increased skepticism of the regime and fueled the fire for continued protest. More recently, in June 2021, the Hirak organized a boycott of national parliamentary elections, whose turnout was well below 25 percent. For the movement, the boycott was necessary to prove that the regime did not enjoy the support of the people, who widely believe that “they all have to go.” But do the extensive, reformative demands of the Hirak support religious freedom promotion in Algeria?
If the movement truly demands widespread change, a total governmental overhaul could end the religious persecution countless minority groups face in the country. Calls for the establishment of a civil state and a “plural and diverse Algeria” from certain Hirak activists lend credence to the notion that the Hirak will support religious freedom initiatives. Proposed citizen constitutional amendments reference the benefits and necessity for mass citizenship and equality alongside freedom of worship and belief. Furthermore, the daily Liberté published on August 22, 2019, included a preliminary draft of a Citizen’s Charter that outlined the importance of ensuring all minority individuals—regardless of their politics, culture, language, and religion—have the same rights as the majority. The vice president of the Algerian Protestant Church (EPA), Youssef Ourahmane, confidently claimed that “Hirak supports human rights, and I have no doubt they will help the churches.” Therefore, the government and people may support religious pluralism and, ultimately, religious freedom.
The Hirak signifies progress, but it also points to key ideological differences between Algerian activists and Hirak supporters. Different activists have contrasting goals and visions, ranging anywhere from a stronger Berber identity to secularism to traditionalism. The fragmentation within the movement has not hindered its influence, but divisions could lead to different outcomes for religious freedom. Although the Hirak movement does not explicitly call for religious freedom promotion, some within the movement demand constitutional “separation of church and state.” A main component of religious freedom is free exercise, where the government is prohibited from interfering in matters of religion. The Hirak seeks to encourage equality and ultimately calls for the cessation of the Algerian regime’s control of religion. Thus, religious freedom could also reap the benefits of potential free exercise stemming from the Hirak. But if the Hirak does open church doors, it is also important to recognize the potential of a more secular state becoming anti-religious.
Although secularist statements from the movement could give the impression that it is anti-religious or unsupportive of religious freedom, this will likely not be the case. Activist Tajmaat N’tadart clearly identifies that, yes, extreme secularism can foster anti-religious sentiment. But he claims, “The notion of secularism aims to put brakes and safeguards against all those who would be tempted to use religion for political ends… Citizens are free to believe, practice or not the religion of their choice. However, no one has the right to impose his beliefs upon others. It is also a way of preserving religion from the unhealthy attempts of some to achieve their political objectives.”
From this one can glean a positive outlook for religious freedom in Algeria. Demonstrators have proven that Hirak is looking to expand human rights within the government and ultimately push back on outdated restrictions and ordinances that do not reflect the current political and social climate in Algiers. Without being overly naive, this alludes to the potential for human rights to take center stage in a fresh government. When human rights are at the core of both domestic and international policies, religious freedom too becomes a significant pursuit. Thus, if governmental restructuring continues as a result of Hirak, religious freedom could also prosper from a regime focused on citizenship and human rights.
Religious freedom is not the Hirak’s purpose, but the movement has developed a strong sense of Algerian political commitment. Within this commitment is a social responsibility to address everything that was wrong with both the Bouteflika regime and Tebboune presidency. The movement has focused on prioritizing human rights, citizenship, and good governance, and it has not lost momentum despite COVID-19 setbacks, the imprisonment of activists, and church closures. Religious freedom, therefore, will likely become increasingly pertinent to the movement as well as a fundamental cornerstone of a democratic, civil state in Algeria.