A study carried out by the Middle East Institute analyses the main successes and failures of both movements

How can the Algerian Hirak influence the protest movement in Lebanon?

AFP/ RYAD KRAMDI - Anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers, 18 February 2020

The absence of rights, both civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural, has given rise to various protest movements throughout history; movements that have been important motors of change. From Hong Kong to Algeria, passing through Lebanon, France and Bolivia, the year 2019 was shaken by an explosion of protests around the planet. Social protest is an indispensable element for the existence and consolidation of democratic societies. Algeria and Lebanon are two very different countries, but they have something in common, and that is the frustration that characterizes the thousands of people, mainly young people, who in recent months have taken to the streets to claim what they consider to be their rights. Corruption and widespread unemployment in both countries have created the perfect scenario for the emergence of this type of movement. 

Un manifestante antigubernamental sostiene una pancarta durante una protesta contra el liderazgo político al que culpan por la crisis económica y financiera, frente a la casa de gobierno en el centro de Beirut, Líbano, el jueves 11 de junio de 2020

Algeria's history took a 180-degree turn on 10 February 2019. On that day, the then president of the country, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, confirmed that he would stand for re-election for the fifth consecutive time, despite his serious health condition. This announcement was the spark that lit the fuse of what, months later, would become known as the Algerian Hirak. Millions of people took to the streets to demand that Bouteflika resign his fifth term, something that finally happened. On 12 December last, Abdelmajid Tebboune was elected president, and he promised the demonstrators to change the constitution, a promise that has not helped to calm the protests in the country. 

El presidente argelino, Abdelmadjid Tebboune

Meanwhile, in October 2019 a great social revolution was brewing in Lebanon.  The collapse of the currency, rising inflation and the deep financial crisis that this small country has been going through since last October have created the perfect context for the protests that were devastating the country to resurface more strongly than ever, after a pause for the coronavirus, while at the same time tensions have increased between supporters and opponents of the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah. Lebanon - a country of some five million people and home to more than 1.5 million refugees - is one of the world's most indebted nations. For this reason, around one million demonstrators in Lebanon - that is to say, a quarter of the country's population - have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the government.

La libra libanesa se hundió a un mínimo histórico en el mercado negro el 11 de junio a pesar de los intentos de las autoridades de detener el desplome de la moneda del país afectado por la crisis

The trigger for these protests, unlike in Algeria, was an announcement by the government that it intended to introduce a tax on phone calls made through WhatsApp and other applications (called VoIP). The popular discontent caused by the economic crisis in which the country is immersed led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Despite this, Lebanese society demands a comprehensive political change to cope with the complicated economic situation in the country. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon announced the first default in its history of foreign debt, one of the highest in the world in relation to the country's GDP.

The underlying governance structures in Algeria and Lebanon have remained intact, while the possibility of achieving democratic reform - as called for by the protesters - still seems a mirage. The presidential elections held in the North African country in December 2019 resulted in the victory of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a veteran member of the regime who had previously been prime minister under Bouteflika. Thousands of people took to the streets in the following weeks to protest against the results of these elections and to demand a real transition in the country. 

Las fuerzas de seguridad argelinas rodean una manifestación antigubernamental de estudiantes argelinos y otros manifestantes en la capital Argel, el 18 de febrero de 2020

Tebboune initiated a process of releasing those arrested during the protests and also set up a committee of experts to present a proposal for a revision of the Constitution. However, with the arrival of the coronavirus, this process has been relegated to the background. Similarly, in Lebanon, one of the first challenges faced by the new Cabinet is to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in the region. A study by the Middle East Institute finds that Lebanese protesters can draw inspiration from the successes of the Algerian protests. 

Thus, first of all, this think tank highlights the non-partisan and non-identifying character of the Hirak. In the first instance, the movement brought together citizens from a wide range of generational, economic, demographic, political and ethnic groups to collectively demand democratic change. "Although the regime tried to encourage identity-based splits within the movement - including by arresting protesters for holding the Amazigh flag on charges of 'undermining national unity' - these tactics failed to break the movement's cohesion, as the protesters continued to emphasize their solidarity," the authors of this research have noted. This emphasis on the inclusion of all identity groups has been a hallmark of the Hirak, a feature that has strengthened the legitimacy of this movement. 

Marcha antigubernamental en la ciudad argelina de Bordj Bou Arreridj, el 14 de febrero de 2020

On the other hand, this study considers that the peaceful spirit that characterizes the Hirak has played a fundamental role. With the wounds left unhealed by the recent Algerian civil war, also known as the black decade, Hirak protesters have made a great effort to avoid violence and achieve their goals through peaceful methods. The document produced by the Middle East Institute has applauded positive initiatives to prevent the escalation of tensions, such as when citizens at the protests gave flowers to the police. Such measures also increase the movement's legitimacy; a legitimacy that, if violence were used, "could have jeopardized the country's stability," they said. 

However, the leaderless nature that defines the Hirak may jeopardize the future of this movement. The protests are usually organised collectively through social networks such as Facebook, a meeting place where activists define what these protests will be like and even the slogans that will be the soundtrack to each of the demonstrations. "Without a set of leaders who can negotiate compromises between different groups and establish a unifying platform for the movement, Hirak risks becoming even more fragmented and ultimately losing support from the mainstream," the authors of the EIM research warned. 

The importance of having a roadmap

En esta foto de archivo tomada el 27 de septiembre de 2019, un manifestante argelino marcha con un cartel que pide la liberación del político Karim Tabbou durante una manifestación contra la clase dirigente en la capital Argel

In the same way, they have highlighted the danger of not having a defined road map for the future of the Hirak. The absence of a strategic vision for Algeria's future could further fragment the movement, which has already been divided since the elections last December. "The movement's lack of a shared pragmatic vision or master plan has allowed the regime's limited programme of change to absorb all the political oxygen and slowly become the only realistic option for reform, without any significant input from the Hirak," they said. 

Lebanon's future depends, in part, on the protests that have become the mainstay of the country's current affairs in recent months. Unlike their Algerian counterparts, the demonstrations that began in October to end widespread corruption and mismanagement of resources have now turned into violent protests over an economic crisis that has brought Lebanon to the brink, partly exacerbated by measures imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Although COVID-19 has forced Lebanese society to stop these demonstrations, they have taken on new dimensions after a 26-year-old boy lost his life during clashes between the protesters and the Lebanese Army. 

 Manifestación contra las terribles condiciones económicas en la capital libanesa, el suburbio del sur de Beirut, a finales del 11 de junio de 2020

The MEI believes that the movement that is developing in Lebanon must opt for peaceful protests, such as those in Algeria, and for "remaining above party and sectarian conflict" in order to build the legitimacy of its movement.  Lebanese protesters should also set goals and strategies to prevent their demands from becoming a dead letter once the protests have subsided. "Lebanese activists must work to outline coherent, detailed and realistic road maps for their reform," they have said in this institution, stressing the importance of creating a leadership structure. "To dislodge a firmly entrenched ruling elite and force the government to go further, activists need to select a group of representatives who can maintain the discipline of the movement and unify citizens under a clear and realistic agenda for change; otherwise, they risk losing relevance and momentum as the regime further entrenches its status quo," they concluded.