“The Hirak is not only the Space of Subjective Liberation but also that of the Collective One”: Interview with Algerian Psychoanalyst Karima Lazali

Algerian anti-government protesters take to the streets of the capital Algiers as the "Hirak" pro-democracy movement gathers renewed momentum after a year-long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic - February 2021. © AA/Mousaab Rouibi

A few months before the Hirak began in February 2019, the Algerian psychoanalyst Karima Lazali published Colonial Trauma: A Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeria. The publication provides a psychoanalytic view of contemporary Algerian history; a history founded on fratricidal struggle and memory blanks, according to Lazali. Malek Lakhal, a research fellow with the Arab Reform Initiative, has interviewed the psychoanalyst about the Hirak's links with memory and history, those of the war of independence as well as of the civil war that ravaged Algeria during the 1990s.

The hashtag #Mansinach (we have not forgotten) invigorated the 2 March 2021, declared “a national day against forgetting terrorism victims" by the "Ajouad Algérie Mémoires" association. Hundreds of messages brought back memories of the “Black Decade”. Would such freedom of speech have been possible without the Hirak?

The Hirak has created and consolidated a freedom of speech, but it is also likely that the Hirak was born out of the need for free speech. It can go both ways. Just like individual memory, collective memory cannot be created over a short time. When catastrophes and tragedies happen, it takes some time to turn the event into an advent, to transform the event and commit it to memory. To this day, several things made it impossible to create memories of what I call "the internal war", the civil war in Algeria. First, it takes time for disasters to be worked out, for them to enter a process of memorialization and recollection. Second, certain political conditions are needed, that is to say, one does not simply decide, alone, to develop a collective catastrophe, even if, individually, people have felt this need. The Hirak was born when people very strongly felt this need in a political context that has seriously deteriorated. The Hirak started the conversation. This is what we see in all of these political messages, these magnificent signs, written in several languages. The Hirak is here because the time to speak has come. And thus, the dead and the missing from both wars - the internal war and the war of independence - join the living in their march to take charge of their collective and political destiny. The Hirak allows the missing and the “tragic deaths” in history to be present.

Who carries this liberation of speech?

There is a generational effort. Each generation is caught up in processing history. Children speak out on behalf of their parents because those who are caught up in war do not have the same relationship with speech. They have a rapport with silence. We are well aware that the country took its independence in 1962, and that a generation later, in the 1990s, it waged an internal war. It is a war that is probably extremely intertwined with what the liberation war was and, especially, with what colonization meant. Then again, almost a generation later, the Hirak was born. It is truly a generational matter. From 1962 to 1992, a generation witnessed the birth of the Algerian nation, in hope but also in fear of its leaders. From 1992 to 2012, an internal war reinforced the blurred lines between politics and religion, paving the way for the exercise of terror by the State. And now, a third generation is claiming its dues of life and future. It is assuming, without authorization, its participation in building civil society, therefore, showing its ability to turn yesterday's misfortunes into a source of inventiveness for the present and the future.

Who is preventing this discourse and is seeking to perpetuate silence?

The story of silence in Algeria is a quite long one (laughs). It is connected to the silenced speech in Algeria, which belongs to very different registers. There is the matter of the politico-religious register. Freedom of speech goes hand in hand with the freedom of the individual. There is no freedom of speech in a society where one has no control over oneself. Beyond Algeria, in the Arab-Muslim countries, individual freedom is a matter of suffering, even anguish. Several parameters come into play here, namely the political use of the religious to silence and to crush. There is also the question of family. These are societies where family is also used to hinder the flourishing of individual freedoms. More particularly, there is a long history of silence linked to Algeria and its history. It took a long time to develop a memory of colonial history, away from political agendas. In my opinion, this is what is remarkable in the Hirak. It allows for the creation of another link with history, other than a relationship with the official history of colonization. It paves the way for multiple perspectives on this history without being framed by political agendas.

What connection does the Hirak have with history?

The status given to history is shifting. As long as political power rests on the legend of a heroic victory, the project for the future - the promise of life itself – was rendered irrelevant. Colonial history, with its series of crimes and the hard-won independence, was enough to legitimize the forceful takeovers and the series of coups. Therefore, in the name of history, governance was without outlook or future. However, the Hirak questions Algeria’s history quite differently, by reconnecting to the struggle for liberation but, this time, from a political project perspective that is focused on the citizen. That would be the real meaning of independence; it is not an end, but a means of opening up the politics. Therefore, the Hirak mobilizes all the symbols of the liberation war (flag, patriotic songs, veterans’ names, iconic places (Place du 1er Novembre, Place Audin), etc.) to assert the legitimacy of the civil society, not of the political power. We rely on great historical figures like Larbi Ben M'hidi (founding member of the National Liberation Front (FLN) assassinated by French paratroopers in 1957), Abane Ramdane (militant in the political wing of the FLN, assassinated by the military wing of the FLN in 1957). The Hirak relies on figures who fought for a free and democratic Algeria; that is to say that the Hirak will revive the revolutionary project that led to independence and was completely suppressed to give way to tyranny and a totalitarian system. We find this desire to reconnect with the revolutionary project in every Hirak slogan. And here lies its strength. The Hirak is a free and civic declaration of existence. What is extraordinary is that these slogans are not propagated by a movement; they are slogans of the group and the individual at the same time. This political project is marked by consistency, that is why it is so wonderful. The Hirak is also a political project, that wants to carry the torch and continue the political project of independence. We are in the midst of history.

We are indeed in the midst of history, but less so for feminists. Feminist demands seem to be faced with quite a fierce opposition in certain sections of the Hirak, in the name of the need to maintain the unity of the movement; why is that?

We live in societies where feminist demands are needed. That is to say that unlike what is happening in the West, where feminism is struggling to renew itself, I think our societies need feminism and need to work on it. What is interesting is that the Hirak is haunted by division. Given the long history of divisions in Algeria and fratricidal conflict, as I explain in my work, it seems that, in the Hirak, individuals know that everything will be used as a pretext to revert to fratricidal struggles that we have always known. Therefore, people spontaneously say, “no division, union, union, union at any cost, as long as we do not get into divisions based on Amazighism, feminism and Islamism.” It is a matter of unity. For now, it is time for unity rather than going into a “communitarization” of this revolt. But we are not in a clash. No one is crushing the other or trying to get ahead of them. They go together.

When your book was published in 2018, the Hirak had not yet seen the light of the day. You described a collective and personal paralysis, an inability to cross certain lines. How did the Hirak break with this and what are its limits?

The conclusion of my book was a call for creative revolt. The only thing left to do was to turn to inventiveness, creativity, and a kind of collective revolt where collective and individual freedoms work together. This is what the Hirak is all about, some kind of alliance between individual and collective freedoms. It is home not only to a subjective liberation but also to a collective one. That is the wonder here. There is no paralysis, we are at the other end of the spectrum. We went from paralysis and immobility to a colossal uprising. Almost 20 million people took to the streets during that time.

Is the Civil Concord Law brought into question today? Can we hope for a real transitional justice in Algeria?

This is what the Hirak is calling for. Mothers of missing children also went out to protest. The Hirak is seeking to stand against all forms of amnesia and all forms of conspiracy of silence. That is to say that the Hirak teaches us the extent to which the liberation of individual and collective speech can allow for the construction of memory. The more memory is created in its diversity, the more it makes an individual and collective liberation possible. They go hand in hand. The Hirak also calls for politicians to stop controlling history and using it for their interests. History belongs to everyone. Unlike the case before, we are not talking about national history. Here lies the possibility of building a true civil society, allowing co-existence, co-habitation of opinions and individual histories, away from the hold of national History. Through the Hirak, a huge paradigm shift is taking place, and it is probably irreversible.


Karima Lazali, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working in Paris since 2002 and Algiers since 2006. She has written many articles and La Parole Oubliée (The forgotten voice) (Érès, 2015).

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.