Louisa Hanoune: Algeria's anti-imperialist makes another run for president

Left-wing political trailblazer and icon is running for the presidency again, 20 years after she became the Arab world’s first woman to do so

Lina Jaradat/Al Majalla

Louisa Hanoune: Algeria's anti-imperialist makes another run for president

Five years ago, Louisa Hanoune was being held in solitary confinement in a military prison. Then, aged 65, she was charged with “conspiring against the state” after taking part in protests against an election result. But Hanoune—a left-wing leader and head of the Workers' Party, whose causes included trade unionism and feminism—had been protesting for decades.

She recently announced her candidacy in Algeria’s upcoming presidential election. It will be her fourth run for the country’s highest office, yet she was already famous when she became the first Algerian woman to enter the race back in 2004. After her incarceration and prosecution for refusing to acknowledge the 2019 presidential election outcome (in what became known as the 22 February Movement), few expected her to run again, but she has a history of surprising people.

On the record as saying she is not “personally ambitious”, some analysts say her candidacy in the 7 September election is the only viable option for her Workers’ Party, which has had a spate of recent political problems. Al Majalla looks back at her life in parallel with Algeria's political ebb and flow, as an intriguing crossroads in a long career coincides with an important national moment.

Radical left-winger

Born 70 years ago in a commune in central Algeria, Louise Hanoune was a politically active radical left-winger from an early age, which got her thrown in prison several times before political parties were officially allowed in 1988. Algeria’s move away from being a one-party state prompted a period of political reform and opened the national debate up to figures from the union movement, like her.

A Marxist who had taken part in the 1988 October Riots, Hanoune was now a long way from her simple rural upbringing on the northern slopes of the Babur Mountains. When she moved to the coastal city of Annaba, close to Tunisia, she witnessed the growth of Algeria’s revolutionary and liberation movements, significantly contributing to her political thought formation.

She studied law and entered the realm of trade unionism activism, earning a reputation as a determined advocate for women’s rights and fighting discrimination, racism, and marginalisation. For seeking to unionise colleagues, she was fired from her job at the airport, but she was undeterred. In the early 1980s, she moved to the capital, Algiers, to work for Air Algérie until 1994, then for an Algerian airport management company.

She was the first woman to win the right to run for membership in the country's most established union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (GUAW).

In 2004, Hanoune became the first woman to run for president anywhere in the Arab world.

The law of the era prohibited the candidacy of anyone not affiliated with Algeria's largest party, the National Liberation Front, but Hanoune led efforts to make the GUAW independent, ending its subordination to the regime. Following the October Riots in 1988, a new national constitution was adopted in Algeria in 1989 after a referendum, heralding a period of political pluralism.

The first conference of the Socialist Workers Organisation (SWO) was held on 29 June 1990. Activists and students then founded the Workers' Party (WP). Such parties were banned until 1989. In 1982, Hanoune was arrested for the first time. Detained for six months, she was charged with "forming an evil association, harming state security, and distributing inflammatory leaflets". Her release (and that of SWO colleagues) came without trial as part of a political amnesty. It would not be the last time she experienced prison.

Activism and political life

Together with Zahra Zarf, the wife of the late Algerian President Rabah Bitat, Hanoune led a major feminist mobilisation against an Algerian family law issued in 1984 that codified a woman's second-class status based on Islamic law.

In 1985, Hanoune co-founded the Algerian League of Human Rights and was one of 39 women who founded a movement for women's rights, calling for gender equality by highlighting the critical role women played in liberating the country. In 2004, when she first ran for the Algerian presidency, she used her candidacy to speak out against Algeria's discriminatory family law, forcing women to seek approval from a male relative to marry and making polygamy legal.

Today, she is considered one of Algeria's foremost defenders of women's rights, yet she also fought other battles, including for credit reform in the developing world.

In December 1991, Hanoune boycotted Algeria's first multi-party elections since independence, saying they "smelled of blood" due to the security conditions at the time. Yet she also opposed halting the electoral process. She maintained this stance four years later until violence ceased.

In January 1995, Hanoune took part in the Sant'Egidio Platform in Rome, an attempt by most of the major Algerian opposition parties to create a framework for peace and a plan to end the country's civil war. 

Louisa Hanoune delivers a speech during a political meeting before the 2014 presidential elections.

She was accompanied by renowned national figures such as the Algerian political leader Hussein Ait Ahmed, Abdelhamid Mehri, and the late human rights activist Ali Yahia Abdennour.

Her prominence led to Hanoune becoming known as the 'Iron Lady'. This reputation, forged by her long and varied involvement in politics, led her to register to run for president before constitutional authorities rejected her candidacy.

In April 2004, she made her second attempt to officially get on the ballot, which worked. She became the first woman to run for president anywhere in the Arab world. She did not win, but it did not seem to matter. Her participation was a landmark moment in and of itself. Algerian society's customs and traditions meant it was ill-prepared for a female leader. Hanoune's candidacy helped move the dial.

A darker chapter

She ran again in 2009 and 2014, but in March 2019, she was imprisoned after an infamous meeting involving two former intelligence service chiefs and Said Bouteflika, the brother of the former president. Charged with conspiring against the state by an interim military regime, she spent nearly nine months behind bars "to prevent her from playing her role in the most unprecedented popular uprising in Algerian history", according to Ramadan Taazibet, a senior figure in the Workers' Party.

Taazibet said something similar had happened before, explaining that Hanoune "was kidnapped during the events of October 1988 for 72 hours and accused of contributing to that uprising, which helped end the one-party system".

After her release in February 2020, Hanoune described the decision to arrest and convict her as "a turning point in the criminalisation and demonisation of political work". She added that "the real Algeria—workers, students, and the middle class—was not affected by the barrage of lies broadcast by the media justifying my arrest and distorting my struggle".

For Taazibet—however she fares in the election—Hanoune remains "a symbol of loyalty and independence, a champion for the working class, a strong defender of national sovereignty, and an anti-imperialist fighter".

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