(March – June 2021)
Since the pro-democracy Hirak protests resumed in February 2021, and particularly ahead of early legislative elections on 12 June, the government of Algeria has clearly escalated the repression of peaceful opposition and independent actors, notably journalists, protesters, members of the judiciary and human rights defenders. The lack of fundamental public freedoms guaranteeing the organisation of free and fair elections was particularly highlighted. While this development was foreseeable based on similar crackdowns ahead of the December 2019 presidential elections and the November 2020 constitutional referendum, the last two months have seen a drastically more severe escalation, signalling the Algerian government’s intention to definitively put a lid on any form of criticism and return to a pre-February 2019 status quo.
While the continuous cycle of mass protest and repression appears to have only led to political stalemate, February 2019 has created a form of liberation in Algerians’ political consciousness that will not be easily shut down, unless the regime forcibly scales up political violence – as it has done in the past – which would run the risk of drawing the attention of the international community, which seems to have paid nominal attention to the Hirak movement so far. The prospects of a simple return to the status quo are all more uncertain since, aside from the Hirak, the troubling economic situation has deepened social unrest, including in southern resource-rich regions; further weakening the position of the ruling military establishment, which shows no clear signs of willingness to engage in substantive governance reforms.
- Shutting down any dissenting voice
On 18 February, returning from a three-month hospitalisation in Germany, with the resumption of protests looming on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the movement, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced a presidential pardon for at least thirty Hirak detainees. This rare gesture of appeasement was very much short-lived.
On 11 March, authorities announced early legislative elections, followed by a clear uptick in the repression of peaceful protests and dissent. On 12 March, a notable intensification of violence against protesters was reported, with several assaults throughout the country. In Algiers, a group of people verbally and physically assaulted eight journalists, in what initially appeared to be a targeted attack against Abdelkader Kamli, a journalist from France 24. The perpetrators of the attack were reportedly identified on social media as individuals who previously infiltrated demonstrations and expressed criticism of “foreign interference” and women’s participation in demonstrations. No investigation has been launched on this assault so far, while on 13 March, the Minister of Communication issued a “final warning” to France 24, accusing it of false and subversive media coverage.
Allegations of torture in detention, including sexual abuse, have appeared, indicating the practice may be much more widespread, given the extreme difficulties faced by victims and lawyers seeking accountability. Five Hirak activists who released and relayed videos of young protester Said Chetouane, in which he shared allegations of sexual violence, were subsequently arrested on 4 and 5 April and brought before the prosecution without their lawyers. A public prosecutor accused them of being involved in Chetouane’s abuse, and launched unsubstantiated and homophobic accusations against them, widely relayed by state-affiliated media. On 27 April, authorities announced Chetouane’s placement in child protection services while his mother was reportedly prevented from submitting a complaint.
For the first time since February 2019, on 27 April and 4 May, the weekly students’ march in Algiers was physically prevented from taking place. Police also started obstructing Friday marches in Oran, then in Algiers. On 9 May, also for the first time since February 2019, the Ministry of Interior required “prior notifications” for the holding of Hirak marches, requesting organisers to provide their names, itinerary and slogans, which in practice in Algeria amounts to demanding a prior authorisation. On 7 May, protesters had changed the itinerary of the march in Algiers to evade police forces. In a quick reaction to information circulating on social media that individuals had requested authorisations, on 20 May the Ministry denied having received any “authorisation requests”, labelling this information as a “malicious campaign”.
Protesters who have been detained increasingly report that as a precondition of their release, police now demand that they sign a formal written pledge to abstain from participating in other protests. Algeria has also seen a rise in physical assaults against journalists, and authorities have obstructed their work repeatedly, deterring them from covering any protest outside of Algiers. On 14 May, at least 18 out of approximately 1000 arrests were journalists – a record number since February 2019. Civil society has also been arbitrarily targeted. Prominent youth organisation RAJ (Rally Youth Action) was notified that the Ministry of Interior had requested its dissolution, while members of SOS Culture Bab El Oued have been prosecuted for “subversive activities” and “foreign funding” – a charge that could lead to 5 to 24 years of imprisonment since amendments to the Penal Code adopted in April 2020.
Following the gang rape of nine school teachers on 17 May, women’s rights groups also denounced continued pervasive impunity for gender-based violence, in a context in which Algerian women continue to suffer severe discrimination due to provisions of the Penal Code and Family Code which maintain them in a status akin to that of a minor.
At the time of writing, there is still no official presidential pardon decree, leading to confusion as to the status of the released detainees. While on 20 February, Algeria counted at least 32 prisoners of conscience, as of 3 June, this number has risen to 215 prisoners. At least 6,000 arrests of peaceful protesters and activists have been documented since 22 February 2021, likely an underestimate due to the difficulties in obtaining information outside of urban centres.
Aside from the Hirak, other protest movements – teachers, post office workers, firefighters, Tuareg communities protesting land exploitation, or retired members of the military – have been similarly silenced by authorities. On 3 May, authorities suspended 230 firefighters who demonstrated for better working conditions, while claiming the protest was a “plot” fomented by “parties hostile to Algeria”. Trade union leaders have also found themselves arbitrarily sanctioned or prosecuted in relation to their union activities or for their support of the Hirak movement.
- A facade of reforms disregarding fundamental guarantees for free and fair elections
In reaction to the resumption of popular protests, Algerian authorities have maintained a facade of institutional reforms pursuant to the December 2019 presidential elections. These state-managed electoral processes or legislative changes, presented as the foundation of a “new Algeria”, come into stark contrast with the intensified repression described above. Reforms introduced by authorities since February 2019 have overall created a setback in terms of good governance and rule of law, including the April 2020 Penal Code amendments, the 2020 constitutional revision or the November 2020 decree governing digital media.
The first demand of the Hirak movement – a civilian, not military state – has remained unacknowledged. The authorities, on the contrary, used the constitutional revision to formalise the army’s political role in the constitution through the introduction of Article 30, para. 4, according to which “the National People’s Army defends the vital and strategic interests of the country in accordance with the constitutional provisions”. This imprecise formulation, left to the army’s subjective interpretation, would allow it to intervene politically when vital and strategic national interests are perceived as threatened. Although the possibility of the army blatantly overthrowing elections appears low, this provision locks in the military character of the Algerian state and provides a basis for the army’s political intervention; if, for instance, the civilian front of the regime were to ever decide to launch genuine democratic reforms.
The revision also introduced further arbitrary restrictions on rights and freedoms, the wide-ranging repercussions of which have yet to be fully considered. Under the new Article 34, restrictions can be imposed on rights and freedoms, on the basis of ambiguous notions such as “public order”, “security” and “national constants”, without the safeguards of necessity and proportionality mandated by international law. A first alarming repercussion has been the Supreme Court’s acceptance of an appeal on the unconstitutionality of Article 24 of the Statute of Lawyers on 28 March 2021, on the basis of Article 34. Article 24 ensures the immunity of lawyers while carrying out their duties and is fundamental to protecting them from any pressure. A review of Article 24 would threaten the right to defence, despite it being enshrined in the constitution (Art. 175). The Constitutional Court, which will rule on the appeal, remains under strong influence of the President, who appoints its president and a third of its members.
Authorities claimed that the new electoral law, adopted through a Presidential ordinance in March 2020, would advance youth and women’s political participation through quotas, and put an end to corruption through an open list system [with no ranking of candidates]. However, the basic guarantees of inclusivity and fair representation that would give meaning to these changes remain absent, as demonstrated by the increased criminalisation of public freedoms. Article 294 of that law notably provides for a sentence of three months to three years’ imprisonment for “convincing someone to abstain from voting”. In addition, the lack of candidate ranking in open lists does not guarantee that gender parity will be respected in the electoral results. The revised constitution of December 2020 also maintained excessive nomination powers for the executive branch within the judiciary, raising concerns about the possibility of filing electoral appeals.
In this context of repression, authorities opened the electoral campaign. The nineteen parties taking part in the elections have declared they want to contribute to the building of the “new Algeria” and called the elections a “decisive turning point” to rebuild the “credibility of [State] institutions”. The National Independent Election Authority (ANIE), a body whose Chairman and members are appointed by the President, highlighted a noticeable trend – out of the 1,483 lists of candidates in the running, 837 are lists of “independents”. This could largely be attributed to the fact that the two largest parties in the former parliament – the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Democratic Rally (RND) – have been discredited by their involvement with the Bouteflika regime and the subsequent prosecution of their leaders for corruption. The ANIE also shared that 1,200 lists were rejected, in large part due to “links with suspicious money and business circles”. In many ways, the fight against “dirty money” and the need to project an image of transparency and morality was at the heart of these elections, following a major political scandal around revelations of widespread list-buying in September 2020.
Curiously, 65 per cent and 56 per cent respectively of the candidates running in the lists of the Islamists El-Bina Movement and the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) are running as “independent”. This development was touted as a positive response to the President’s call for more youth and civil society participation and a consequence of provisions of the electoral law making it easier to stand for election as an independent candidate rather than as a political party. However, list-buying and political corruption reportedly remain a persisting phenomenon, and “independent” lists are actually made up of discredited former regime parties.
In that context, the decision to organise early elections has largely been interpreted as only a way for the regime to continue promoting an image of democratic reform undeterred, while discrediting the opposition unwilling to participate in the “building of new institutions”. Following the President’s long absence, early elections also served to re-establish its authority and to partially renew its support base, with the support of loyal Islamist parties and recycled former regime parties presenting themselves as independent. Abstention will be the most determining factor in establishing whether the regime’s approach proves to be successful.
Within this context, the selection of a Prime Minister among the Islamist parties who accepted the election is a possibility. This would result in a further normalisation of Islamist parties by the regime, but without altering the balance of power since the Presidency dominates all political institutions, including the parliament and the government.
In parallel, political opposition rejecting the elections has found itself targeted for repression along with civil society and peaceful activists. The Democratic and Social Movement (MDS), the Union for Change and Progress (UCP) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (PST) have faced arbitrary arrests and the launching of procedures requesting their suspension. These parties, gathered with civil society groups under the pro-Hirak Pact for the Democratic Alternative (PAD) announced their boycott of the elections, decried as a “masquerade” sustaining “an authoritarian regime”. For the same reason, most of these parties, aside from the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), had also refused the Presidency’s invitation to attend consultations organised in February on the political situation. In parallel, Tahar Missoum, former member of parliament, was sentenced on 6 May to two years in prison in relation against critical publications, and political opponent Karim Tabbou was arrested on 28 April and placed under judicial supervision.
- A continued cycle of mass protest and escalating repression stagnates the country in political impasse
As illustrated by the recent succession of protest movements, social unrest is deepening due to high unemployment, a shortage of basic commodities, rising inflation, falling purchasing power, and falling oil revenues. The silencing of these movements by the authorities has created ripe conditions for this unrest to deepen and potentially radicalise, especially in resource-rich regions. While the hopes created by the Hirak in 2019 had led to a clear and significant decline in irregular migration to Europe, this downward trend was reversed in 2020 in response to the political impasse created by crackdown against the movement; yet it is unclear if this critical link between migration and repression has been taken into account within European and Algerian migration policies.
If Algeria does not put in place long-term governance reform that addresses the lack of trust and accountability, it risks significant instability and a profound economic crisis which will continue to drive inequality and popular anger. This is especially relevant as the pandemic has exacerbated a liquidity crisis which does not allow the government to continue to buy social peace as much as it could in the past and renders it more difficult to diversify the hydrocarbon-reliant economy. In part due to the military regime and rentier state, political and economic freedoms cannot easily be separated in Algeria; hence addressing issues such as poverty, inequality and economic justice also requires addressing political exclusion and the lack of participatory governance. Opening the space for freedom of speech is a key indicator of Algeria’s capacity to adapt in that regard.
Instead of opening civic space, the authorities exploit political differences within the Hirak to create divisions, doubling down on a strategy initiated by former Army Chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah who, in April 2019, had warned of “foreign parties” seeking to “infiltrate demonstrations” and “destabilize Algeria.” In a speech on 19 June 2019, the Army Chief warned: “It’s up to me to draw attention to a sensitive issue: namely, the attempts by a small minority to bring symbols other than our national symbol into the public sphere.” This speech was followed a couple of days later by the first wave of mass arrests of protesters, including 41 individuals carrying Amazigh flags prosecuted for “undermining national unity” (Article 79 of the Penal Code). Since June 2019, Article 79 has been one of the main repressive provisions serving to quell peaceful activism. Political activist Karim Tabbou was sentenced to one year in prison in March 2020 (including six months suspended) on the basis of Article 79 because he had criticised the high command of the army online. Journalist Khaled Drareni was sentenced to two years in prison on 15 September 2020 for criticising the legitimacy of the President, who, the court recalled, guarantees national unity in the constitution.
Since the resumption of protests in February 2021, authorities have resorted to similar tactics, scapegoating Rachad, a movement founded in 2007 in part by former members of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and the Movement for the Self-determination of Kabylie (MAK), an Amazigh political group created in 2001 following the events of the “Black Spring”. On 22 March, Algeria issued an international arrest warrant against four activists from the diaspora, including a leader of the Rachad movement, Larbi Zitout, for involvement in terrorism activities. State-affiliated media throughout the month of April announced the arrest of individuals planning terrorist attacks against Hirak marches, while the MAK denied accusations of involvement in a “dangerous criminal cell”. On 19 May the current army chief, General Said Chengriha, warned “adventurers, whatever their [political] obedience or ideological views, against any attempts to undermine national unity”. This speech came a day after the High Security Council decided to designate Rachad and MAK as “terrorist organisations”. In the same week, the army went as far as to release a documentary denouncing the “criminal subversive plans” of Rachad and MAK, while also incriminating French media, Morocco and Israel.
This scapegoating strategy is all the more effective, including within the Hirak, because Algerian policies following the civil war, notably amnesty laws, have closed the door to any potential for accountability and maintaining an objective historical record of a shared trauma. The continued censorship of any publication about the civil war deviating from the official narrative, as highlighted by the recent prosecution of journalist Ihsane El Kadi, has only served to maintain acute social tensions and impunity, despite the fact that genuine reconciliation and accountability have been shown to be a fundamental building block to prevent a return to conflict.
These practices have also been supported by public personalities or experts affiliated with the regime who have articulated analysis opposing an “original Hirak” to the current “hijacked” Hirak, manipulated by subversive forces. These analyses claim to support the demands of the original Hirak, in opposition to the “extremist” demands of the current movement. The Hirak of May 2021, after two years encompassing a pandemic and waves of repression, is arguably not as strong as the Hirak of February 2019. Participation appears to have decreased, although it remains difficult to accurately estimate the numbers of protesters due to the continued obstruction of press coverage and access to information, and analysts have suggested that the middle class is not as involved in the movement as before. The remaining masses, however, are unwilling to abandon the freedoms they have reclaimed.
- The cost of a non-functioning country in the Mediterranean and Sahel region
Algeria remains an important security and economic partner and regional player in North Africa and in the Sahel; yet the international community appears to have largely disregarded Algeria’s protest movement, favouring the status quo over uncertain institutional changes. Nevertheless, several developments merit the attention of Algeria’s international partners.
With regards to security concerns, the misuse of counter-terrorism legislation and the seemingly arbitrary terrorist designations to prosecute dissent have been shown to be both ineffective and counterproductive, only serving to create further grievances. The launching of prosecutions against three human rights defenders and journalists, and fifteen protesters, on fabricated terrorism-related charges, signalled a dangerous escalation reminiscent of practices prevalent in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The recent prosecution of lawyer Abdelraouf Arslane, member of the Collective for the Defence of Hirak Detainees, for his “involvement in a terrorist organisation”, solely on the basis of his defence of a member of Rachad, is also largely interpreted as a political warning aimed at lawyers.
While authorities misuse counterterrorism legislation, they also continue to arbitrarily prosecute freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, and prevent the establishment of a healthy dialogue about religion. Activist Amira Bouraoui and satirist Walid Kechida have, for instance, been prosecuted for “undermining the precepts of Islam” (article 144bis 2 of the Penal Code). The public prosecution decided in April 2021 to sentence academic Saïd Djabelkhir to three years’ imprisonment on the basis of online publications pertaining to Islamic rituals and theology, after a university teacher pressed charges against him back in January 2020. This context is further aggravated by the removal of the reference to the inviolability of freedom of conscience in the 2020 constitution.
When it comes to the elimination of corruption, the “fight against corruption” launched in 2019 is discredited by the arbitrary prosecution of whistle-blowers like Noureddine Tounsi, sentenced to a year in prison in April in relation to his investigations of corruption in a state-owned company, as well as the arbitrary sanctioning of members of the judiciary. Indicative of this lack of independence, Judge Saad Eddine Merzouk, president of the Club of Free Magistrates (an unregistered union formed in 2016) and Deputy Prosecutor Mohamed Belhadi were subjected to a disciplinary sanction procedure in relation to their support of the Hirak and their defence of judicial independence. In parallel, the opaque trials of former regime figures – mostly perceived as politicised – have brought to light a vast network of corruption enabled by endemic collusion between the political, economic and military sectors, which cannot be addressed without safeguarding public freedoms and the independence of oversight and judicial institutions.
Aside from impeding the establishment of the rule of law, the regime is weakening and targeting groups that could play an invaluable role in reforming the country, including youth and social and political elites. In doing so, authorities may be losing their only credible partners for dialogue. The repression has precluded the Hirak from even considering cooperation with the regime. Combined with the impact of the pandemic and the weakening of civil society and political opposition due to the legacy of a closed political system and constricted civic space, repression has also prevented the Hirak from coordinating internally and building a structured movement, therefore stagnating the country in an unsustainable impasse.
For Algeria’s international partners whose objectives include supporting civil society groups – whether rights groups, youth or development organisations – this cooperation is also impeded by the closure of civic space and heavy restrictions on freedom of association. Even though freedom of association is enshrined in the constitution, the very restrictive legal framework of Law 12-06 on civil society organisations, compounded by the April 2020 amendments of the Penal Code, render it effectively impossible to form and sustain an independent civil society organisation in Algeria today. Countries wanting to support Algerian civil society without pressing for the government to respect public freedoms run the risk of allowing for the development of GONGOs and therefore crowding out legitimate voices.
Whether the Hirak is able to move beyond the current impasse or not, it has marked a historical turning point by forcibly reclaiming previously locked public space, embracing pluralism and unearthing a culture of political empowerment, in a country that was until recently seen as an exception within a region overtaken by a wave of uprisings. It came back after a pandemic and maintained non-violent mobilisation for at least 117 weeks. In this sense, the Hirak has been likened to a “new independence“, as reflected in the shifting slogans of the protests. After two years, the regime, while claiming an image of reform, remains sealed in unaccountable and opaque modes of governance and as of yet has been unable to either completely return to the pre-Hirak status quo or offer a credible way out of the crisis. This incapacity to respond to the reality of Algerian society should be one of the first indicators of its unsustainability and fragility.
Photo: Ammi Louiza / ABACA via Reuters Connect
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