By: Sophia Akram
Some of the biggest protests seen by Algeria re-emerged throughout the country on 22 February 2021, despite COVID-19 restrictions in March 2020 putting a stop to the weekly demonstrations taking hold in the North African republic since the former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced a fifth term. The wave of resistance continued after the 84-year-old politician stepped down with demands for a significant departure from the status quo of power concentration among the ruling elite.
Elections were held in December 2019 but the victory of Abdelmadjid Tebboune was regarded as a continuation of the old guard, failing to attract support from the masses.
Tebboune has expressed willingness for a dialogue with the Hirak but the authorities’ clampdown on dissent leading to 2,500 arrests has further cemented distrust in the government. Around 350 have endured sentences of more than a week, according to Amnesty international, including Khaled Drerani, a journalist sentenced to two years in prison for his coverage of the protest and one of the more high-profile cases of the current crackdown and heightening of censorship during the pandemic.
At least 16 news sites were blocked for criticizing the government and the crisis was used to pass new laws imposing restrictions on the freedom of expression.
For instance, Article 290 was added to the Penal Code allowing a judge to hand down prison sentences of up to five years for violating an obligation of safety, which “endangers the safety of others” for calling on the resumption of protests or for criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Advocacy groups focused on the region have raised concerns over the impact legal reforms are having on rights.
“MENA Rights Group is particularly concerned over the last amendments to the Penal Code introduced by the Law 20-06 in April 2020”, said Alexis Thiry, a legal officer for the organisation, speaking to Fanack.
“The amendments sanctions the dissemination of false news and financing of any association which might undermine the state or the fundamental interests of Algeria”, he said, “In addition, we are also concerned by the passing of Decree No. 20-332 governing the electronic press, which came into force on 22 November 2020. The text has been criticized by CSOs [civil society organisations] for strengthening ‘the control of political power over freedom of expression online'”.
Amnesty International examined 73 cases involving the arrest and prosecution of Hirak members and journalists and, as well as arbitrary arrest, found three cases of torture and ill-treatment.
The human rights group also raised concern around more sustained repercussions of detention, such as job losses and loss of livelihood and the continuation of measures to crush dissent offline in the streets to online curbs, imprisoning people for critical social media posts, for example.
“These are the actions of a government intent on censuring its people for peaceful protest and expressing critical views on social media. Such repressive tactics have no place in a rights-respecting society”, said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Many of those pardoned by President Tebboune in recent days were peaceful activists who were exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and should never have been detained in the first place”, continued Guellali, referring to the so-called amnesty of around 55-60 Hirak members, announced as an attempt to appease the Hirak and prevent renewed protest in the country.
However, Me Nassima Rezazgui, acting as the defence lawyer for Drareni and other Hirak activists, told Fanack that there had been no amnesty and their prosecutions are ongoing, citing 25 March for Drareni’s cassation trial.
A limited cabinet reshuffle was also announced prior to the second-anniversary protests.
“President Tebboune took ostensibly more substantial decisions… in two days than he did in a whole year”, said Jihane Boudiaf, an analyst with IHS Markit.
“These measures he’s been taking seem to be appeasement measures and I think the timing of it is very important. I don’t think that making this important announcement just a couple of days before the second anniversary of the Hirak is a coincidence at all”, she continued, speaking to France News 24.
“We have been hearing that the Hirak has been inactive for a whole year and I don’t think this is necessarily the case, I would rather use the word dormant and this is mainly because they have been unable to gather large crowds because of the government-imposed restrictions because of the COVID-19 measures. I think that the movement remains very much alive and is still capable of pressuring the authorities and the decisions made by Tebboune really show this, they indicate this”.
The crackdown on dissent continued on 22 February 2021 with 59 more arrests, 26 taking place in the capital Algiers. Peaceful protests took place in several cities, including Annaba, Oran, Setif, and Mostaganem. The second bout of protests then took place on 26 February 2021 and on Monday 1 March 2021, Turkish media reported riots in the southern town of Ouargla in response to the jailing of blogger Ameur Guerrache.
“We are not here to celebrate, but to demand your departure”, protesters were reportedly heard shouting on the second anniversary.
Tebboune also promised another election.
“The reshuffle doesn’t interest me, it’s the same old people,” said Zaki Hannache, a 33-year-old activist.
“The same thing with parliament, the new ones (deputies) will work, as the current regime, for their own interests, not for the people”, he said.
Amid the few changes that have taken place, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad notably remains in place despite plans for his dismissal, viewed as having done little to improve the lives of Algerians. Tebboune also appointed an advisor of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s to a ministerial role during the reshuffle, a move seen as anathema to appeasing public discontent.
Despite persistent levels of disenfranchisement, the government has been conscious not to exacerbate upset by maintaining high levels of social spending to prevent the worsening of grievances but amid depleting oil prices and a crisis that has prevailed from several years of economic woes, such an approach could eventually become untenable, says Boudiaf, calling Tebboune’s announcements “plastering measures”.
“There is still a lack of a longer-term strategy that Algeria really needs to be able to stand on its feet… both politically but also economically”, she said.
“So, at some point, the government will have to take some difficult decisions to address its fiscal deficit or current account deficit”.