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As the Algerian military remains committed to presidential elections scheduled for 12 December 2019, protests and opposition movements throughout the capital Algiers are facing an increased security presence and, in some cases, the heavy hand of the law.
Angered by years of political corruption and mismanagement that created a large budget deficit and high unemployment, Algerians have been protesting since February 2019, initially demanding the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in power, which he conceded on 2 April.
While an anti-corruption drive has ensued, the army, which for many years has been the most powerful political player, has backed election plans for December.
Protestors oppose the elections, saying they cannot be free or fair as long as so many of Bouteflika’s establishment remain in power.
Some reports suggest the numbers attending the rallies have declined, from hundreds of thousands in the spring to tens of thousands now. However, analysts note that the pressure is still there, with many protests taking place outside what used to be a weekly Friday event.
Previously tolerated, the protests are increasingly closely monitored, with authorities deploying a bigger police presence in the streets and being particularly vigilant around assemblies held outside of Friday.
This containment strategy has been accompanied by the detention of senior officials and prominent opposition figures such as Karim Tabbou. The founder of the Democratic and Social Union party was arrested for a second time less that 24 hours after he was indicted for ‘undermining the morale of the army’ on 12 September.
Other high-profile arrests took place in June when Lakhdar Bouregaa, a 90-year-old veteran of the war of independence against France was arrested at his home after he said at a public meeting that the army is a collection of “militias”. He may also be sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘weakening the morale of the army’.
On 19 August, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Ahmed Benchemsi, who was observing demonstrations, was detained and eventually deported, while on 27 August the local authorities around the port city of Bejaia banned meetings by the Rassemblement Action Jeunesse (RAJ), a pro-democracy group that organizes protests, without explanation. Twenty activists planning to attend an RAJ meeting were arrested on 5 September and released three hours later, preventing the meeting from taking place.
The long arm of Algeria’s security surveillance has reached as far as Egypt, where on 23 June Egyptian police arrested 40-year-old Mouaffak Serdouk outside a stadium in Cairo where Algeria’s football team was playing in the African Cup of Nations. Serdouk was carrying a sign displaying the phrase ‘They must all leave’, a popular slogan of Algeria’s current anti-government movement.
Detained for two days and then expelled from Egypt, Serdouk was reportedly arrested by Algerian police on arrival in Algiers. He was sentenced to one year in prison for ‘publicly displaying a paper that can harm the national interest’, under article 96 of the penal code, a sentence he is appealing.
Algeria’s Amazigh population, which has played a central role in the protests, have also been subject to mass arrests, usually for waving the Berber flag. HRW has documented 40 protesters being taken into custody for ‘harming the integrity of the national territory’, a charge that carries a sentence of up to ten years.
The country’s media landscape has always been challenging, and the current protests have seen restrictions similar to those imposed under Bouteflika. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) said reporting has been censored since protests began highlighting the case of freelance correspondent Sofiane Merakchi, who was covering the protests and was arrested on 22 September for working without a licence and evading customs authorities while importing broadcasting equipment. If found guilty, he could face two to seven years in prison.
“Sofiane Merakchi’s arrest and the charges against him show that Algerian authorities will stop at nothing to keep a lid on coverage of events taking place in the country,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour.
Other journalists have been suspended for their coverage of the protests while foreign correspondents have been expelled. Tout Sur l’Algérie (TSA), an independent news site that has extensively covered the protests, has been more or less inaccessible since June unless viewed with a virtual private network connection.
TSA Director Hamid Guemache called it “an arbitrary block ordered by the authorities”, saying, “We tried to contact the government to get explanations, but they refused to answer our questions. This blockage is a serious threat to our survival as an independent website.”
In addition, network data from the NetBlocks internet observatory showed that internet access had been restricted in regions of Algeria as of 14 September, impacting the demonstrations. YouTube was also blocked in August by state-run Algeria Telecom and other internet providers, according to the organization.
In late September, Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, performed a short informal social media exercise analysing around 20,000 tweets from 5,769 accounts, apparently finding clear evidence of a ‘disinformation campaign’.
He noted that support for two hashtags #ماتهدرش_باسمي (‘not in my name’) – criticizing those boycotting elections – and #الجزائر_تنتخب (‘Algeria votes/is voting’), were inflated by suspicious accounts, estimating ‘8% of those tweeting for Algerians to go to the elections are probably bots and/or trolls’.
“The battle now is to see whether the government can convince people to participate in those elections,” said Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor, an American-based geopolitical intelligence platform. “If you don’t have enough people show up at the polls, if you have municipal mayors and governors, and if you have local leaders that are not participating in the logistics of the elections, then that’s going to be really detrimental to the interim government’s efforts to hold these elections on time.”
She added that tactics are likely shifting from opposition to a boycott of the elections.
Potential candidates in December’s vote include Ali Benflis and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, former prime ministers under Bouteflika.
Hawthorne said it is becoming clearer the military want to expedite the electoral process for the country’s stability. However, there is little consensus among stakeholders on who the presidential candidates should be, and traditional low voter turnout could converge with a boycott to undermine the results. Even so, a vote would be the ultimate indicator of public sentiment.
Bouteflika’s ouster may have failed to produce a silver bullet for Algerian democracy, but a forceful response from the authorities means protest movements may not succeed in compelling a complete break from the old guard.
Meanwhile, the lack of presidential candidates or viable alternatives to the status quo is creating the same conditions that almost saw Bouteflika run for a fifth term.