Algeria's Hirak movement returns in force ahead of elections
The clampdown and arrests of demonstrators and civil society activists taking part in the Hirak, Algeria's pro-democracy movement, are on the rise again in the weeks before the 12 June parliamentary elections.
The arrests mark the end of a three-month appeasement period that started with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune's order to release 59 political detainees, and after a yearlong pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But what is new about this recent flare-up? While authorities have long repressed the protests and targeted prominent organisers, they have for the first time brought terrorism-related charges against Hirak activists in an attempt to sow fear and undermine the movement.
"It represents a worrying new trend of Algerian authorities using terrorism-related legislation to repress the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression ahead of the elections in June," Amnesty International said on 17 May.
"Demonstrators feel the regime has utterly failed to address their legitimate demands"
Meanwhile, those detained by authorities in recent protests, Algerians from all walks of life, have accused state security forces of torture and even sexual abuse.
According to human rights groups, the Hirak, as the leaderless mass movement is known, persists because political grievances have not yet been tackled. In fact, most demonstrators feel the regime has utterly failed to address their legitimate demands.
Immediately after his election in December 2019, President Tebboune announced that he was "open to a dialogue" with the Hirak and openly declared that his government would "consolidate democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights."
However, the regime has continued to crack down on the opposition, indicting dozens of peaceful protesters.
The watershed moment was a clampdown on 26 March, resulting in hundreds of arrests throughout the country.
According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD), an Algiers-based watchdog group, as of February 2021, no less than 2,500 demonstrators, reporters, and democracy advocates had been arrested for non-violent involvement with the Hirak.
The Algerian League for Human Rights said this week that more than 800 people were detained across the country in just one day on 21 May.
While the majority have been released, the journalist-run website Algerian Detainees says at least 133 are still in detention.
So far, Algerian authorities have also used repressive laws to indict demonstrators under charges such as "harming national unity," "incitement to unarmed gatherings," or "insulting the President."
Adding fuel to the fire, the regime alleged that the Hirak is being infiltrated by "Islamist activists" and "ethnic separatists," with references made to the Switzerland-based Rachad Movement, and the banned Algerian Berber Separatist Movement, known by its French acronym MAK.
By the same token, an interior ministry statement has banned demonstrations from taking place without prior approval from local authorities. It is widely known, however, that such approval will not be granted.
This state of affairs has led Amnesty International to call for a radical political change and the release of the Hirak activists currently in detention in Algeria.
To add to the crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected the country's socio-economic situation, which will ultimately only trigger more socio-political instability.
"The upcoming 12 June legislative elections are another manoeuvre to firm up the regime's democratic façade"
Demonstrators continue to reject the regime's economic and political reforms, demanding a far-reaching overhaul of the system which has prevailed since the country's independence from French colonial rule in 1962. Moreover, protesters have called for the military to exit politics.
Although former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to step down in April 2019, the military top brass, oligarchs, and socio-political class - the substratum of his regime - remains in control.
President Tebboune himself is not a new face. He was a major player in Bouteflika's circle of loyalists and served as prime minister. Furthermore, Tebboune's government is predominantly composed of ministers who served in Bouteflika's various cabinets.
This historical continuity is reflected in the chants of protesters in major Algerian cities: "Robbers, you have ruined the country!"
In general, the public has been protesting in major cities on Fridays, and students have been taking to the streets on Tuesdays. However, last week, education sector employees also launched a general three-day strike, and firefighters staged walkouts.
The tens of thousands of people who have been turning up to marches across the country have made it crystal clear that they reject the authorities' cosmetic changes.
After announcing the dissolution of the lower house of parliament in February, the government decided to have an early parliamentary election which will be followed by local elections for mayors and city councillors.
The demonstrators are aware that these upcoming 12 June legislative elections are another manoeuvre to firm up the regime's democratic façade.
The regime is dragging its feet and seems reluctant to bring about a genuine democratisation process. The halls of government are curtailing civil liberties – such as the freedom of the press, the right of assembly, and freedom of expression – and suppressing opposition leaders.
On the streets, Algerians are determined to continue their non-violent protests.
"Although former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to step down in April 2019, the military top brass, oligarchs, and socio-political class - the substratum of his regime - remain in control"
The ultimate objective of activists is to see this high-handed system, which relies heavily on the armed forces and the intelligence services, undertake genuine and fundamental political changes.
The country is in turmoil because there are well-established political actors and business interest groups which are against any genuine democratic political consensus.
For many observers, these are ominous signs that may herald darker days to come for Algeria - but only unrelenting and unremitting pressure from the Hirak will help achieve a new republic.
Dr. Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian academic and a freelance journalist based in the US.
He holds a PhD from the University of Exeter, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. His research interests are primarily politics in the MENA region, democratisation, Islam/Islamism, and political violence with a special focus on the Maghreb.
Follow him on twitter @Abdel_Cheref