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The New Arab Staff & Agencies

Algeria's president appeases protesters with pardons, calls early polls

Algeria is facing political and economic crises [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 February, 2021

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Algeria's president pardoned jailed anti-government activists and announced early elections.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared pardons for jailed anti-government activists and called early elections Thursday, as the crisis-hit country grapples with renewed protests on the second anniversary of a popular uprising.

The North African nation is facing political and economic crises, with the coronavirus pandemic adding to the woes of an oil-dependent economy.

In an address to the nation, Tebboune called for the dissolution of parliament and said he will also carry out a government reshuffle.

"I have decided to dissolved the National Popular Assembly and call for elections," Tebboune said, in a speech broadcast on state television.

He pardoned dozens of jailed activists of the "Hirak" protest movement and appealed to young people, many feeling disenfranchised and struggling amid high rates of unemployment.

Tebboune said he wanted to "open the doors of parliament to young people", adding that youths "must have political weight".

Algeria, Africa's fourth-largest economy, saw oil revenues collapse in 2020, with the International Monetary Fund predicting a 5.2 percent recession.

Legislative elections had been scheduled to be held in 2022, but Tebboune wants early polls to take place before year's end, potentially as early as June, and by September at the latest.

The vote would be held on the basis of a new electoral law that is yet to be adopted, which would impose strict financing regulations to stop funding from abroad.

Tebboune, who has previously expressed dissatisfaction with the cabinet of Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad, said the government reshuffle would take place "within 48 hours at most".

He said the reshuffle would "concern sectors which have shown shortcomings that are being felt by the people and us", without elaborating.

Hirak members pardoned

Tebboune said dozens of jailed members of the Hirak - which swept former strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019 - would be granted a "presidential pardon".

"The blessed Hirak has saved Algeria," he said.

Around 55 to 60 Hirak members would benefit from the amnesty, he said, with their release due to start immediately.

Around 70 people are currently in prison over their links with the Hirak movement or other peaceful opposition political activity, according to the CNLD prisoners' support group.

Of those to be pardoned, 30 have been convicted on various charges, while the others are awaiting trial, some for posting anti-government posts online.

The presidency said the pardon would cover "perpetrators of crimes related to information and communication technologies".

The Hirak movement, which demanded a sweeping overhaul of the ruling system in place since Algeria's independence from France in 1962, only suspended rallies in March last year amid Covid-19 restrictions.

But recent weeks have seen renewed demonstrations in the build-up to the February 22 anniversary of the first nation-wide protests.

Calls to demonstrate on Monday across Algeria are circulating on social networks.

On Tuesday, thousands of Algerian rallied in the northern town of Kherrata, where the first major protest erupted in 2019 against Bouteflika's bid for a fifth presidential term.

Among them was Karim Tabbou, a prominent Hirak figure who was given a one-year suspended sentence in December for "undermining national security".

Tabbou told the crowd that "the last bell has tolled for this corrupt system," and expressed "hope to build a new Algeria: human rights, freedoms and the rule of law". 

Tebboune's speech to the nation had been highly anticipated, and coincided with a national day paying tribute to the "martyrs" of the 1954-1962 war of independence against French colonial rule.

He was elected on record low turnout in a December 2019 poll boycotted by the Hirak, spent a total of three months in Germany since October, receiving treatment for Covid-19.

But he returned home last Friday after undergoing surgery to his foot, following post-Covid complications.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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