Algeria: increasing repression belies promise of reform
Algeria’s government is pursuing a strident campaign of arrests of activists that belies the reformist posturing of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Tebboune came to power in 2019 following a great wave of protests under the banner of Hirak, a movement that demands fundamental political change. But Tebboune, after paying initial lip service to the movement, is proving that the political and military elite never let go of power when they dispensed with the old president. Algeria has a reputation for stability compared to its neighbouring North African states and maintains a low international profile. International partners should lift the lid on the growing repression that enables continued elite rule.
Imagine spending three years in jail for doing a TV interview. That’s what happened to Faleh Hammoudi, sentenced on 20 February under an accelerated procedure used for people caught in the act of committing a crime. He was jailed just days after drawing attention to the government’s human rights violations. In doing so, he supposedly committed the serious crimes of ‘spreading fake news’ and ‘offending public bodies’.
Hammoudi’s real offence was likely his role in the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH); he leads its local chapter in the western city of Tlemcen. LADDH is one of several organisations in the sights of Algeria’s repressive government: at least eight other LADDH members currently face prosecution, some on terrorism charges.
Hammoudi’s experience is sadly not rare. Overall in Algeria, according to LADDH and the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, at least 290 people are currently detained for the crime of expressing dissent.
LADDH is far from alone in the firing line. Last October, Youth Action Rally, a group that played a major role in democracy protests, was shut down by the courts. At least 11 of its members have been prosecuted since 2019. SOS Culture Bab El Oued, a youth and culture organisation, has also seen its offices shut down and its president sentenced to a year in jail.
Opposition political parties are being targeted too. In February the government ordered the suspension of the Socialist Workers’ Party, forcing it to close its offices and stop all activity – on the penalty of dissolution if it fails to comply. At least two other parties have been threatened with similar treatment.
In January, another party, the Democratic and Social Movement, saw its leader, Fethi Garres, receive a two-year jail sentence. At least 60 members of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, a major opposition party, have been prosecuted.
A common thread links these civil society groups, political parties and activists: they have all taken a stand against repression and human rights violations. Time after time, those detained are associated with Hirak, a pro-democracy protest movement.
Hirak’s blocked revolution
Hopes were high when Hirak (‘movement’ in Arabic) sprang to life in 2019 to resist then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attempt to secure a fifth term in office. Weekly Hirak demonstrations quickly grew into the biggest protests since Algeria achieved independence in 1962, mobilising an estimated three million people at their peak. Protest pressure told, making it untenable for Bouteflika to stay in power. But the ruling elite resisted demands for more fundamental change.
For a long time Bouteflika, an ailing and ageing figurehead rarely seen in public, was useful to the political class and the military, who hold the real power in Algeria. When he was the immediate target of anger he was quickly dispensed with and replaced with another figure from the same small circle. When the presidential election was held in December 2019, amid protests met with security force violence and arrests, people were given a choice of five candidates, all firmly embedded in the political establishment.
The winner was current President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister under Bouteflika. His actions since have abundantly proved that he was no break from the past.
November 2020 saw a referendum to endorse constitutional changes, following a top-down drafting process led by a commission chosen by Tebboune. The constitution left the president in charge of all key institutions, with the power to veto laws and appoint judges, confirmed the military’s continuing central role and offered only weak human rights commitments – providing little defence against the rights restrictions the government has introduced since.
These changes satisfied none of Hirak’s demands. Campaigners called for a boycott, as many had over the presidential election, and widespread dissatisfaction was demonstrated by a very low turnout of around 23 per cent and the fact that more than 10 per cent of ballots cast were blank or otherwise invalid.
Up until this point, Tebboune still paid lip service to the importance of the Hirak movement; after all, he’d profited from it. Protests were still being met with violence and people were still being arrested, but periodically there came rounds of presidential pardons and releases of detainees. But the mask finally slipped when Tebboune called early legislative elections for June 2021.
His announcement of this in March 2021, along with an easing of COVID-19 restrictions, triggered a resurgence of Hirak, which during the worst months of the pandemic had moved away from the streets, its members reorganising to help provide essential medical and food supplies.
Protesters saw the legislative elections for what they were: a further grasp at legitimacy by the elite in which fundamental change would be kept off the ballot. Hirak showed in its renewal of protest that people could not be bought off with platitudes or superficial reforms. The boycott call was heard once more with the lowest-ever turnout for such an election, standing again at only 23 per cent.
Since Hirak’s return to the streets, the gloves have been off. It’s clear that Tebboune now sees the democracy movement as a threat to the pretence that Algeria has undergone democratic reforms and is trying to shut it down by any means. Protests have been met with violence and become increasingly hard to hold, due to a heavy and intimidating security force presence and growing numbers of arrests.
Rather than addressing the problems that civil society denounces, the authorities are attacking those advocating for change, because they view change as a threat and a limitation to their power.
Increasingly those arrested are being accused of terrorism, enabled by a June 2021 presidential decree that extends the penal code’s definition of terrorism to include acts that aim to change the political regime through ‘non-constitutional means’ – a catch-all expression enabling the government to label protest demands as terrorism. This regressive change added to an already extensive battery of laws that criminalise dissent, on the streets and online.
Voices from the frontline
Rachid Aouine is Director of SHOAA for Human Rights, an independent civil society organisation aimed at supporting and protecting human rights in Algeria.
As a result of the escalation of repressive practices by the Algerian authorities, human rights are in a critical state. Arbitrary arrests have increased, targeting journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and political activists associated with political parties linked to Hirak for their exercise of the rights to the freedoms of association, expression, belief and peaceful assembly. In recent months they have been criminalised in an unprecedented way.
Since early 2021, prosecutions on bogus terrorism charges have proliferated alarmingly. For those convicted of these charges, the Penal Code dictates sentences ranging from one year in jail to lifelong imprisonment and the death penalty.
Of course, those arrested and prosecuted have seen their due process and fair trial guarantees systematically violated.
Rather than addressing the problems that civil society denounces, the authorities are attacking those advocating for change, because they view change as a threat and a limitation to their power. To cover up the ongoing human rights violations, they are using systematic repression, specifically targeting human rights defenders and the exercise of the freedom of expression.
In June 2021, the Penal Code was amended by presidential decree, leading to the expansion of an already too broad definition of terrorism. People are now being accused of crimes such as ‘offending public bodies’, ‘spreading false information’, ‘membership of a terrorist group’, ‘apology for terrorism’, and ‘conspiracy against state security’. A Facebook post may lead to charges such as ‘using information technologies to spread terrorist ideas’ and ‘disseminating information that could harm the national interest’. Even a simple remittance is listed as an act of treason.
The authorities are also accusing pro-Hirak civil society organisations of allegedly holding activities contrary to the objectives listed in the Law on Associations and in their own by-laws. Political activists and leaders of parties linked to Hirak are also punished for ‘crimes’ such as ‘calling for a gathering’, and parties are accused of not complying with the Law on Political Parties by organising ‘activities outside the objectives stipulated in its by-laws’. This happened, for example, after several activists gathered to discuss the establishment of a united front against repression.
Civil society must be preserved while there is still something left. Civil society plays a major role in any movement for change. If nothing is done about it, the authorities will continue repressing independent civil society and the human rights situation will worsen. If nothing is done, the goal of democracy and respect for human rights will float further and further away, until it’s completely out of reach.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Rachid. Read the full interview here.
Repression the price of stability
Algeria is Africa’s biggest country, but its movement for democracy, and the repression of it, rarely make international headlines. Neighbouring North African states such as Libya and Tunisia command far more attention.
That’s long been the plan. Algeria cultivates its allies carefully. In the cold war era, it managed to maintain good relations with both sides, while also positioning itself as a friend of independence and decolonialisation movements across Africa and further afield. It was pivotal in the formation of the G77, the bloc of global south states that work together in the United Nations. Algeria’s only serious recent dispute, a 2021 disagreement over gas supplies, has been with Morocco.
However, the country experienced a brutal civil war in the 1990s, in which the military ultimately prevailed against a jihadist uprising. These experiences partly explain the military’s continuing supremacy, the persistent potency of allegations of terrorism and the value assigned to government stability. As a result, not just the broad pro-democracy movement but also groups that campaign for minority rights, including for greater self-governance rights for the traditionally marginalised Amazigh population, are branded as terrorists and suppressed accordingly.
Since it put the conflict behind it, the government projects itself internationally as a safe and stable partner. To partner states, the military’s central role sends a reassuring signal. By branding dissenters as terrorists, the government looks like it is taking strong action on terrorism.
Another key asset in the government’s hands is mineral wealth. Algeria is a major oil and gas producer, and much of this precious export crosses the Mediterranean to countries such as France, Italy and Spain. At a time when European countries have suddenly woken up to the need to end their addiction to Russia’s fossil fuels, Algeria’s elite can be assured of little interference as long as the supply keeps flowing.
Algeria’s story mirrors that of many other fossil-fuel rich countries (see our article on Turkmenistan): resources are in the hands of the elite while everyone else lead lives of economic strife. Hirak was born not only from demands for democracy but also out of anger at a self-centred political establishment living off the profits of natural resources but doing nothing about economic hardship and scourges such as endemic youth unemployment.
Tebboune, the beneficiary of Algeria’s arrested revolution, has done nothing to change that. The economy doesn’t work for everyone any more than it ever did, and when push came to shove, he fell back on time-honoured repressive tactics. He intensified rights restrictions when the mass protests that created enough disruption for him to win power threatened to come back and contest that power.
The government has offered nothing resembling democratic reform. It can claim to have delivered stability – but it’s the stability of elite power and wealth, and it’s only made possible by the restriction of everyone else’s rights. It’s easy to see why so many Algerians keep insisting they deserve much better.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government should commit to dialogue with democracy activists and refrain from conflating dissent with terrorism.
Algeria’s international partners should encourage the government to release those in detention for expressing dissent.
International civil society must draw attention to rights violations in Algeria and not allow its government to fly under the radar of international scrutiny.
Cover photo by Enes Canli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images