"My friends in Algeria are in prison," denounced Algerian activist Saïd Salhi from Brussels. The message from the vice-president of the League for the Defence of Human Rights, dissolved by the regime because of its status as an opposition body, was unequivocal: "Repression has hardened significantly since 2019". His words, delivered at a session of the Human Rights subcommittee of the European Union's Foreign Affairs Committee, were evidence of the systematic campaign of harassment against the opposition launched by Abdelmadjid Tebboune's government.
The arrest in December of independent journalist Ihsane El-Kadi set off alarm bells among human rights and press freedom organisations. And the case of renowned political activist Amira Bouraoui, who was forced to illegally cross the border into Tunisia to avoid imprisonment in Algeria, aggravated the symptoms of the internal crusade against critical voices. Bouraoui found exile in France, but most have not been so lucky. Some 300 people remain in prison for political reasons.
The campaign coincides with an unprecedented rapprochement between Algeria and the EU, motivated by the EU's energy needs. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell travelled to Algiers last week to launch this 'renewed partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood'. In his conversation with Tebboune, the head of European diplomacy prioritised the issue of gas and oil exports and the control of migratory flows. The issue of arrests of journalists and prominent civil society figures was put on the back burner.
But the Human Rights sub-committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee devoted some time on Tuesday morning to discuss the repressive drift of the Algerian regime. Bernard Guetta, the French MEP for Renaissance, the party of French President Emmanuel Macron, moderated a session in which Saïd Salhi, the analyst of the Institute for Security Studies of the European Union (IESUE), Dalia Ghanem, and the president of the Algerian National Council for Human Rights (CNDH), Abdelmadjid Zaalani, took part.
Guetta, brother of popular DJ and music producer David Guetta, warned at the outset of the precarious state of press freedom in Algeria: "It is still strictly controlled, and increasingly so". Slovenian Social Democrat Matjaž Nemec, recently appointed head of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with the Maghreb, called on Algeria to respect the rule of law and human rights, which he said needed to be improved. "The European Union and the European Parliament can help them to do this," he said.
"To understand what is happening in Algeria it is important to understand the nature of the Algerian system," said Ghanem. "Algeria is a hybrid regime in which democratic elements are mixed with authoritarian elements". She described Algeria as a competitive authoritarianism, which gives the opposition some capacity for political contestation in electoral, legislative or judicial matters, but does not allow it access to power. "As a result, when civil society crosses the red line, it is repressed, ignored or attacked. This means that the associative system is very limited", she explained.
This system, however, is not predetermined. "We can either see more openness or more repression," Ghanem said in her speech. In the context of the Hirak (Movement), the mass protests that erupted in 2019 against former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the current president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, seemed to be interested in the first approach. "He wanted to engage in dialogue," the analyst acknowledges. "Since then, 76 people have been released. But there are more than 300 who are still in prison because of their political views".
The regime uses any tool in its favour to restrict civil society organisations. "In 2011, Algeria was one of the countries in the region with the highest number of associations. But what power do they have?" the analyst asked ironically. In that period, the government allowed some pluralism, but gradually limited democracy. "They have tried to silence opposition voices," she explained. "And the pandemic was used as an excuse".
Ghanem explained of the repression that "Algeria is no longer what it was in the 1990s. The methodology is much more subtle, more sophisticated". Moreover, the regime had already softened the action of the security forces during the Arab Spring. So, when mass protests broke out in Algeria eight years later, the police allowed marches. Although, as Ghanem explained, the state "did not respond in one way to the protests. First, it tolerated it. Then some concessions were made. But then it gave way to repression. The regime has combined all these tactics, without using extreme violence". What remains of Hirak today? Ghanem asked not to underestimate the citizens. "Anything can happen at any moment".
Salhi, an involuntary refugee in Europe due to the unbreathable climate in Algeria six days before the dissolution of the League for the Defence of Human Rights - labelled a "Zionist organisation" in a court ruling - insisted that repression "has hardened since 2019" as the Hirak remitted, among other issues, due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. "There has been a closure of civic space and a reduction of public freedoms," the activist explained, "and anyone who disagrees has been branded a terrorist".
Salhi reviewed all the amendments to the legal code adopted by the regime to silence dissent, which he defined as "a policy of revenge against all civil society organisations: trade unions, lawyers, journalists, etc.". "The Hirak is being fought and criminalised by the government, which is doing everything it can to make it forget". "Borrell announced that the EU wanted to deepen the energy and security partnership. But there must be red lines. The EU has to remind the Algerian authorities that it must respect political rights and freedoms," he said.
The president of the Algerian National Council for Human Rights, a body attached to the regime, closed the panel. Wearing sunglasses, Abdelmadjid Zaalani described the virtues of the "new Algeria" and made a passionate defence of institutions. "Great changes have taken place since the Hirak. We are working in a new spirit, with new tools," he said, referring to the new constitution, which came into force on 1 November 2020. "It's a big reform, but it may not be enough," he admitted.
"We are moving confidently, with firm steps, towards the new Algeria. Yes, there are mistakes. But no country can claim to guarantee 100% human rights. Algeria is not yet a stable democracy like England or America, we still have 200 or 300 years to go...". He then qualified his words in the round of questions.
"In 2022 we have a whole series of draft laws, on trade unions, freedom of the press, the fight against drugs... in the case of trade unions, the state gives them freedom by organising the pre-existing anarchy, which did not serve to defend workers' rights," Zaalani explained. "The draft law on the press is now being debated". Under this heading, the president of the National Human Rights Council defended restrictions on freedom of expression by citing national security concerns.