Algiers uses external problems, such as its enmity with Morocco, to persecute dissidents
In February 2019, a historic wave of popular protests began in Algeria that forced the fall of former president Abdelaziz Buterflika after 20 years in power. The so-called Algerian Hirak aimed to prevent Buterflika's fifth term in office, but also sought more democracy and political reforms. This February, four years after the mass demonstrations began, Algerians remember the Hirak amid a wave of repression by the current government of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former minister and former prime minister under Buterflika's regime.
Tebboune, who won the 2019 elections with a low turnout and a strong boycott by Hirak, has retained features of the previous regime. The military authorities continue to play a key role and critical voices are silenced through censorship, pressure or intimidation. "The current 'illegal' government has not changed anything from the Buterflika regime. It is a fifth term without Buterflika, but with his political programme", an Algerian activist who prefers not to reveal his identity tells ATALAYAR.
This is echoed by Yasmine Hasnaoui, professor of Political Science and International Relations at the American International University of Kuwait, who stresses that the Algerian regime "has not changed its repressive nature and is doing everything possible to extinguish Hirak by repressive means". "When Tebboune came to power he described Hirak as a 'blessed movement' that 'saved Algeria', but we have witnessed his government intensify repression against it, targeting independent journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and political parties that oppose the regime," she tells ATALAYAR.
With Tebboune's arrival in El Mouradia, the protests did not end. Indeed, under the "new Algeria" announced by Tebboune, the Hirak continued to demand a democratic transition, reforms and an end to the army's influence in all areas. In this regard, Algerian sources point out that the current government has repositioned in key positions "people who were in the era of terrorism as military officers who have experience in repression".
The coronavirus pandemic was a turning point for the movement, which was unable to continue its protests due to health restrictions. In addition to not being able to take to the streets, the third phase of repression against Hirak by the Algerian authorities took place during the health crisis. As Louisa Dris-Aït Hamadouche, professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Algiers, writes for the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed), the first phase began after the then Chief of Staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, decided in one of his fortnightly speeches to criminalise the use of the Amazigh emblem. Through this decision, "taken without legal basis, unilaterally and directed against a widespread practice in the Hirak, hundreds of arrests were justified", she notes. The second wave of repression came after presidential elections were announced.
"The arrests targeted emblematic figures of the popular uprising such as Karim Tabbu, Fodhil Bumala, Abdelwahab Fersaui, Samir Belarbi and many others", says Dris-Aït Hamadouche, who considers that the modus operandi of these arrests had more characteristics of "kidnapping than of a proper detention". The aim of these arrests "was to spread terror among the militants, to deprive the popular uprising of potential leaders and to demobilise Hirak in preparation for the presidential elections of 12 December 2019," explains the Algerian professor.
During the pandemic, persecution continued against Hirak members or people linked to the movement, such as Radio M journalist and Reporters Without Borders correspondent Khaled Drareni - released on 19 February 2021; Abdelwahab Fersaui, president of the Youth Action Group association - released on 17 May; and Walid Kachida, founder of the "Hiramemes" Facebook page.
By the end of 2020, the year of the pandemic, human rights organisations reported that there were almost 100 prisoners of conscience in Algerian jails. "The situation worsened considerably when detainees and lawyers began to denounce the conditions of imprisonment of prisoners: from the deprivation of contact with the outside world, isolation and insufficient food, to the denial of care for serious illnesses and torture," adds Dris-Aït Hamadouche.
However, the heavy repression carried out during the pandemic did not prevent the Hirak from reorganising again. On 22 February 2021, Algerians from all parts of the country took to the streets again to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak. The demonstrators shouted slogans against the "military state" and the Tebboune government, an executive they saw as similar to Buterflika's. "These thousands of Algerians wanted to see the Hirak government re-organised. "These thousands of Algerians wanted to make it clear that the movement was not dead, and that the fight for a better Algeria was still going on", Ahmed Ghanem stresses in Orient XXI.
Algeria has recently experienced a series of events that highlight the serious human rights situation in the country today. Four years after the beginning of the Hirak, Algeria is going through a new wave of repression that affects, above all, independent journalists, activists and figures close to the Hirak.
The movement is currently experiencing intense oppression by the Algerian authorities. "It is getting worse every day: arrests, police and legal abuse against activists, social and labour discrimination... A catastrophe in every sense of the word," says Algerian activist.
The previous year ended with the arrest of journalist Ihsane el Kadi, while 2023 began with the dissolution of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) after 38 years of activity. Subsequently, Algeria was once again in the spotlight following the flight from the country of French-Algerian activist and journalist Amira Bouraoui - a case that has led to a wave of arrests in Algeria - highlighting the plight of activists.
For Laurence Thieux, researcher and professor of International Relations, this repression is not new, "it's just that it used to be more selective". "Algeria feels more courted at the international level because of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which means that there is less pressure on human rights issues because European governments are looking the other way", she explains to ATALAYAR.
With the silence of the international community, Algiers continues to arrest independent journalists, as is the case of El Kadi, in prison since the end of December 2022. The founder of Radio M and Maghreb Emergent has been accused of charges related to state security, illicit financing and dissemination of propaganda. However, the journalist's defence claims that El Kadi has been subjected to judicial harassment for more than two years because of his political views and his opinion on Hirak. For this reason, his arrest has been described as a "political settling of scores". Organisations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have urged Algiers to release El Kadi. RSF has also denounced this case to the United Nations, stressing that this situation "is further proof of the Algerian authorities' determination to trample on the rights of journalists".
The arrest of journalist Mustafa Bendjama, editor of the daily Le Provencial, has also recently come to light. Bendjama is being prosecuted for "criminal association in illegal immigration", reports InterLignes. The Algerian portal also reports that the journalist received a call from the police asking him for information "about Amira Bouraoui's departure from the national territory".
Bouraoui's case has led to a series of arrests of people close to the activist, now on French territory. Following her flight, the authorities arrested her sister, her cousin and her 74-year-old mother with a heart condition. They have also arrested geopolitics expert Raouf Farah, his father, the taxi driver who allegedly drove Bouraoui to Tunisia and a border police officer. Activist Sofiane Berkane was also placed under judicial surveillance, according to the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD).
El Kadi and Bendjama are just two examples of the brutal persecution of Algerian journalists and reflect the harsh conditions faced by the independent media. Last year, the daily Liberté was finally closed down in April "for financial reasons" after years of pressure. The employees of El Watan - a newspaper that has been closed several times - organised strikes to denounce the poor conditions they faced.
In the midst of this situation, the Algerian government has announced a new press law that it intends to pass soon with the aim, according to Algiers, of "helping journalists to achieve maximum professionalism". The truth is that this new law will put the Algerian free press even more on the ropes, as it will be subjected to more pressure and control by the regime.
"The new press law will open a new phase of restrictions on the independent press and could lead to new arrests and imprisonments," Manseri Ahmed, head of the Tiaret branch of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights and an independent trade unionist, told ATALAYAR.
The draft law has not been consulted with the National Council of Journalists. Something similar happened with the controversial new labour law, which has finally been postponed due to the numerous criticisms it received because the government did not take into account the opinion of the trade unions during its drafting.
Thieux, for his part, points out that this new law will affect the financing of the media, which will be accused of receiving foreign funds, something they have already done with Hirak. Within the Algerian press, the researcher highlights the situation of the French-speaking press, which, according to her, "is in full retreat".
According to the researcher, this new wave of repression is also a "symptom of internal weakness". On this point, Thieux recalls pockets of protests outside the Hirak, such as the events in Mila, a town affected by an earthquake in 2020 where many buildings have still not been rebuilt by the authorities, which has led to demonstrations that have ended with major police deployments and violence. "The government has no legitimacy, it is not convincing", he stresses.
The truth is that, in addition to the internal problems facing Algeria - such as the economic situation - Tebboune's government has to deal with a complicated situation outside its borders. Algeria's foreign policy has led the country into regional isolation. Among its external challenges is its enmity with Morocco, which Algeria uses to persecute the opposition.
To discredit critical voices, Algiers often refers to "external manipulation" or "external interference". In fact, the government accused LADDH members of being "Zionist and Moroccan agents", something the association strongly denies. Manseri Ahmed calls the accusations "false and unfounded", pointing out that Algeria is using the conflict with Morocco "for political ends". Thieux agrees, stressing that the regime is using external problems such as this confrontation to discredit dissidents.
"The 'foreign hand', 'attack on national sovereignty' and 'treason' cards have always been the leitmotifs of the regime to demonise its opponents," says Said Salhi, vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH). As it has done with the LADDH, the regime also tried to delegitimise Hirak, accusing the movement of harbouring "extremist and terrorist" organisations. "This is the accusation that has served as an alibi for banning peaceful marches from March 2021 to date," Salhi adds.
However, despite the serious situation in North Africa, there is hardly any criticism of the Tebboune regime from Europe, a continent that is trying to reduce its dependence on Russian gas by seeking new energy allies such as Algeria.
European countries are staying on the sidelines with an eye on gas agreements, although it is highly likely that Algeria will follow in Russia's footsteps and use gas as a political weapon. Moreover, despite the rapprochement that several European nations are pushing for with Algeria, Algiers remains a key ally of Russia in the region, even if the Algerian regime tries to appear to be distancing itself from Moscow.
"The EU should wake up and consider that it is key to its identity and influence to keep these principled positions based on democracy and human rights at the centre," Thieux reflects.
Manseri Ahmed, for his part, considers that Algeria "cannot be an economic partner in the future". For the LADDH member, the Maghreb country "is a circumstantial alternative to what the European continent is experiencing". Ahmed also alludes to the rapprochement between Algeria and France, warning that it could "have negative repercussions" on activists in French territory, as happened with Muhammad Abdullah and Muhammad bin Halima, who were handed over by Spain to Algeria. "There are many who think that Spain has been complicit in this repression by not protecting refugees and returning them to the Algerian regime".
The LADDH vice-president alludes to Algeria's energy potential, accusing the regime of "blackmailing" European countries. "Many nations prefer to turn a blind eye to repression out of fear," he says. However, Salhi warns that this "gas-for-silence deal" is a mistake. "International relations cannot be based solely on economic interests, Europe must defend its values," he says. Salhi also warns the countries of the Old Continent that they will be the first to suffer the consequences in the event of instability in Algeria.
Four years have passed since the Algerian people rose up against a dictatorial, military and repressive regime. Despite a change of president, the country continues to suffer the same problems as before. Currently, around twenty journalists are serving sentences or are still being prosecuted, around 260 prisoners of conscience are incarcerated, while thousands have been arrested since June 2019.
On the 4th anniversary of the Hirak, Algerians remember the peaceful movement that filled the country with hope for change. "Today, after four years, the attacks of power against all critical voices, repression, peaceful resistance, resilience and international solidarity continue, especially through our diaspora still active in several capitals of the world," comments Salhi, exiled in Belgium.