In January, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who became president through a controversial and widely boycotted election, took the helm of Algeria’s authoritarian government promising democratic reforms. Instead, the regime is taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to roll back freedoms won by the opposition through a year of mass protests.
Today, there are no street protests to repress. On March 20, the popular movement Hirak, which had organized peaceful demonstrations for democracy and economic justice for 56 consecutive Fridays, halted its marches to protect public health. A few days earlier, the government had suspended international air and maritime services and, on March 24, imposed a partial curfew.
No sooner had the Minister of Communications praised Hirak’s decision as “intelligent and generous” than the regime launched a wave of repression targeting dissenting speech. Security forces arrested dozens of Hirak activists and others for social media posts criticizing the government’s pandemic response, on charges of “spreading fake news” and “threatening national unity.” Those rounded up include a hospital official who uploaded a video denouncing the shortage of medical supplies and an activist who created a Facebook group with satirical memes mocking government policies. Prominent pro-Hirak journalist Khaled Drareni was put in pretrial detention on a spurious charge of “incitement to unarmed gathering.”
The authorities also blocked three independent media sites—Maghreb Emergent, RadioM, and Interlignes—known for their coverage of Hirak and the regime’s handling of the pandemic.
Then, on April 22, the rubber-stamp parliament rammed through changes to the Penal Code that restrict speech under the guise of “protecting public order and national unity.” The amendments allow up to three years’ imprisonment for publishing “fake news” and up to seven years for receiving foreign funding “deemed to threaten state security and territorial integrity.”
Tebboune and the security agencies are exploiting the public health emergency to “clean” the political scene. With the pressure of large protests removed (for now), the authorities appear emboldened to weaken Hirak’s ability to fill the streets once the pandemic subsides. The government indeed has reason to worry that Hirak will be able to tap into a deep well of public discontent. Algeria’s energy-export-dependent economy, struggling before the pandemic, is being hit very hard by the oil price collapse. As Bloomberg noted, with Brent crude now trading below $30/barrel, Algeria is hopelessly far from the $157/barrel price needed to balance its budget. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that in 2020, Algeria’s economy will contract by 5.2 percent, its budget deficit will double to 20 percent, and foreign reserves may plunge by 90 percent from 2017 levels.
The pandemic’s ultimate impact on Algeria’s political landscape remains uncertain. While the regime is using this moment to silence dissenting voices, that approach could backfire. Hirak proved resilient in the face of earlier crackdowns and may survive this wave of repression. Once the worst of the crisis subsides, public discontent over repression, poor governance, and economic hardship may reinvigorate Hirak and its demand for genuine change.
Zine Labidine Ghebouli is an Algerian activist and blogger. He contributed to POMED’s December 2019 publication “Is a Democratic Transition Possible in Algeria? Fourteen Experts Respond.” He is on Twitter @GheZinou.