SIM Report: north africa, issue 7

Algeria is preparing for early legislative elections to be held on 12 June. The polls were called for by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in March after he dissolved the National People's Assembly (lower house of parliament) in February, a move aimed at appeasing anti-government protesters linked to the Hirak movement. Despite pledges that the poll will be free of corruption and will ‘open the doors of parliament to young people’, the election is proving to be a contentious issue around which protests and boycotts have emerged.

Hirak protests first broke out in February 2019 to denounce then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term in office. Bouteflika stepped down in April 2019 in response to the mass unrest, but the movement continued to stage regular rallies demanding a sweeping overhaul of the ruling system. A brief hiatus in unrest was recorded during the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020; however, since the second anniversary of the movement on 22 February this year, Hirak activists have resumed weekly Friday protests. The group has called for a boycott of the elections, viewing them as party to an illegitimate system and a charade as long as the military and its allies holds the ultimate power.

Algerian authorities have responded to the protesters with a mixture of tolerance and crackdowns. Following Bouteflika’s resignation and the military establishment’s change to a pro-democracy stance, the government in mid-2019 began jailing prominent Hirak figures, a trend that increased amid preparation for the December 2019 presidential elections which saw Tebboune’s victory in a record-low turnout. The government also made statements earlier this year regarding the ‘cohesion between the people and the army for democracy’, a clear indication that the military establishment intends to maintain its role despite the overthrow of Bouteflika.

It is likely that Tebboune intends the June elections and other concessions such as a cabinet reshuffle and a campaign to prosecute corrupt regime figures to serve ostensibly as concessions to protesters while also ushering a vote he hopes will restore his legitimacy. Indeed, while championing the democratic process authorities have simultaneously stepped up their crackdown against Hirak activists in recent weeks as protests denouncing the elections continue. In April, a ban on unauthorised demonstrations was introduced as Hirak protests gained momentum, and arrests of protesters are a frequent occurrence. Some 44 protesters were arrested during demonstrations on 14 May, and at least 124 activists are currently in detention in Algeria in connection with their participation in the unrest, according to the local watchdog National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD). Meanwhile, 12 Hirak activists face the death penalty or lengthy prison sentences based on charges of ‘participation in a terrorist organisation’ and ‘conspiracy against the state’; it is the first time that terrorism-related charges have been used against activists in the Hirak movement.

Amid Hirak’s calls to boycott the poll which have resulted in boycotts by opposition parties such as the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), Workers' Party (PT), and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), Islamist parties are likely to make significant gains or even win the election, taking a major role in government, especially as many of the old nationalist parties associated with Bouteflika have had senior officials jailed on corruption charges. While the military establishment would still hold ultimate power, parties such as Harakat al-Bina, considered the most likely winner, probably hope a victory at the polls will build them gradual clout within the system, especially with regard to the secular military. The last time Islamists won an election was in 1992, after which the military cancelled the vote, triggering a deadly civil war that lasted until 1999. Meanwhile, the establishment likely is hoping memory of this conflict will serve to delegitimise Islamist parties and ultimately restore the old order.

Hirak protests are likely to continue on a weekly basis in the run-up to the poll, especially on Tuesdays and Fridays. Major urban centres such as Algiers and Béjaïa are likely locations for rallies, in addition to other cities such as Bouira, Oran, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Setif, and Bordj Bou Arreridj. There have been increasing reports of workers staging strike and walk out action, including firefighters who have organised rallies in several regions including Béjaïa, M’sila, Jijel, and Biskra and threatened ministers in M’sila with collective resignation. Triggers for escalation include further organised industrial action joining with street demonstrations, arrests and sentencing of Hirak activists, and crackdowns on rallies resulting in the deaths of activists.


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