SIM REPORT: NORTH AFRICA, ISSUE 2
Local reports suggest that anti-government protesters associated with the movement known as ‘Hirak’ have been slowly taking to the streets and calling for a resumption of protests once COVID-19-related movement restrictions lift. While large scale unrest has not occurred since the outbreak of the virus in Algeria in March, low-level protests have periodically taken place, including during Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. Gatherings were reported in Sétif province on 24 May and in the city of Kherrata, Béjaïa province on 25 May as protesters showed solidarity with detained Hirak activists. Meanwhile, high profile activist Abdelouahab Fersaoui, a leading figure in the Hirak movement, called for increased mobilisations after the pandemic passes when he was released from jail in mid-May.
Large demonstrations associated with the Hirak movement first occurred in February last year after then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced a bid for a fifth term after 20 years in power. Bouteflika stepped down in April 2019 after losing support of the army, but protesters continued to rally demanding a sweeping overhaul of the ruling system and the removal of all remnants of a political and military establishment that dominated the country for decades. The movement rejected the presidential elections in December, which saw the victory of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, given his ties to the Bouteflika regime for which he served as prime minister from May to August 2017. Demonstrations had continued on a weekly basis, with Fridays being a flashpoint for unrest, until Hirak suspended its protest activity due to movement restrictions including a government ban on marches and public gatherings in late March.
In an apparent attempt to get ahead of the probable resumption of unrest, President Tebboune said on 3 June he would release two main Hirak figures. Karim Tabbou, one of the most prominent Hirak figures and leader of the opposition Union Démocratique et Sociale (UDS) party, was sentenced to a one-year term on 24 March on charges of ‘incitement to violence’ and ‘harming national security’ in relation to a speech he gave that was published in a video on UDS’ Facebook page. Samir Benlarbi, another prominent Hirak activist, has been held in preventive detention since 7 March. It is unclear when their respective releases will occur.
The president has the right to pardon prisoners in the Algerian judicial system. It is likely that Tebboune is attempting a conciliatory gesture to activists as well as an attempt to deny Hirak the ability to use the detention of activists as a rallying call should protests resume once the lockdown and restrictions start to be gradually lifted. The date for such measures is currently slated for 13 June, although it could be extended depending on the trajectory of the virus in the country.
However, it is unlikely that such a tactic will be effective in preventing unrest from occurring. Rights groups and activists have accused authorities of continuing to target opponents and curtail free speech while public attention was focused on the pandemic, arresting journalists, independent media and social media commentators. On 20 May, Algerian courts sentenced three opposition activists to jail terms of up to 18 months over Facebook posts. According to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), some 60 people are currently held on charges linked to Hirak activism. The continued detention of activists will be a flashpoint issue for future unrest.
Another criticism is the constitutional reforms that Tebboune proposed during the first months of his office, allegedly to meet the demands raised by Hirak. The first draft of constitutional reforms was released on 7 May, and while some political groups have endorsed the changes, Hirak activists have denounced them as being authoritarian and not meeting their demands. Indeed, the demonstrators had demanded a radical change in the Constitution, not its amendment. Among the complaints is the fact the amendments give the president more powers: for example, Article 102 gives the president the power to nominate and appoint members of the government, while Parliament’s opinion becomes advisory only. In another example, Article 146 extends the President’s right to legislate.
Activists are also angry that the work of revising the Constitution is being carried out without representatives of the Hirak or members of the opposition. The amendments, proposed by Tebboune, will need to be put to a vote in parliament and then passed via public referendum, a process that was intended to be completed by the end of the year but will probably be delayed due to COVID-19. Any further drafts of the amendment or attempt to put it to a parliamentary vote will probably be another instigator of protest activity.
Lastly, the economic impact of COVID-19 will play a role in the eventual re-emergence of Hirak protests. The pandemic has exacerbated the already precarious economic situation, with the economy now expected to contract 5.2 per cent for 2020, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections in April. Tebboune said in May he will not approach the IMF or other financial institutions for loans to cushion against the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, but will rely on domestic borrowings. However, that plan comes with challenges, including the fact that unpopular cutbacks and austerity could risk social and political stability. Unemployment levels and consumer prices have already risen dramatically during the pandemic crisis. With the government unable to secure social peace through financial incentives and unlikely to implement anything more than pseudo reforms, anti-government protests are near certain to resume once restrictions are lifted.
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