Algeria protest figures released but showdown between government, opposition likely to endure

Authorities seen as using pandemic to control course of events.
Monday 18/05/2020
Ibrahim Daouadji (C), a Hirak movement activist, embraces his mother upon his release from El Harrach prison, in the capital Algiers on May 18. (AFP)
Ibrahim Daouadji (C), a Hirak movement activist, embraces his mother upon his release from El Harrach prison, in the capital Algiers on May 18. (AFP)

ALGIERS--A leading figure in Algeria’s “Hirak” anti-government protest movement was released after a court shortened his sentence late Sunday. A second one was given a suspended sentence.

The court’s decision does not not seem, however, to usher in a new phase in Algeria’s turbulent relations between the government and its opposition.

Abdelouahab Fersaoui, who heads the civic group Youth Action Rally (RAJ), was arrested in October during a demonstration and in April was sentenced to one year in jail for an “attack on the integrity of the national territory.”

The 39-year-old academic was released overnight, according to Said Salhi, vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH).

Abdelouahab Fersaoui (C) waves upon his release from El Harrach prison, in the capital Algiers on May 18. (AFP)
Abdelouahab Fersaoui (C) waves upon his release from El Harrach prison, in the capital Algiers on May 18. (AFP)

“We are really relieved. We are delighted with this release because Fersaoui has endured a long detention. This is only the reparation for a serious injustice,” Salhi said.

Despite the early release of  Fersaoui, experts say Algeria’s authorities are tempted to continue using the new circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic to suppress the Hirak protest movement and try to deeply anchor the rule of the Tebboune regime for the long haul.

Fersaoui was arrested on October 10 last year during a demonstration in support of “Hirak” detainees in front of the capital’s main court.

During his trial in March, Fersaoui denied the charges, which he said were based on Facebook posts that contained no incitement to violence.

Another “Hirak” activist, Ibrahim Daouadji, who in April was sentenced to six months in prison, also appeared before the Algiers court on Sunday for “incitement to unarmed assembly.”

“Mr Daouadji was given a six-month suspended prison sentence. He too will be released,” lawyer Hocine Benissad said.

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak that has forced the popular movement to suspend its protests since mid-March, a crackdown has continued against regime opponents and independent media.

Vast demonstrations broke out in Algeria in February last year after then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced a bid for a fifth term in office after 20 years in power.

He stepped down in April after losing the support of the army, but protesters continued to hold mass rallies demanding a sweeping overhaul of the ruling system.

Security forces have targeted young bloggers, independent journalists, online media and activists from the “Hirak” protest movement.

Rapidly adopted laws ostensibly aimed at preventing the dissemination of false news and hate speech have further stoked fears of a campaign to muzzle free expression.

The new laws “aim to repress citizens’ freedom of expression,” said lawyer and activist Abdelouhab Chiter, a lecturer at the University of Bejaia.

A law on “spreading false information,” he said, “was debated and passed by parliament in a single sitting, in the absence of almost half of its members.”

Akram Belkaid, a journalist for the Oran daily, warned of “a return to the iron fist as in the 1970s.”

“Hirak won the first leg of the game,” he said. “The regime is on course to win the second leg, and its true goal is to prevent any further rematches being held at all — or in other words, to prevent protests reoccurring once the pandemic has been overcome.”

The protest movement, calling for a full-scale overhaul of a system in place since independence in 1962, scored one major success: toppling Bouteflika after two decades in power.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in a poll that drew less than 40% turnout, has said that “a true democracy (is built on) a strong state with justice and national cohesion.”

He also cites “national sovereignty” to justify censorship measures against websites he accuses of being paid by foreign organisations.

In the face of Tebboune and the army, the political opposition is weak and divided.

“The regime has won on the ground, consolidated by the reprieve offered by the pandemic and the absence of an alternative vision,” writer Kamel Daoud told the Swiss daily Le Temps in late April.

But, he noted, there is “not one regime, but several, competing among themselves — some tempted by real reforms, others set on accumulating ever more control.”

While its adversary may have been weakened, the regime has been hit by the double blow of the novel coronavirus and a collapse in oil prices.

As crude sales account for 90% of the state’s foreign revenues, that is likely to necessitate deep spending cuts, risking economic disaster and further social disruption.

The regime is hoping to use constitutional reform as a way to appease the opposition.

“The objective is for Algeria to have a consensual Constitution, protecting it from falling into authoritarianism and experiencing crises whenever there is a dysfunction at the head of power. As for the presidential arbitration, they will come in due course,” said  a spokesperson for Algeria’s presidency.

But the reforms, critics say, are top-down and further widen the prerogative of the president despite creating the position of vice-president.

Dalia Ghanem, resident researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, does not see the reforms as satisfying the demands of the Hirak.

She recently told the Paris-based Jeune Afrique “I fear that the situation will deteriorate after the end of the lockdown. The Hirak will come back, the social question will be at the heart of its demands because the regime no longer has the financial means to buy social peace.”

Abdelouahab Fersaoui (L)) and Ibrahim Daouadji (R), another Hirak movement activist, hold hands together upon their release from El Harrach prison, in the capital Algiers on May 18. (AFP)
Abdelouahab Fersaoui (L)) and Ibrahim Daouadji (R), another Hirak movement activist, hold hands together upon their release from El Harrach prison, in the capital Algiers on May 18. (AFP)

She further predicted that “pseudo-political reforms will not silence the streets. The room for manoeuvre for those in power is shrinking day by day and the use of radical means to silence the population is an option that I fear will become a reality.”

“The government is more concerned with reviving economic, social and educational activity than any resurgence of the Hirak,” said Mansour Kedidir of the Research Centre for Social and Cultural Anthropology (CRASC) in the second city Oran.

By implementing promised constitutional and institutional reforms, Tebboune hopes to “breathe new life into the economy and establish credit in society,” Kedidir said.

“It’ll be a tough job.”

(With news agencies.)