Algeria tries to restrain protests amid tensions ahead of elections

The Hirak has rejected the June 12 vote, and human rights organisations have warned of increasing repression in the lead-up to the polls.
Saturday 22/05/2021
Police blocks demonstrators during a march in Algiers, May 7, 2021 in support for the Hirak movement. (AP)
Police blocks demonstrators during a march in Algiers, May 7, 2021 in support for the Hirak movement. (AP)

ALGIERS--Algerian authorities put down weekly pro-democracy protests in the capital Algiers and across the country on Friday, detaining hundreds of demonstrators, human rights activists said.

“March prevented and suppressed in Algiers and Annaba, confrontations in Bouira, arrests in several provinces,” said Said Salhi, head of the Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH), adding that rallies had gone ahead in Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou.

He said that almost 500 people had been taken in for questioning in around 15 provinces but mostly in the capital, and that two journalists were briefly apprehended.

Most of those detained were later released, though some were kept in detention and will appear in court on Sunday.

A heavy police presence prevented the march from taking place in the capital Algiers and police had blocked roads and regular protest routes from the morning.

“For the 118th Friday (since the first Hirak protests), ‘Algiers the White’ has turned police blue,” said Lyes, a man in his forties who declined to provide his surname, referring to the capital by its Arabic moniker.

Independent reporters and photographers without media accreditation cannot normally cover the marches.

Internet blackouts hampered media coverage in some cities.

The largely leaderless and politically unstructured Hirak movement was launched in 2019 over president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office.

The ailing autocrat was forced to step down weeks later, but the Hirak has continued its demonstrations, demanding a sweeping overhaul of a ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.

Marches were suspended for around a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but protesters have returned to the streets since February and given the movement new momentum.

The interior ministry last week said that Hirak protest organisers would have to advise authorities of protests in advance, a move that came amid mounting government pressure on the movement as early legislative elections approach.

 Electoral stakes 

The Hirak has rejected the June 12 vote, and human rights organisations have warned of increasing repression in the lead-up to the polls.

At least 133 people are currently detained in connection with the Hirak movement or cases related to freedom of expression, according to Algerian Detainees, a journalist-run website.

Candidates hopeful of winning one of the 407 seats in the Algerian parliament kicked off campaigning this week for next month’s legislative elections under a new system meant to weed out corruption and open voter rolls.

But crackdown on the pro-democracy Hirak movement cast a pall over presidential efforts to give a new face to a nation whose army plays a backseat role in governance.

Hirak supporters, including parties from the so-called “democratic movement,” have vowed to boycott the legislative elections.

There is an unprecedented number of candidates — nearly 1,500 lists for the North African nation’s 58 regions, with hundreds of others weeded out by the Independent National Elections Authority. The voting is earlier than originally planned, after the president dissolved parliament in February. Parity between male and female candidates is among new rules governing the elections.

The current army chief, Gen. Said Chanegriha, warned on Wednesday “adventurers, whatever their (political) obedience or ideological views, against any attempts to attack national unity.” He vowed that “abject designs” would be uncovered, but gave no hint which “adventurers” he might have in mind.

Campaigning to choose new lawmakers began on Thursday for the many hopefuls — 1,483 candidates’ lists, with 646 representing political parties and 837 independents, including young people and women.

“The massive participation of youth, university teachers, women has confused the enemies of Algeria,” Communications Minister Amar Belhimer said Thursday on national radio, renewing suggestions of a hidden plot against the nation.