Algeria’s streets eerily quiet as protesters stay home over virus threat

Algerian Communication Minister Ammar Belhimer hailed protest figures for their “wisdom” in temporarily halting demonstrations.
Sunday 22/03/2020
Empty streets in Algiers after an anti-government protest were suspended, March 20. (Reuters)
Health pause. Empty streets in Algiers after an anti-government protest were suspended, March 20. (Reuters)

TUNIS - An eerie quiet fell over Algeria’s streets, which had been rallying points for weekly anti-government protests for months, as citizens stayed home to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Streets across the country, normally bustling with protesters who have demonstrated each Friday for more than a year, were silent March 20 as Algeria stepped up measures to deal with the global health crisis.

Few shoppers were on the streets of Algiers while a single government vehicle slowly patrolled the area. A loudspeaker was used to remind citizens to sanitise their homes, communal areas and apartment blocks.

The shift in Algeria came as the country faces one of the most serious coronavirus outbreaks in North Africa, with 90 confirmed infections and ten deaths, health authorities said.

Protesters leaders called to transform the movement into a “front of solidarity” against the pandemic. Echoing calls for “medical truce” by protest leaders, university students held off their usual Tuesday demonstrations on March 17.

“We announce the suspension of our participation in the protests,” said a group of student organisations. “We call on all the Hirak (pro-democracy movement)’s activists to put the greater national interest ahead of any other consideration and not go out on the street in order to safeguard their health and the country’s health.”

The decision to suspend protests came before Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune banned demonstrations in try to slow the spread of coronavirus transmission.

“Coronavirus threatens the lives of the people. Only the strict respect of hygiene procedures and social distancing can slow the transmission of the virus,” protest figure Karim Tabbou said in a message from jail, relayed by his brother on social media.

“It is necessary to respect and follow as individuals and groups the guidelines of the health authorities to spare lives from the virus danger.”

Algeria’s protest movement erupted February 22, 2019, after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to seek a fifth term in office. After Bouteflika stepped down in April, the movement expanded its demands to include an overhaul of the country’s military-dominated ruling regime.

Tebboune began his term as president by praising the Hirak for “saving Algeria from total collapse” and encouraging demonstrators to press on with their movement as a “democratic right.”

However, facing declining oil revenue and the threat of the coronavirus, the government is in a tough spot. Tebboune said the coronavirus outbreak is a national security issue that requires the state to temporarily curb some rights.

“I want to assure you that the state remains fully aware of the sensitive situation, a willing listener to the concerns of the citizens and committed to the respect of freedoms and rights,” Tebboune said.

Tebboune announced a 12-point plan to combat the epidemic, including shutting the country’s borders to all travellers, allowing only air and maritime shipments to be let in. Officials restricted most foreign travel and closed mosques to stop the virus’s spread.

Tebboune said efforts were being made to disinfect public transport systems, “including every train and bus station.” He said the government would crack down on hoarders of consumer goods or those who profiteer from the crisis, as well as those who push “fake news.”

He said the government had equipment for 6,000 intensive care hospital beds in preparation for the virus’s spread. He said Algeria remained in Stage Two of person-to-person transmission rather than Stage Three of community transmission.

“Even when the disease evolves into Stage Three, you should know that we have taken all the necessary measures and our operational capacities are untapped,” Tebboune said.

Algerian Communication Minister Ammar Belhimer hailed protest figures for their “wisdom” in temporarily halting demonstrations to guard against the virus.”

“The Hirak is intelligent and generous,” Belhimer said. “It must remain so and it will have to be more thoughtful and willing when the nation faces an imminent danger.”

The country’s main political parties and civic associations, including three main secularist opposition groups -- the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the Rally for Culture and Democracy and the Workers’ Party -- whose members were among the movement’s main organisers, agreed to suspend protests until the health threat was over.

The FFS said it was time to “transform this great popular revolution into a new, collective, patriotic effort to fight the looming health peril.”

Aissam Chibane, a surgeon at Mustapha Bacha Hospital in Algiers who participated in weekly protests, said: “Stopping marches is a duty no one can argue against.”

“We can create groups of volunteers to help combat the coronavirus,” he said. “The Hirak has tremendous capacities and it will surprise those who doubt the deployment of such forces against the disease.”

However, Algeria’s Specialised Doctors Union said the main problem in halting transmission of the virus was the “lack of awareness among the population and trivialisation of the pandemic among a great number of the citizens.”