Algeria: An Unpopular Election

The army, which actually rules the country, has taken a tougher stand against the protests and the opposition. Many Hirak leaders and journalists have been geoled in the run-up to a presidential election which most Algerians plan to boycott.

Algiers, 22 November 2019. — 40th Friday march for the Hirak. In the foreground, Zoubida Assoul, President of the Union for Change and Progress (UCP), brandishes the “No to the vote” cardboard.
Ryad Kramdi/AFP

On 28 November, a gathering of women was held on Maurice Audin Square in Algiers, most of them mothers and relatives of political prisoners. Other people tried to join them but the square was cordoned off by dozens of policemen. They dispersed the demonstrators who scattered, still demanding the prisoners be released and shouting their opposition to the election scheduled for 12 December. Their slogans, as reported on the website Liberté-Algérie, expressed their outrage: “You despise the people”, “A free and democratic Algeria”, “Turn our children loose, they’re not cocaine dealers”; “We won’t vote on 12 December.”

Nowadays the army cracks down brutally on every street protest, every initiative. Ever since Chief of Staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah announced last June that it was forbidden to display any flag other than the national banner, dozens of demonstrators carrying the Amazigh flag have been arrested. Yet the Constitution has recognized Amazigh1 as a component of Algerian national identity since 1996 and the Amazigh language as one of the country’s national tongues since 2002. “Divide and rule is their strategy, but we’re all united now,” said an indignant woman, a banker by profession, encountered on a march last Friday in Algiers. “We’re all Berbers. There aren’t any Arabs here. The Arabs are in the Gulf countries.”

Reviving linguistic divisions

Whatever their cultural identity or social origins, Algerians are all demanding an end to this corrupt regime, a return to the rule of law and an independent judicial system. The entire population rejects December 12 election because the mainstays of the old Bouteflika regime are still running the country. Premier Bedoui was Minister of Interior Affairs, in charge of elections and hence of the vote rigging. In Kabylie, many mayors have even refused to organise the presidential election, scheduled for next 12 December.

On 12 November 2019, twenty-one people were sentenced to six months in gaol and fined 30,000 dinars (£190, $250) by the Sidi M’Hamed court in Algiers for flying the Amazigh flag during a demonstration. The sentences seem very severe in view of the offence. Moreover, the very next day, the Bab al Oued court released five people accused of the same thing, considering that the “integrity of the national territory” had not been “subverted.” Another defendant, tried in Annaba on 5 August for the same offence, was also acquitted. The fact that different verdicts have been handed down by different courts shows that judges are unsure of which strategy to adopt.

Historic personalities thrown into prison

Highly respected figures of Algerian society who have come out in support of the Hirak have also been arrested, like Commander Lakhdar Bourega or general Hocine Benhadid. Both have openly criticised the chief of staff and the corrupt practices of the current rulers. They explicitly targeted Ahmed Gaïd Salah, commander Bouregaa via a video, General Benhadid in an open letter.

The fact that he is an historic hero of the War of Independence did not guarantee any immunity for Lahkdar Bouregaa. Yet he joined the National Liberation Army as early as 1956 and ultimately came to command Wilaya No. 5. He later opposed Houari Boumedien and his clan and was gaoled from 1967 to 1975. As for Hocine Benhadid, he was among the few generals to resign his commission during the dark decade, in 1996. In 2014, he came out against a fourth term for Abdelaziz Bouteflika. And following an interview given to Radio M in which he already criticised Said Bouteflika and Ahmed Gaïd Salah, he was arrested on 30 September 2015 and was a prisoner until 2016.

Both men are paying dearly for their outspokenness and their support of Hirak. They are accused of “impairing the morale of the army and of undermining State security.” The penalty incurred can be anywhere between five and ten years in prison. These arrests have had dramatic consequences. The health of both Lakhdar Bouregaa, eighty-six, and general Benhadid, seventy-three, has deteriorated in prison. Bouregaa recently underwent an emergency operation.

Leaders of the protest movement arrested

The crackdown on the demonstrations escalated in September with the arrest of several Hirak leaders, among them Karim Tabbou, spokesperson for the UDS (Democratic and Social Union), Fodil Boumala, formerly a journalist with ENTV (national public television) now a political analyst and activist, as well as Samir Benlarbi, another political activist. The three men have in common their implication in the protest movement and their growing popularity, which seems to worry the regime.

Karim Tabbou is an MP and was once First Secretary of the FFS (Front des Forces Socialistes) which he left in 2012. He went on to form his own party, the UDS, still unrecognised since the Bouteflika period. He was arrested in his home on 11 September 2019 and charged with “impairing the morale of the army.” Released on 25 September, he was arrested again the very next day.

Two activists with the Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse (RAJ, Youth Action Rally), Karim Boutata and Ahcene Kadi were gaoled as well. On 10 October, the movement’s chairman, Abdelouahab Fersaoui was arrested. The RAJ is an officially recognized association devoted since 1993 to the task of raising young people’s civic awareness and has been especially targeted for its Hirak activities. Its leaders are omnipresent on the social networks and in the independent media. They denounce the power structure’s excesses and advocate the downfall of the system, refusing to take part in the presidential election under the present conditions.

Targeting journalists

Journalists have come under greater pressure as well. This takes many forms: suspensions, arrests, cancelled programs, blocked websites. No pluralism is tolerated on public television which broadcasts the weekly speeches of the chief of staff. When the Hirak movement began, in February and March, television journalists organised a sit-in in front of the offices of ENTV (public television) to protest the censorship of their coverage of the events. They demanded freedom of expression but their hopes for the liberalisation of the media were quickly dashed. Some saw their programs suspended, like the freewheeling political debates organised by Nahla Bekralas on Channel 3 (French-speaking public radio), others were even subject to administrative sanctions.

As for the private media, access to independent news sites is regularly interrupted on Algerian Territory. For example, the TSAW website has experienced intermittent interruptions since 12 June while the site Inter-lignes has been permanently blocked since the end of July.

The Qatari-backed opposition TV channel al Magharibia has been suspended by the satellite operator Eutelsat since 15 October. By changing its name to “Hirak TV”, it managed to broadcast for a few hours. Based in London and Paris, this channel is governed by British law, but the Algerian government lodged a complaint with Eutelsat and got the channel suspended. Four journalists who worked for Le Temps d’Algérie. were suspended in November for having dared to criticise one of their paper’s front page headlines: “Unanimity on the necessity of a massive vote.”

More and more people are being arrested. Said Boudour, a freelance journalist and activist with the LADDH (Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights) was arrested on 6 October. The next day, an Oran court issued an interim release order. He was arrested again on 15 October. Another example, as provided by Reporters without Borders: “Sofiane Marrakchi, reporter and correspondent for the Al Matadeen channel but also a producer for several foreign channels including France 24 and Russia Today was arrested on Sunday 22 September by the gendarmerie”. The same thing happened to Adel Azeb El Cheikh, of Radio Oued Souf. These three journalists, as well as Abdelmounji Khelladi are still in gaol. Others, like Mustapha Bendjema, editor-in-chief of Le Provincial in Annaba, are prohibited from leaving the national territory.

Under such pressures, Algerian reporters are freaking out, but they are also organising. Two meetings were held on 9 and 14 November to consider actions to be taken and a press release entitled “Journalists protest against repression and arbitrary rule and demand freedom of expression” gathered 160 signatures. It denounced the arrests and other attempts to silence them.”We strenuously condemn the escalation of serious harm inflicted on the women and men of our profession and the systematic harassment of the private and public media as well as the electronic press.”

Harassment of students

University students have been the spearhead of the movement. Every Tuesday they march through the streets of Algiers, in fewer numbers just now because classes have resumed. A twenty-two-year-old student, Yasmine Dahmani, arrested on 17 September for carrying a placard denouncing “the corruption of the gang,” has been held ever since in El Harrach prison in Algiers. She has become the symbol of all the political prisoners and her photograph is held high on the Tuesday and Friday protest marches.

On 8 October the power structure tried to make the students give up marching through the streets of Algiers by blocking access to the central post-office square, an emblematic location for the protests. It was a wasted effort, the following week the crowd of protestors was even bigger.

In response to these arbitrary arrests, people are organising. One sign of this is the creation of a National Committee for the Release of Prisoners (CNLD). Its purpose is to provide support for the prisoners of conscience and political prisoners as well as their families. A Facebook page enables everyone to be informed of arrests in real time and publicises calls for courthouse sit-ins. Algerians are rallying together and inventing new courses of action, taking control of public space once again.

“No elections with that gang of crooks”

Every Friday, in Algiers and other cities, protestors chant the slogan: “Ma kach al intikhabt maa al isabat”, “There’ll be no elections with that gang of crooks.” The arrests are proof that the power structure is nervous. It is determined to have its election on 12 December. After arresting ordinary citizens for carrying the Amazigh flag, it is trying to silence the dissident voices of political activists and journalists.

The five candidates in the coming election were all officials under the Bouteflika system, and are met with the hostility of the population during their campaign travels and meetings. Clashes with the police occurred and tear-gas bombs were used during a visit to Bouira by the candidate Benfils on 27 November. He was due to speak at the House of Culture at 3PM, but the venue had to be transferred to a hall in the Wilaya (county) headquarters which was practically empty, according to the website TSA.

If they do manage to hold their election, whomever is elected president will have no legitimacy whatsoever and the Hirak will not abate. The political prisoners will have to be set free and the repression ended if a way is to be found out of this crisis.

1Translater’s note: Berber culture and language.