The coronavirus pandemic provides the opportunity that Algerian authorities have been hoping for: a nonviolent way to silence unrelenting protesters.
For more than a year, millions of Algerian protesters have relentlessly taken to the streets to demand the erasure of the country’s corrupt deep state. Now, after months of protests, arrests and a hopeful belief in their end goal, the novel coronavirus has brought their activity to a screeching halt. As at yesterday, Algeria had 2629 total confirmed cases, one of the highest counts in Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO)’s Africa regional director, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, has said the continent is experiencing an ‘extremely rapid evolution’. And already by 18 March, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had announced that street protests were banned due to the coronavirus, raising an additional fear beyond the health issues caused by the pandemic—the coronavirus also has the potential to be used as a tool for repressive regimes.
We’re already seeing this play out in other places on the continent. In Rwanda, police officers shot two individuals last month for disobeying COVID-19 lockdown orders. An outstanding overreaction considering in places like Italy, violators were simply fined. But in a country like Rwanda where President Paul Kagame’s authoritarian-like leadership and questionable choices are normally excused by liberal democracies because he has managed to keep a once crisis-ridden country relatively stable for almost 20 years, this occurrence shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The global pandemic now provides leeway for heavy handed governments to do things that would normally be inexcusable within the international human rights community. After the shooting, the Rwandan Police tweeted, ‘People should not confuse the measures taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 with this unfortunate incident,’ a potential covering of their tracks after receiving backlash.
In Algeria, the country’s recently paused year-long protests had been peaceful. To understand the importance of the demonstrations being put on hold, the journey of these protesters (whose activist leaders also told Algerians to stay inside in light of the coronavirus’ spread in Algeria) must first be explored. On 22 February 2019, Algeria’s ‘Hirak’ began. An estimated 800,000 protesters took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who despite ailing, had announced plans to run for a fifth term. A president for two decades, and 81 years old, Bouteflika was unable to recognize that it was long past time for him to move on. In 2013, he remained in power despite suffering a stroke that rendered him paralyzed and essentially mute. His ability to linger despite losing important motor skills has been ascribed to the influence of ‘Le Pouvoir’, as Algeria’s deep state has come to be known. Bouteflika’s presidency allowed these extremely wealthy, un-elected Algerians to keep their grip on power without the requisite public scrutiny. This allowed Bouteflika to serve as an effective mask for the country’s elite. But Algeria’s relentless protesters were successful and after two months of taking to the streets, Bouteflika finally resigned on 2 April 2019.
Although Bouteflika played a major role in helping to end the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002), the country’s once prosperous economy continued to fail under his leadership due to extreme corruption and mismanagement. Under Bouteflika, the depletion of Algeria’s wealth due to the dysfunctional energy sector caused a decline in social services. Combined with a high youth unemployment rate and two decades of election rigging, the motive for the unwavering, year-long protests becomes clear. Having successfully dislodged Bouteflika from power, Algerians then began to agitate against the country’s corrupt and nepotistic politico-military complex with limited success. President Abelmadjid Tebboune’s victory at the December 2019 polls was more of the same; the establishment re-establishing its preeminence over the popular will. But the more astonishing dimension of the Algerian story is international. Despite the impressive scale and partial success of the protests in Algeria, there has been a complete lack of interest from western media, governments and civil society as well as from international and African regional and continental organizations.
Algeria’s Indefinite Pause
Following Tebboune’s victory in the recent presidential elections, Algerians once again flooded the streets. Protesters expressed profound displeasure with the election results, calling them illegitimate and demanding the transfer of power to a younger generation capable of genuinely democratizing the country. And now, after more than a year of disinterest from the international community, the protests have to stop. We can only imagine the detrimental effect this will have on a revolution that most of the world seemed unbothered by to begin with.
The indefinite pause caused by coronavirus gives Tebboune a pretty legitimate excuse to continue ignoring the requests of protesters in the name of public health. Popular Algerian journalist, Khaled Drareni said he believes that the government is using the pandemic as a way to keep Algerians from protesting and has deeper political motivations in its response as it pertains to protesters. For the Algerian government, this pause provides the opportunity that authorities have been hoping for: a nonviolent way to silence the unrelenting protesters who had continuously shown zero interest in stopping unless their asks were implemented. Then, a global pandemic occurred.
A Unique Opportunity
The coronavirus provides a unique opportunity for crises, wars and protests around the world—it can either end or worsen them. In the case of ongoing violent conflicts, it presents a chance to end them and move towards negotiations—because waging conflicts and fighting a war against coronavirus simultaneously will stretch resources immensely. That said, in the case of protests like Algeria’s that have been put on hold, governments can take advantage of official estimates that the outbreak will last for a year or even two. This gives the Algerian government two years of potential excuses and deferments as well as, even worse, two years that they can give a legitimate excuse for locking off future protests. Despite the grave consequences this pause can have on the protester’s dreams, there is still room for the protesters to inspire transformational change. This ability, however, will be determined by the support protesters receive from the rest of the world.
The African Union, African regional blocs, international organizations and other countries, including western democracies, have a vital role to play in terms of mediating. Despite its relatively undramatic nature, international observers need to engage more with the Algerian situation especially now. Not only because of what COVID-19 might mean for the protesters, but also because of what Algeria represents. Algeria is the fourth largest economy in Africa as well as a major trading partner for many countries. Beyond economics, Algeria is the ninth most populous African country and commands a strong political influence in the region, for example the role it has played as a conveyor of discussions in the current Libyan crisis. The international community should make provisions for meetings between the Algerian government, protest leaders and mediators to transition the movement in similar fashion to what happened in Sudan last year where a power-sharing deal was signed. Constant pressure should be put on the Algerian government until this is done. The importance of making moves like this is rooted in the disastrous potential that the coronavirus can have on not only the health of Algerians but their long sought-after political asks that will determine the future of the country.
Vulnerable Situations are Even More Vulnerable Now
Discourse surrounding how COVID-19 will affect pre-existing crises and movements are complex but important to raise to make sure repressive regimes don’t receive a get-out-of-jail-free card. The international community has a duty to not only monitor global health issues but also continue to strive for solutions to existing political issues. The work cannot stop now because vulnerable situations are even more vulnerable now. Continuing to pay scant attention to the protests might only deepen the long-term problems of accountable governance in North Africa. Providing diplomatic support to the protesters by, for example, appointing special envoys to Algeria like the United States did for Sudan, would be a step in the right direction and show the Algerian government that the world is watching⎈
*Michelle Jituboh assisted with research for this piece.
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