On 18 September 2019, former journalist of the Algerian ENTV Fodil Boumala was outside his home in Algeria when plainclothes officers grabbed him. That evening, activists and journalists reported him missing on social networks. The following day, Boumala, also a political scientist, was charged with harming the country’s national unity and distributing leaflets.
He was the third political figure jailed in a week, after the Algerian regime captured the spokesperson for the Democratic and Social Union party (UDS) Karim Tabbou, an ardent critic of the regime, and Samir Belarbi, a renowned opponent.
These arrests are far from surprising, according to Fares Kader Affak, 48, an activist and founder of the literary café Le Sous Marin. Affak was briefly detained in Algiers on 24 February, as the popular protest movement now known as Hirak was emerging.
“These arrests are the continuity of a repressive policy which has lasted for years,” he said. “This is not new. This repressive approach demonstrates that [Algeria’s rulers] have no response to the Hirak. More repression means they want to submit the political class to their will. Other personalities will be targeted, from diverse political currents,” he warned.
The Hirak aims at getting rid of the current political system and all the political figures and business owners who have served it since the country’s independence from France in 1962. Until now, Hirak protesters and activists have refused all offers of dialogue on the part of the government, which they say is a continuation of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s system. Now, they’re asking for the departure of military chief of staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the new strongman of the country since Bouteflika’s resignation last April. A new recurrent slogan is, “We want a civilian state, not a military state”.
The situation on the ground
In recent weeks, Hirak activists have experienced an intense government crackdown. As the protests grew following a relative lull this summer, dozens of people were incarcerated, in many cases after being held without warrants by plainclothes officers. Hirak protesters and advocates call them “hostages”.
Last month, 24 people were jailed during a demonstration in Algiers only. Among them was Bilal Ziane, a man from Larbaâ near Blida, who has cancer and was scheduled to start his chemotherapy 10 days later. He was released pending his trial, but only after an intense mobilisation.
In the meantime, many others already in detention were brought to court simply for having held an Amazigh flag. They were prosecuted for harming territorial integrity. According to a report released last July by Amnesty International, 41 people have been arrested for publicly holding that flag.
Nevertheless, outside Algiers, a few protesters have been acquitted. Hakim Aissi, from Mostaganem, a coastal city in the west, and Nadir Fetissi, from Annaba in the northeast, were freed after several weeks in detention. And they were given back their flags. This was a blow to prosecutors, who pushed for a two-year and a 10-year sentence respectively.
“There is a climate of arbitrary detention,” said Omar Farouk Slimani, 34, a lawyer based in Algiers who took part in protests in 2011 and 2014 to oppose Bouteflika’s fourth term. “I think this is a strategy [on the part of authorities] to push for dialogue. The practices of the old system haven’t changed.”
Activists defamed and detained
The clash with authorities recently intensified, with the prohibition of several public discussions involving activists and organisations deemed too involved in the Hirak such as the Rassemblement actions jeunesse (RAJ). Like many organisations that support the Hirak, the RAJ has been accused of being manipulated by “foreign forces” and its members have been defamed on pro-government websites.
In the span of a week, seven of its members have been prosecuted and kept in detention. RAJ activists Ahcene Kadi and Karim Boutata were both last seen at two different cafés in Algiers, when plainclothes officers approached them. They were both later charged with “attempting to [disrupt] territorial integrity through the dissemination of videos on Facebook” and “holding signs and slogans threatening [to] national unity”.
Kadi had already been briefly detained twice in April. As he was on his way to attend a sit-in, three officers grabbed him. He was driven to a police station, where has was held until 1am. The following day, they kept him for another two hours. Boutata was nabbed after he took part in a sit-in to call for the liberation of political detainees on 31 August outside the El Harrach prison, where he is now.
Mourad Amiri, a public servant who worked at the ministry of the interior, is accused of contempt and calling for unlawful assembly and disobedience. On 18 March, he made a public call on Facebook (https://web.facebook.com/mourad.amiri/videos/10211885793174988/) asking his colleagues to join the Hirak. He claims he was suspended last July because of his involvement in the movement. He says he received a letter saying he had to leave his job without any official motive and now only gets half his gross salary. According to him, several of his colleagues have also had parts of their salaries withheld and were harassed and closely watched at work.
Until recently, only Hadj Ghermoul, 37, a member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights and the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed, was acknowledged as a political prisoner. He was arrested before the Hirak even started, in January, and later sentenced to six months for holding a sign against Bouteflika’s fifth term in a photograph published on Facebook.
Now the arrests and the reported disappearances – as well as the releases – are so numerous it has become a complex task to keep their precise count. A national committee for the defence of detainees (CNLD) was created to monitor them. News of custodies and trials regularly punctuate this Facebook page, with calls for help, for lawyers mainly, and announcements of sit-ins. On 7 October, the CNDL released a list it says is not exhaustive of at least 87 people currently jailed for their involvement in the Hirak.
Protests in the city
In the capital city, gatherings and protests have been banned by decree since the Black Spring in 2001, an uprising during which more than 120 people were killed. For weeks now, authorities have partially blocked the city’s access from neighbouring towns on Fridays to prevent more people from joining the weekly march.
In spite of this, the streets of Algiers are crowded again. Salah, who supported Bouteflika until the protests compelled him to oust the long-term president, called for elections to be held on 12 December. He seems determined to push for his agenda at any cost while presenting himself as a neutral actor. The protesters continue to refuse these elections and to call for a genuine democratic transition. In the meantime, in an apparent show of transparency, several high-ranking personalities from the Bouteflika presidency – his brother Saïd, General Mohamed Mediene and General Athmane Tartag – as well as the secretary general of the Workers’ Party (Parti des Travailleurs), Louisa Hanoune, received heavy prison sentences of up to 20 years in what observers have described as a judicial farce.
“On the one side, we have a regime that bases its legitimacy on powers and privileges inherited from the revolutionary struggle … On the other side, we have a persistent but … leaderless protest movement that sees both sides of the intra-regime struggle as illegitimate, including its institutions [the courts] and its presidential election, due to the illegitimacy of those holding power and running elections,” explained William Lawrence, a former diplomat and professor at the George Washington University.
“Algeria has not held free and fair elections since 1990 and 1991, according to international standards … The political standoff is continuing, each side believing that it can wear down the other side.”
Many Hirak activists recognise no democratic progress and no institutional change have taken place since they began their movement. Even the 2001 decree hasn’t been repealed. And in recent weeks, they have had to divert their efforts to put forward a new demand: the release of all detainees held in connection with the movement.
But in spite of these setbacks, Affak remains confident that the Hirak will continue and prevail. “The Hirak … will not accept elections in the shadow of this system. It demands the departure of the government, including the vice-minister of defence and army chief [Ahmed Gaid Salah]. The social struggles [including] the movement for access to housing, the workers, the struggles dealing with the people’s daily lives and the different social movements, will further nourish it.”