News | Social Movements / Organizing - Participation / Civil Rights - War / Peace - North Africa Algeria Trapped between Repression and Hope

Massive election boycott and escalating police violence overshadow the parliamentary elections


Photo taken in February 2021: Hirak demonstrators protest against the early parliamentary elections, for the independence of the judiciary and the release of Hirak prisoners. Foto: picture alliance / abaca | Ammi Louiza/ABACA

The waves of repression sweeping over Algeria in recent months have almost entirely forced the Hirak to cease its street protests. Vibrant anti-regime rallies continue only in Kabylia. The opposition is under heavy pressure and even has its back to the wall. The regime‘s attempt to restore the legitimacy of the country‘s formally governing political leadership by electing a new parliament has certainly failed. The election results however, illustrate that the ruling class no longer considers concessions towards the opposition as necessary. An escalation of state reprisals is looming. Against this background, the Hirak urgently needs to reclaim public spaces in order to prevent being ultimately overwhelmed by the counterrevolutionary policies currently pursued by Algeria’s military.

Police violence against protesters, hundreds of arrested activists, journalists and demonstrators, threatening gestures and intimidation towards civil society, reprisals against critical comments about the regime in social media, dissolution lawsuits against three opposition parties and an NGO and even terrorism-related allegations against journalists and activists; Algeria’s increasingly autocratic regime has left no doubts in recent months that it wants to finally put a lid on the protest movement – mostly referred to in Algeria as ‘Hirak’ (Arabic for ‘movement’). Prior to the controversial parliamentary election on June 12th, authorities have even further increased the pressure on the Hirak and civil society organizations associated with the movement.

Immediately after President Abdelmajid Tebboune had dissolved the parliament and scheduled snap elections in March, police and judicial authorities have stepped up their actions against the Hirak protests, which have been gaining significant inflows once again since February 2021. The pattern is anything but new as the regime had already ramped up reprisals in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election and the 2020 constitutional referendum, aimed at intimidating protesters, forcing the Hirak out of the public sphere and, thus, preventing the foreseeable disruptive actions by regime opponents on election day. In contrast to 2019 however, the generals who are pulling the strings behind the scenes had let police forces off the leach early on prior to the 2021 parliamentary vote.

Partly due to the reprisals, the Hirak and the opposition had called for an electoral boycott. For weeks, Hirak activists tried to withstand the increasing police violence and maintain pressure on the regime by staging protests. But in May, police forces succeeded in violently dispersing Hirak protests and even preventing them from materializing for the first time since the inception of the mass uprising in 2019. Ever since, the weekly students marches and the Friday protests that are of particular and symbolic importance for the Hirak– usually simultaneously staged in several neighborhoods across the capital before converging in the city center– are being systematically suppressed as police forces are already dispersing the crowds at those venues where protesters gather in the first place. As a result, the police succeeded in preventing the Algiers marches altogether. Nonetheless, significant protests continue on a regular basis, though only in Béjaia, Tizi Ouzou and other parts of Kabylia, predominantly inhabited by Berbers and a stronghold of the opposition.

No Elections With the Gang

Despite these heavy reprisals against demonstrators, the election took place in an ambiance anything but calm and trouble-free. A day prior to the vote, significant protests occurred outside of Kabylia for the first time in weeks, inter alia in Sétif and Mostaganem. In several towns in the provinces of Bouira and Béjaia, youths were provoked by night-time arrests and clashed with the police on Election Day. Meanwhile, Algerian voters mostly responded to the calls to vote with indifference or an active boycott. Dozens of polling stations in Kabylia had been stormed by protesters, ballot boxes were stolen and ballot papers were dumped in the streets or even set on fire. Due to these events, the election could practically not take place in Tizi Ouzou and Béjaia. Similar to previous votes, opponents of the election gathered in the streets in several cities across Algeria, lined up in front of garbage bins and symbolically threw self-made ballot papers into the trash.

With the parliamentary vote however, the generals have come a step closer to the formal restoration of the country’s pseudo-democratic facade. The newly ‘elected’ National Assembly nevertheless lacks legitimacy as the vote was neither free nor transparent. Clearly in line with the prominent slogan ‘Makesh intikhabat maa el 3issabat’ (Arabic for ‘No elections with the gang’), ever-present at Hirak marches for weeks, voters largely abstained from the ballot. According to official figures, voter turnout stood at only 23 percent and dropped to an all-time low. But even this figure may have been embellished, according to claims by the opposition directed towards the National Election Authority (Autorité Nationale Indépendante des Elections, ANIE), whose members are all appointed by the president without any independent oversight. Unsurprisingly, opposition parties referred to the poll as a ‘farce’. ‘Electoral fraud is the regime’s preferred means of co-opting its clientele and keeping them in power’, a statement by the left-leaning liberal opposition party Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie, RCD) reads.

Return of a Presidential Alliance?

The apparently renewed and systematic electoral fraud, successful boycott campaigns by the Hirak, and the opposition and the reprisals that are raining down on Hirak activists for month have, in the meantime, almost turned the election results to a minor matter. However, the results are quite surprising as two former key regime parties, the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN) and the National Democratic Rally (Rassemblement National Démocratique, RND), performed unexpectedly well – despite being heavily discredited in Algeria’s society. The former unity party FLN, which has been in power almost continuously since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, even reentered parliament as the strongest party and won 98 of the 407 seats. The RND gained 58 seats. However, the strong performance forecast for the Islamist-conservative camp co-opted by the regime did not materialize. The chairman of the Islamist-conservative Movement for Society and Peace (Mouvement de la Société de la Paix, MSP), Abderrezak Makri, had even expressed hope for an electoral victory prior to the vote. Though with only 65 seats, the party – formally in government in a coalition with the FLN and the RND between 2002 and 2012 – fell far short of its own expectations. The MSP spin-off El Bina won 39 seats, the nationalist Future Front (El Mostaqbal) 48 and independent lists 84 seats.

Such a result would have hardly surprised anyone prior to the onset of the nationwide mass uprising against the ruling order in February 2019. Given the effectively ruined reputation of FLN and RND, the election results are astonishing – and even worrying. The regime appears to no longer consider it necessary to offer political concessions. Regarding the new government, this also implicates that precisely those parties explicitly targeted by the mass uprising could be tasked once again to form a government. Even a relaunch of the coalition consisting of FLN, RND and MSP, at that time backed by former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is not ruled out.

Whether this prediction will materialize or not remains unclear, partly as Bouteflika’s former power base is facing competition in parliament. A week after the vote, the spokesman of the ‘independent’ and army-affiliated list Solid Wall (El-Hisn El-Matin), Yacince Merzougui, announced on a press conference in Algiers the formation of a ‘parliamentary alliance’ after talks with other party representatives and MPs. Its goal: ‘Accelerating the implementation of the president’s program’. According to Merzougui, the list has won 27 seats, considered itself the main competitor of the FLN and an ‘effective force on the way to real change’. Merzougui has been given a stage in Algeria’s state-controlled media for months while he makes no secret of his army-friendly stance. It remains unclear which wing of the regime is backing the list and which ambitions it pursues, but the tug-of-war over the office of Algeria’s prime minister could sooner or later reveal insights into the ongoing opaque power struggle within the regime.

Mass Uprising and Counterrevolutionary Riposte

Meanwhile, the country remains stuck in a political impasse. The parliamentary elections and the ongoing resistance of the Hirak against the increasingly authoritarian regime clearly illustrate that Algeria’s political crisis is anything but over. The crisis already arose in February 2019. Immediately after the ‘presidential alliance’ led by the FLN and the RND  had once again grotesquely nominated the country’s head of state Bouteflika for a fifth term in the presidential elections, spontaneous protests erupted in Kabylia and several cities across Eastern Algeria against the renewed candidacy of the ailing president, wheelchair-bound since suffering a stroke in 2013.

Within just a few days, these protests quickly turned into an impressive mass movement sweeping across the entire country and mobilizing almost all social classes, calling for Bouteflika’s immediate resignation and an end of the opaque political system, eroded by corruption and nepotism. ‘Makesh al khamsa ya Boutefika’ (Arabic for ‘No fifth [mandat], Bouteflika’) echoed loudly throughout Algerian streets for weeks. Six weeks after the onset of the consistently peaceful mass revolt, the military led at that time by Chief of Staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah forced Bouteflika to resign. However, protests continued across Algeria and from then on were directed towards the military leadership itself. The Hirak was not satisfied with the cosmetic reshuffles of the country’s top political leadership promoted by Gaïd Salah. ‘Yetnahaw Ga3’ (Arabic for ‘You all need to go’) became the Hirak’s new key slogan.

Despite the ongoing anti-regime mass protests across the country, the army leadership orchestrated presidential elections in December 2019. In spite of a low turnout and an obvious electoral fraud, the military installed Abdelmajid Tebboune, a staunch Gaïd Salah ally and a former prime minister, in the state’s most powerful office. Yet protests continued unabated in 2020 and were only halted by the Covid-19 pandemic. After the Hirak had ceased its weekly protests in March 2020 in response to the health crisis, authorities strengthened their reprisals against the Hirak once again. Despite an eleven-month protest hiatus and several outright waves of arrests against activists, the movement managed to successfully mobilize again in the streets on the Hirak’s second anniversary, triggering a new wave of protests.

Shortly afterwards however, Tebboune announced early parliamentary elections and once again let Algeria’s police and judicial authorities off the leach. Boycott calls and protests against the election exposed the ballot as a pseudo-democratic maneuver, though respective actions bounced off the regime’s leadership. Tebboune nevertheless tried to downplay the Hirak’s resistance against the vote and told the French newspaper Le Point that the Hirak had lost its legitimacy. Only a minority refuses the elections, he said. This rhetoric is by no means new. Already in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election, police officers were beating up protesters, while regime representatives had been blustering about an apparent silent majority that supports the government. In contrast to today however, noteworthy protests had been staged in large parts of Algeria during the 2019 election. Today, the regime is exploiting the Hirak’s weakness in the streets in cold blood to finally put a lid on the remaining revolutionary dynamic in the country.

Systematic Clampdown against Civil Resistance

In light of this ongoing wave of reprisals, the ice is getting thin for the Hirak. After the movement’s recent and rather weak mobilization has once again exposed the Hirak’s Achilles heel, the regime has left no doubts for months that it intends to exploit this weakness at any cost. Reprisals are getting more violent and are now also targeting established civil society organizations. While protests have been met with an unprecedented police deployment in the streets, state violence and targeted arrests of activists, journalists and opposition figures are now increasing strongly. Lawyers as well, organized in grassroots collectives set up to provide legal assistance for political prisoners, are now a target for the authorities. Since March, the number of political prisoners rose from a few dozens to a total of 261 (as of 22 June 2021), according to the activist collective National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (Comité National pour la Libération des Detenus, CNLD). Even the CNLD itself is now targeted by state reprisals as authorities have temporarily arrested several CNLD activists briefly after the election. Hunger strikes by political detainees have also increased significantly since the beginning of the year. In early June, 80 political prisoners went on a collective hunger strike in the notorious El Harrach prison in Algiers.

In the meantime, arrested protesters are increasingly threatened, intimidated and even tortured in police custody. While there were initially only a few cases in 2019 and 2020 in which detained activists reported about abuses in police stations, the number of such reports has risen massively in 2021. One of the most prominent cases is Walid Nekiche. The student was arrested in late 2019 and had reported about sexual assaults in a police station in early 2021. Authorities are also no longer restrained regarding more prominent activists. The journalist Saïd Boudour, already arrested several times in the Western Algerian city of Oran since 2019, also stated shortly after his most recent arrest in April that he had been beaten, threatened and abused in police custody. Alarm bells are already ringing in Algeria‘s civil society for months now, as these reports trigger memories of the torture practices exerted by Algeria‘s security apparatus during the civil war in the 1990s.

At the same time, authorities are increasingly prosecuting free speech critical of the regime in social media and taking action against opposition parties and NGOs associated with the Hirak. After police raided the office of SOS Culture Bab El Oued in a working class district in Algiers and charged the organization with ‘subversive activities’ and unauthorized ‘foreign funding’, the Ministry of Interior submitted a legal request for the dissolution of the prominent Hirak-affiliated youth association Rally for Youth Actions (Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse, RAJ). Additionally, three opposition parties associated with the movement are now threatened to be outlawed. Affected by respective procedures are the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (Parti Socialists des Travailleurs, PST), the leftist Democratic and Social Movement (Mouvement Démocratique et Social, MDS) led by Fethi Ghares and the liberal Union for Change and Progress (Union pour le Changement et le Progrès, UCP), presided by prominent lawyer Zoubida Assoul.

Legalized Repression

However, worrying is not only the massive escalation of reprisals against opposition and Hirak as the government has pushed for the adoption or amendment of several laws in parliament since 2020, potentially paving the way for oppressing any form of opposition or regime critic in the long run. The regime appears to be systematically tightening particular laws in order to legalize the ongoing and the potentially upcoming crackdown against Hirak and the opposition, and create new instruments for reprisals against regime critics. Shortly after the Covid-19 outbreak, Algeria’s government passed two legislations, granting the authorities additional means to handle and restrict free speech online critical of the regime. The vaguely worded law against discrimination and ‘hate speech’ could also be used against online media outlets known for their critical stances towards the government, since it provides for prison sentences of up to ten years for spreading discriminatory content via ‘electronic sites or accounts’.

Moreover, the amendment to the penal code criminalizes any speech that ‘undermines public order and security’ or threatens ‘the security of the state or national unity’. Corresponding offenses can be punished by up to three years in prison, while the law also criminalizes the receipt of foreign funds if they undermine ‘the security of the state’, ‘national unity’ or ‘Algeria’s fundamental interests’. The amendment to the penal code is particularly seen as a major attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The NGO Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontières, RSF) sharply slammed ‘this vaguely worded and draconian bill’ which is designed ‘to censor and intimidate online media and internet users’ and ‘tighten the gag on press freedom’, RSF said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the authorities‘ latest attempts to discredit the Hirak and organizations or individuals associated to the movement by bringing up terrorism-related accusations are likely to have serious consequences. Since 2020, regime representatives have repeatedly indicated that groups active in the Hirak should be considered terrorist organizations – though initially only rhetorically. In April 2021 however, prosecutors in Oran formally charged the two journalists Saïd Boudour and Jamila Louki, human rights defender Kaddour Chouicha and nine other defendants of being members of a terrorist organization. In June, the regime approved of yet another amendment to the penal code, widening the definition of terrorism in Algerian law and paving the way for the creation of a ‘national list of persons and entities’ the state should classify as ‘terrorist’.

Shortly before, Algerian authorities had classified the Islamist Rachad movement, mainly based in Europe and North America, and the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia (Mouvement pour l‘Autodétermination de la Kabylie, MAK), established in 2001 and allegedly infiltrated by Algerian intelligence services, as ‘terrorist organizations’. While the terrorism allegations against Islamist groups appear to be rather a tactical maneuver, the regime’s expanded use of terrorism-related accusations is primarily directed towards Kabylia and the powerful Hirak protests, which continue unabated in the province. Already since 2019, the regime’s leaderships are increasingly using a sectarian rhetoric aimed at dividing the Hirak and the opposition along ethnic affiliations in order to play off Berbers and Arabs against each other. The regime is intentionally trying to provoke and radicalize the Kabylia opposition and is blatantly replicating tactics formerly applied by the French colonial regime in Algeria.

Power Struggles within the Regime Continue

While the increasingly military-led regime unanimously turns against the Hirak, fierce struggles for power between the various factions of the opaque and fragmented state class continue unabated. However, it remains unclear to what extent the ruling elite has reorganized itself since the surprising death of former army chief Gaïd Salah in December 2019. His fraction quickly took the lead within the regime after the mass uprising materialized in early 2019 and gradually eliminated rival clans competing for political influence and economic privileges in the slipstream of the revolt. Gaïd Salah was considered the driving force behind the army’s decision to remove Bouteflika and his entourage from power and neutralize them using countless arrests and corruption-related lawsuits. At that time, the judiciary also cracked down on the clan of Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Mediène, the former head of Algeria’s military intelligence service (Département du renseignement et de la Sécurité, DRS), previously considered to be untouchable, and determinedly dragged him and some of his key allies in front of Algerian courts.

Immediately after Gaïd Salah’s staunch ally Tebboune has taken over Algeria’s presidency in 2019, the army chief suddenly died. Shortly after, the military judiciary started taking action against regime figures affiliated to Gaïd Salah. The chief of staff had become more and more powerful since Bouteflika’s removal and made his claim for leadership within the state class unambiguously clear, but not without triggering resistance within the ruling class. Several high-ranking military officers, considered tied to Gaïd Salah’s regime fraction, fled Algeria shortly after his death, while others are being tried in military courts ever since.

Today, Algeria’s new Chief of Staff Saïd Chengriha is undoubtedly the military establishment’s new strongman, though his ambitions remain unclear. Under his leadership, Algerian judicial authorities continue to crack down on former Bouteflika allies, while other jailed regime figures were freed and cleared of all charges. Meanwhile, Mediène’s regime fraction appears to have been rehabilitated behind the scenes – at least partially – which provides Chengriha with options to continue pressuring Tebboune and safeguard the interests of the army and the intelligence services. The parliamentary election and the imminent formation of a new coalition are keys for the ongoing tug-of-war for power within the ruling class since they effectively pave the way for a new truce between the various regime clans. If no compromise between Tebboune and Chengriha is reached, an intervention of the army is considered possible. The fact that Chengriha repeatedly appeared in civilian clothes in Algerian TV while Tebboune has been treated in a German hospital for months in 2020 could be perceived as a sign for his political ambitions.

At a Crossroads

The revolutionary dynamics in Algeria have not yet come to an end. But Hirak and opposition are running out of time as the feuds within the regime’s elites appear to have been successfully turned towards a more orderly tug-of-war. The parliamentary elections have made it crystal clear that the regime is sticking to its uncompromising approach and that it does not consider concessions towards Algeria’s opposition as necessary. The Hirak’s weakness in the streets has restored the state class’ self-confidence. The realigned state and military leadership appears to be determined to defend its political and economic privileges and, for this purpose, it is even considering to push for an open confrontation with the opposition in Kabylia.

Inciting and provocative statements by high-ranking representatives of the army and the civilian fractions of the regime against the traditionally rebellious region should be, therefore, considered extremely dangerous. However, they appear to have been launched and exploited deliberately in order to divide the Hirak and the opposition, weaken them and secure the regime’s monopoly on accessing the vast revenues stemming from the state’s oil and gas exports. Against this background, the Hirak needs to urgently awake from its current apathy and recapture public spaces at any cost. Above all however, the Hirak needs to structure itself, as outlined by Prof. Dr. Rachid Ouaissa from the University of Marburg in an interview shortly after the election. He refers to the ongoing debate about the formation of a ‘provisional government’, which would be not only a ‘huge step’ but also a ‘declaration of war’ towards the regime.

‘The repression has precluded theCairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) Hirak from even considering cooperation with the regime’, an analysis by the  said. The combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Algeria’s ‘closed political system’ and the ‘restricted civic space’ have prevented the Hirak from coordinating internally and building a structured movement, according to CIHRS. Today, only Kabylia and Algeria’s diaspora in Europe and North America are considered the movement’s assets. However, in order to exert serious pressure on Algeria’s regime or even to shake it once again, more action is needed.

For the upcoming developments in Algeria and in order to overcome the current political impasse, two factors are likely to be of significant importance; the support of European governments for the military regime in Algiers and the manner in which the social and socioeconomic crisis will sooner or later translate into strikes and social protests. If the Hirak manages to actively embrace and integrate industrial workers actions into the movement, the opposition could regain ground and once again unleash powerful dynamics in Algerian streets. Vigorous social protests in 2017 and 2018 preceded the 2019 mass uprising and have been increasingly intensifying again since late 2020. The recently reawakened movement of the unemployed in the Southern Algerian province of Ouargla in March or the protests of Algerian firefighters in Algiers, violently dispersed by police forces, have unambiguously shown that civic resistance against the economic and social policies pursued by the regime has the potential to once again challenge the current political order. An article published in the military-owned newspaper El Djeich, framing the firefighters’ protests as ‘suspicious’ and a ‘plot’ by ‘parties hostile towards the country’, has indicated that the regime considers social protests as meaningful and potentially threatening for the status quo.

But Algeria‘s state class has also prepared itself for yet another possible confrontation with Hirak and the opposition and can be reassured of the support of European governments. Despite the mass uprising, Algerian police authorities have been continuously deporting African immigrants and refugees to Niger and Mali almost without disruption since 2019, blatantly violating international human rights and refugee law, and thus positioning itself as a reliable partner for Europe regarding European migration and border externalization policies. Given the examples of Turkey and Egypt, the regime in Algiers is reassured that human rights violations against the Algerian population will only be scandalized by European governments to a limited extent, when the Algerian police adheres to its illegal deportation practices.

In order to gain additional room to maneuver, the regime led by President Tebboune and army chief Chengriha approved a constitutional reform in November 2020. The constitutional revision allows Algeria for the very first time in its history to deploy soldiers abroad. This breach of taboo provides France and Germany in particular with the option of withdrawing their own troops deployed in the crisis-ridden Sahel region – especially in Niger and Mali –replacing them with Algerian units. Shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron has announced the end of the bloody Barkhade mission in the region and almost simultaneously to Algeria’s parliamentary election, Chengriha traveled to Paris for consultations regarding the situation in Mali. While Algeria’s Ministry of Defense has rebuked reports framing this visit as a ‘secret mission’, the timing of Chengrihas visit to France should be at least considered dubious. Rumors about the alleged construction of a military base in central Mali by France designated for the Algerian army are, in the meantime, grist on the mills of corresponding speculations.