Algeria: An unpopular election

Algeria: An unpopular election
Comment: The outcome of Thursday's election will be devoid of legitimacy, as long as Hirak leaders and journalists remain in prison, and protesters' demands ignored, writes Zaouia Meriem-Benziane.
9 min read
11 Dec, 2019
The five candidates in the coming election were all officials under the Bouteflika system [Getty]
On 28 November, a group of women gathered in 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 expressed their outrage: "You despise the people", "A free and democratic Algeria", "Free our children, they're not cocaine dealers" and "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 Algeria's constitution has recognised the Amazigh as a component of Algerian national identity since 1996, and the Amazigh language as one of the country's national languages since 2002. "Divide and rule is their strategy, but we're all united now," said one 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 background, Algerians are demanding an end to this corrupt regime, and a return to the rule of law and an independent judicial system.

The population has flat out rejected the December 12 election, because the mainstays of the old Bouteflika regime are still running the country. Prime Minister Bedoui was previously minister of the interior, and is now in charge of these fraudulent elections. In Kabylie, many mayors have even refused to organise the presidential election.

The arrests are proof that the power structure is nervous

On 12 November 2019, 21 people were sentenced to six months in jail, and fined 30,000 dinars ($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, stating that the "integrity of the national territory" had not been "compromised". 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 figures thrown into prison

Highly respected figures of Algerian society who have come out in support of the Hirak have also been arrested, such as Commander Lakhdar Bouregaa and 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 and Commander Bouregaa in a video, and General Benhadid in an open letter.

The fact that he is an historic hero of the War of Independence did not guarantee Lahkdar Bouregaa any immunity. And yet, he joined the National Liberation Army as early as 1956 and ultimately came to command Wilaya No. 5.

He later opposed Houari Boumediene and his clan, and was jailed 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 was already voicing criticism 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 the 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 10 years in prison. These arrests have had dramatic consequences. The health of both Lakhdar Bouregaa, 86, and General Benhadid, 73, 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 involvement 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 Socialist Forces Front which he left in 2012. He went on to form his own party, the UDS, which has remained 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 Youth Action Rally (RAJ), Karim Boutata and Ahcene Kadi were jailed as well. On 10 October, the movement's chairman, Abdelouahab Fersaoui was arrested.

The RAJ is an officially recognised association which since 1993 has dedicated itself to the task of raising young people's civic awareness and has been especially targeted for its Hirak activities.

Its leaders are omnipresent on 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, too. This takes many forms: suspensions, arrests, cancelled programmes, blocked websites. No pluralism is tolerated on public television which broadcasts the chief of staff's weekly speeches.

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.

Whoever is elected president will have no legitimacy whatsoever

They demanded freedom of expression but their hopes for the liberalisation of the media were quickly dashed. The freewheeling political debates organised by Nahla Bekralas on Channel 3 (French-language public radio) were suspended, and other programmes were even subject to administrative sanctions.

As for the private media, access to independent news sites is regularly interrupted in Algeria. For example, the TSAW website has experienced intermittent interruptions since 12 June, and 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 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 is Sofiane Marrakchi. The "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 jail. Others, like Mustapha Bendjema, editor-in-chief of Le Provincial in Annaba are prohibited from leaving the country.

Under such pressures, Algerian reporters are at their wits' end, 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 spearheaded movement, marching through through the streets of Algiers every Tuesday. A 22-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, a symbolic 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, protesters 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.

Read more: Algerians, now's the time to finish what you started

The five candidates in the coming election were all officials under the Bouteflika system, and have met with the people's hostility during their campaign travels. Clashes with the police erupted and tear gas was used during candidate Benfils' visit to Bouira on 27 November. He was due to speak at the House of Culture at 3pm, but the event had to be transferred to a hall in the Wilaya (county) headquarters which was practically empty, according to the news site TSA.

If they do manage to hold their election, whoever 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.

Zaouia Meriem-Benziane is a freelance journalist, Masters student at Sorbonne Nouvelle University, and former project manager at the Ligue de l’Enseignement, and the CFDT trade union.

This article was originally by our partners at OrientXXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.