Quarantined for now, Algeria's protesters vow to return

Quarantined for now, Algeria's protesters vow to return
Comment: Algerians may be under quarantine, but their desire for freedom will not be confined forever, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
27 Mar, 2020
An Algerian health worker disinfects a bus stop in Algiers, 20 March 2020 [Getty]

Algeria, like most countries around the world is navigating a new reality brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The state-imposed quarantine, however, has meant all protests, which had been taking place weekly since February 2019, have been called off. 

When the Algerian government initially ordered schools and universities to shut, and that all large gatherings of a political, economic or cultural nature would be banned, some in the Hirak viewed this as scaremongering by the state in order to repress protest action.

Former political prisoner
Samira Messouci was among those who continued rallying people to participate in the Friday demonstration, just a week before the movement decided it would be too risky to continue. 

The young activist stated in a public interview what many had expressed on social media and even while marching at weekly protests; that there was no denying the existence of coronavirus, but that given le pouvoir had tried everything - repression, imprisonment, blocking all the roads etc. - this was the regime's opportunistic use of a new crisis.

"Neither coronavirus nor cholera is going to stop us, we're getting our freedom, come what may,"
chanted protestors just two weeks ago. 

For a regime that has done nothing but lie, steal, repress and exploit, it is not surprising that when an occasion to shut down all demonstrations, collective meetings, and spaces of mass gathering presents itself, it welcomes it with open arms.

The lockdown is total and the regime can be heard breathing a sigh of relief

Nor is it surprising that a population which has suffered under this regime's rule for so long and fights to free itself from its grip, is largely suspicious of the latest reason to keep it away from the public sphere. 

That said, as the crisis grew, the Hirak and prominent leaders, including Messouci, called on people to self-isolate in order to fight the spread of the coronavirus. This was of course the right thing to do, and it shows that the movement is taking necessary precautions.

When initial news of cases in Algeria hit, masks and hand sanitisers were distributed at weekly demonstrations, but with more than 360 confirmed cases and 25 deaths upon writing, it was becoming too dangerous for protesters to continue bringing together thousands upon thousands and risk facilitating the spread of the disease.

Proof of political manipulation of the crisis is also to be found in the actions that the Algerian state has been taking since a growing number of cases has been recorded. Dozens of activists have been arrested, including journalist Khaled Drareni who was accused of "undermining national unity", as reported by Human Rights Watch, and taken into custody for four days.

[Click to enlarge]

State forces also reportedly used violence to break up protests last week as they detained people in Algiers and Oran. Land, air, and sea borders have been closed, and Algerians abroad are often not allowed to come back. The lockdown is total and the regime can be heard breathing a sigh of relief.

It will undoubtedly take a huge effort to remobilise following the pandemic, especially given there is no clear end-date for the current state of affairs, either in Algeria or elsewhere.

Furthermore, even if borders, schools, public services and businesses are reopened, and the state announces an end to self-isolation, the fear is likely to continue. People will be far more apprehensive about shared spaces and mass gatherings, and providing reassurance will be difficult.

Yet, while le pouvoir is using the crisis to shut the Hirak down, its lacklustre medical response has already opened up new potential fronts of resistance.

Algerian journalists report, for example, that authorities are downplaying the severity of the spread of the pandemic in Algeria and the medical crisis it is generating, in order to present a strong front.
Drareni shared earlier this week that health services are stretched to their limit and that the death toll is predicted to be much higher than the official numbers. 

The Algerian regime has spent decades underfunding welfare services

It is also important to note that the Algerian regime has spent decades underfunding welfare services, encouraging the growth of private healthcare that millions are unable to afford, given the large-scale unemployment and poverty of the country's population. In doing so, le pouvoir in Algeria, like many other countries around the world including the US, France and the UK, has created the very environment needed for such an outbreak to thrive. 

Overworked, underfunded, under-resourced health services, divestment from public services, precarious employment. The list of factors which have limited the ability of healthcare professionals to gain some control over the coronavirus crisis, and have made it nearly impossible for people to stay away from the little work they do have, has much to do with the policies championed by the very leaders pretending to care about the survival and safety of their populations.

For a movement that had nothing but rage against injustice, and the conviction that things must change; for a people who demonstrated weekly without any break or political compromises for over a year, against repression, arrests and violence, it will now need to take on this challenge, too. 

The creativity of the Hirak from cartoons to twitter hashtags, videos and memes, has inspired and spread the air of revolution around the world.

It is now more than ever that those innovative forms of expression will be needed to maintain the momentum throughout isolation and generate collective responses to the infrastructural and medical nightmare for which the regime's policies have laid the groundwork.

A protester painted on a wall, "Hirak, we shall return after Covid-19" warning the forces capitalising on this crisis, that it is far from over.

Some have even volunteered to sterilise public spaces on days that would usually be filled with demonstrations as a way to remain present in the public sphere. 

Algerians may be under quarantine, but their desire for freedom and the dream that the people will bring the fall of the regime can neither be confined, nor brought to more than a temporary halt.

The regime is catching its breath right now, but as it does so, it is also confronted with a new crisis that its policies for the last three decades have exacerbated.

As people get sick, lose their jobs, and even sadly lose their lives, they will remember who allowed the medical infrastructure to collapse and the economy to degenerate, while they filled their foreign bank accounts. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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.