Algerians are expected to take to the streets in large numbers on Friday ahead of the 12 November presidential elections in the country.
It will be the 42nd consecutive week of mass protests against the Algerian regime, spurred in March in response to then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth re-election.
While Bouteflika was forced to resign by military chief of staff Ahmad Gaid Saleh in April, the protest movement has continued to demonstrate against the establishment in Algeria, demanding changes beyond the removal of symbols of Bouteflika’s regime.
An “anti-corruption” drive that began in May with the arrest of Bouteflika’s influential brother Said and some of the country’s most powerful businessmen continued until June in an effort by the authorities to appease the protesters.
Bouteflika was replaced by interim president Abdelkader Bensalah, a regime loyalist and parliamentary speaker, as the country’s constitution dictates, until new elections can be held in 90 days and his term expires.
Because both Bensalah’s appointment and the elections in July were rejected by the hirak or protest movement, no serious contenders attempted to step in, forcing Saleh to cancel the vote after missing the deadline.
As a result, Algeria has been without a president for nine months. But as Saleh’s contempt of the protest movement became more vocal, the security forces began arresting its more prominent supporters.
Dozens of people including journalists and activists have been rounded up in what the international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described as a “pattern to weaken opposition to Algeria’s interim rulers and their determination to hold presidential elections”.
Determined to hold the elections nonetheless, Saleh then prompted Bensalah to announce that the vote would take place on 12 December. A government-appointed election committee was formed to oversee the vote, which approved only five out of the 23 applicants who had applied for the presidential race.
All five have served in the ruling establishment at different stages in their lives. They include former prime ministers Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Ali Benflis, former culture minister Azzedddine Mihoubi, former tourism minister Abdelkader Bengrine and Abdelaziz Belaid, head of the Al-Mostakbal Movement, a political party.
“The authorities are claiming that the planned elections usher in a new era of democracy in Algeria,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director at HRW. “But there is nothing democratic about this widespread crackdown on critics.”
HRW said that pro-democracy activists “remain detained on vague charges such as ‘harming national unity’ and ‘undermining the morale of the army.’”
On 10 October, the authorities arrested Abdelouhab Fersaoui, president of the Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse or RAJ), an association active in the protest movement. He is now in Harrach Prison in Algiers with nine other association members, including one of its founders, Hakim Addad.
The Algerian military intelligence arrested Karim Tabbou, a leading opposition figure, on 26 September. He is the former secretary-general of the opposition party the Socialist Forces Front (Front des Forces Socialistes or FFS) and currently head of an unrecognised party.
Tabbou is in the Kolea Prison, awaiting trial on charges of harming the national interest and recruiting mercenaries on behalf of foreign powers.
On 16 September, the police arrested Samir Belarbi, and two days later Fodil Boumala, hirak leaders who speak regularly to the national and international media.
They were transferred to separate courts in Algiers and charged with “compromising the integrity of the national territory” and the “distribution of documents harmful to the national interest” under Articles 79 and 96, respectively, of the Algerian penal code.
The authorities have also targeted journalists who have covered the protests. Said Boudour, a journalist from Oran and a member of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, and Mustapha Bendjama, editor-in-chief of the Annaba-based newspaper Le Provincial, were arrested and later released pending trial.
Police reports show that a special brigade on electronic crimes has been monitoring the social-media activities of some of the opposition movement’s leaders. The reports form the basis for vaguely worded charges of “harming state security” or “undermining national unity.”
On 11 November, the Sidi M’hamed court in Algiers opened the trial of 42 activists under the charge of “compromising the integrity of the national territory” under Article 79 of the penal code for brandishing the Amazigh flag, said Kaci Tansaout, a spokesperson for the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, an organisation created on 26 August by activists and lawyers to defend prisoners arrested during the protests.
The Amazigh are the Berber-speaking population of Algeria.
The protesters have no longer limited themselves to organising daily demonstrations, with Friday’s popular movement and Tuesday’s demonstrations of university students, and they are now holding night marches as well, putting more pressure on the security forces.
Protesters on Friday chanted “no to the elections,” “free the detainees” and “the army should leave politics” as they marched through Algiers.
Parallel to the arrests, government-aligned media outlets have celebrated the trial of former government officials on charges of corruption, including former prime minister Ahmed Ouyehia, which they described as “historic.”
The trial has now been postponed to 4 December.
The first televised presidential debate in Algeria will be held between the five candidates on Friday. Coming a month after Tunisia held its first free presidential elections, which saw two sets of presidential debates, these have prompted comparisons with Algeria’s widely rejected vote.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.