For some authoritarians, the coronavirus tragedy has presented a golden opportunity to grab more power and trample rights. Hungary’s parliament has voted to allow Prime Minister Victor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, and in Hong Kong, police, apparently acting at China’s behest, arrested prominent pro-democracy leaders for “unauthorized” demonstrations a year ago.
Algeria is no laggard in this regard.
Algerians had been demonstrating massively and nonviolently in multiple cities every Friday since February 22, 2019 for democratic change and the departure of those in the army and close to the presidency who are said to hold the real power in Algeria. The Hirak (“the movement”), the most sustained protest movement the country has seen in three decades, had already forced four-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign and twice delayed elections for a successor, until Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a prime minister under Bouteflika, won a vote on December 12 with a record low turnout.
Tebboune took office offering dialogue with the Hirak, saying he sought “radical” political reform “to break with the bad practices, moralize political life, and change the mode of governing.”
But Tebboune has been less conciliatory in deed. In February, on the first anniversary of the Hirak protests, dozens of activists remained behind bars for peaceful dissent, and 173 faced charges. None benefitted from the presidential pardon of 9,765 prisoners in the same month.
Then the coronavirus struck, diminishing turnout at the weekly demonstration on March 13. Over the next few days, Hirak activists called to suspend street actions. On March 17, the government banned all public gatherings, as other countries have done in response to the virus.
The government also intensified its repression of the Hirak, perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that the lockdown made mass protests unlikely. Courts sentenced leading Hirak figures such as Karim Tabbou and Abdelouahab Farsaoui, on March 24 and April 6 respectively, to one year each on vague charges such as “harming national unity.” Journalist-activist Khaled Drareni, who has covered the demonstrations since the beginning, has been jailed since March 27, facing similar charges. Authorities blocked critical websites and arrested youths such as Walid Kechida who have pursued their peaceful Hirak activism online. Another pardon on April 1freed 5,037 inmates to reduce prison overcrowding during the pandemic but once again excluded Hirak detainees.
In Algeria, it seems authorities are using the Covid-19 crisis to try to put the genie of pro-democracy protests back in the bottle.