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Algeria / A year after protests began, the military junta clings onto power

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On the 16th of February 2019, large crowds marched in Kherrata to reject the military’s plans for an Abdelaziz Bouteflika fifth term, triggering country-wide pro-democracy protests.

This Sunday, February 16th 2020, Kherrata’s inhabitants came out to mark the Hirak’s one year anniversary, it is in this small town, 60 Km south-east of Bejaia, where it had all started and where the wall of fear was first broken. Since then, across the country, Algerians have been protesting every Friday continuously.

Calls for a tougher approach

Since the appointment of Abdelmadjid Tebboune by the army on December 12th, pro-democracy activists have been looking at ways to increase the pressure on the regime. Many Algerians are slowly coming to the realisation that Friday’s mass protests aren’t enough; the regime has got accustomed to them and has learnt to tolerate them.

The CRUA (Comité révolutionnaire d’unité et d’action), founded by Lyes Rahmani and based in France, is one of several initiatives launched over the past months; it is inspired by a revolutionary committee, of the same name, which took up arms against the French in 1954. Lyes Rahmani considers the regime as a “neo-colonial power”, a sentiment echoed by most Algerians.

The CRUA considers that the regime is illegitimate, and as a result, law enforcement, including the anti-riot police, are nothing more than “armed militias”. For the CRUA, Algerians shouldn’t tolerate the repression and arbitrary arrests anymore, recommending a “self-defence approach” that implies taking forceful action against the regime’s aggressive law enforcement elements. It also recommends kicking out companies and embassies of countries deemed as actively “corrupting” the Algerian authorities, such as with Saudi Arabia, Russia or the Emirates. For the CRUA, the diaspora has an important role to play: PR efforts on the international stage, as much as tougher actions abroad, such as occupying embassies, kicking diplomats out, or tracing the sons and daughters of the regime and carrying out citizen arrests.

A Bouteflika 5th term without Bouteflika

The arrest of dissidents, censorship, political distractions, characterised Bouteflika’s 20 years reign. Evidence on the ground suggests it is still the case. While an illegitimate Abdelmadjid Tebboune buries his head in the sand and speaks of a liberated justice, opposition figures remain unlawfully detained. Karim Tabbou, Rachid Nekkaz, as well as journalists (e.g. Sofiane Merakchi, Abdelhaï Abdessamai) and many demonstrators have been imprisoned on mostly nonsensical charges. Evidence of nothing having changed was further emphasised when Hadj Ghermoul, one of the first activists to publicly protest against a Bouteflika 5th term, was severely beaten by a police superintendent, spat on, repeatedly struck on the head with a talkie-walkie while subordinates held back his hands.

Rachid Nekkaz, a presidential candidate was locked up upon publishing a video through which he vowed to press charges, upon his return to Algiers, against Ahmed Gaid Salah, the recently deceased army chief. Upon landing in Algiers on the 4th of December 2019, he was arrested by security service officers and thrown in jail. No trial has been scheduled for his case.

For Rachid Nekkaz, Ahmed Gaïd Salah violated article 55 of the Algerian Constitution which guarantees the Algerian people the ability to enjoy “their civil and political rights” and “to freely choose the place of their residence and to move about”, partly referring to the blockade of Algiers by security forces to prevent demonstrators from reaching the capital and take part in the protests. Rachid Nekkaz had also denounced the oil giant Total for planning to frack for natural gas in Algeria, a practice banned in France where the oil giant is headquartered but given a green light by Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s government and subsequently approved by a Bouteflika-era parliament.

Karim Tabbou, an outspoken critic of the regime, feared for his popularity among the Algerian people, is held in solitary confinement for having criticized the army publicly.

Those who dare speak up against the regime are quickly dealt with. Such was the case for the deputy prosecutor at the court of Sidi M’Hamed in Algiers, Mohamed Belhadi, who pleaded in favour of the release of around twenty pro-democracy demonstrators and for the independence of the judiciary. He was relocated to Guemar in the south-east of the country as a punishment for his stance.

Fearing the possibility of the pro-democracy demonstrators structuring politically, the regime’s censorship extended to civil society, earlier this week, when a press conference of civil society organisations involved in the pro-democracy protests scheduled for Sunday morning was banned by the authorities.