PARIS - A year ago, Algeria’s stunning popular uprising forced out longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and rocked a power establishment in place since independence.
Today the coronavirus pandemic has emptied streets once packed with millions of anti-government protesters, while authorities continue a campaign of intimidation and arrests, critics say.
Some predict the pandemic, which now leaves Algeria with Africa’s biggest reported death toll, may unravel the largely peaceful Hirak protest movement born early last year. Yet other analysts believe, paradoxically, that COVID-19 could see it emerge stronger than ever.
“The Hirak is taking charge of the health crisis,” said Anissa Daboussi, Middle East and North African program officer for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). “Once again, civil society is offering the answers, not the state.”
With more than 300 coronavirus-related deaths as of Wednesday, Algeria has Africa’s highest reported mortality figures, although its overall caseload lags South Africa and Egypt, according to the Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Center.
Algerian authorities say they have been proactive in responding to the pandemic, describing the excellence of their medical staff and claiming they announced some measures like school closings even before their European counterparts. Today, partial curfews and confinements are in place across most of the country, while neighboring Morocco and Tunisia are under full lockdown.
“Our country is totally ready to face the pandemic,” Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune told national media recently, adding any supply bottlenecks would be dealt with through local production and imports.
Experts are less confident, pointing to the country’s weak health infrastructure and reported shortages of basic equipment like masks and disinfectant gel. Those shortcomings, along with a struggling economy and high joblessness, could make it hard for Algeria to weather and recover from the virus, they say.
Indeed, the North African country ranks among the least prepared to respond to a health crisis, placing 173 out of 195 nations in a 2019 Johns Hopkins Global Health Security Index.
The government’s unpopularity and hard-line response to dissent could prove further handicaps, rights activists and analysts say.
Last month, for example, an appeals court sentenced leading opposition figure Karim Tabbou to another year in jail, just before he completed a six-month term for alleged charges related to inciting violence and harming national security. Authorities also arrested prominent journalist Khaled Drareni, a correspondent for press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, who extensively covered the Hirak uprising.
Meanwhile, not a single leading Hirak figure has been included among about 5,000 prisoners pardoned last month to prevent the virus from spreading in jails, activists say.
“Their priority is clearly not a health response, but to continue trying to muzzle dissident voices,” said the FIDH’s Daboussi of the government.
Algerian authorities did not respond to a request for comment. But North Africa security analyst Brahim Oumansour, of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, called such actions regrettable, even if they are nothing new.
“They come at a time when authorities need to win over public confidence to deal with this health crisis,” he said. “But they’re pursuing the same old strategy of repression.”
The Hirak’s moment?
For their part, Hirak protesters have found new outlets for expression, analysts say — and a new cause. While some initially spread fake news about the virus, others urged Algerians to respect confinement measures and to continue the protests online.
“The Hirak will come back even more beautiful, Incha’Allah,” read one message posted on Twitter, with a clip of an earlier mass protest.
Associations that once joined the twice-weekly demonstrations are now organizing shipments of food and medical supplies to areas hard hit by the virus.
In the northern province of Tizi Ouzou, long a flashpoint of anti-government protests, youngsters have launched a crowdfunding appeal to supply masks and other protective equipment to a struggling local hospital, the country’s independent El Watan newspaper reported. Feminist groups are watching out for domestic violence under the lockdown.
In some cases, civil society groups are reportedly joining forces with local authorities, even as others complain of having their efforts blocked.
“The Hirak has transformed into a kind of large charitable organization,” one association leader in Oran, Algeria’s second largest city, told France’s Le Monde newspaper.
Other see bigger opportunities for the movement.
“The increasingly obvious cracks in Algeria’s health systems, governance, and leadership will give the Hirak an opening to go beyond protest,” wrote Algeria expert Vish Sakthivel in a recent Middle East Institute article. “To reframe grievances, articulate new demands, and forge a role in policy and service provision.”
But analyst Oumansour warns of a potentially grimmer post-pandemic scenario.
“The Pouvoir can’t hide the situation in the hospitals and what Algerians could face if they need health care,” he said, using the popular term for Algeria’s nebulous power establishment.
Adding in the economic fallout from the crisis and a potentially hardening government response to dissent, he added, “there is a risk in some cases the movement could tip into violence.”