The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Algeria one year after the peaceful movement known as the Hirak began their Friday protests on February 22, 2019. Pressure from the protests led to the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2, 2019. The Hirak continues to demand the end of the corrupt system of governance and to support social justice, dignity and popular sovereignty.
The first coronavirus patient was diagnosed in late February 2020 and presented a real dilemma: Should Algerians continue their protests against the ruling elite, or cease protesting due to the threat of infection? Would the regime succeed in using the pandemic to put an end to a movement that has highlighted the profound resilience, creativity and determination of the Algerian people?
As reports of the disease spread, many activists shifted focus and used their networks to raise awareness and offer assistance on the local level. According to the World Health Organization, there were 3,007 confirmed infections and 407 deaths from the pandemic in Algeria as of April 24.
The interview has been translated from French and edited for clarity.
Q: How is the Hirak protest movement affected by the pandemic? How are activists, who are advocating for change in Algeria’s system of governance, responding to this public health emergency?
The February 22, 2019 uprising in Algeria (known as the Hirak) was an unexpected development. Protest had been banned at the end of the civil war (1991–2002) and following the events of the Kabyle Black Spring, which saw mass protests in Algiers to denounce state violence in the region of Kabylia. Despite the ban, the Hirak continued their protest every Friday for over a year. In the past, on the rare occasions when protesters defied this ban (such as protests by doctors, teachers and army retirees), they were violently repressed by government forces.
And then COVID-19 began its spread toward North Africa. The question of whether or not the Hirak should be suspended sparked discussions in the streets and on the internet. On social media, many Algerians correctly said, “It’s impossible to leave the streets. This will be the chance [the regime] has dreamed of to massively and definitively put an end to the protests. It will take advantage [of the situation] to arrest activists one by one.” In fact, this is exactly what happened after President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced a ban on marches on March 17.
The arrest warrants keep on coming. The police are taking into custody those who are most influential or most active in the Hirak. Journalists, students and other citizens are in provisional detention. Some were even kidnapped at night from where they live. We are seeing practices that we thought were long gone!
Q: How has President Tebboune responded to the pandemic? What is the role of the administration and notably the local prefects in the management of this health crisis?
The Hirak was a blessing for the country, for its people and its history. It was a wonderful moment where a people that have been torn apart by successive tragedies—notably the civil war of the 1990s—were reunited. The feelings of pride, nationalism, of civic involvement and collective joy that we witnessed over the year could have constituted the cement for the construction of a new Algeria that seemed to want to forgive and heal from its wounds.
But since the former army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, forbade the carrying of the Amazigh [also known as Berber] flag last June and the following spate of arrests and intimidation, Algerians found themselves faced with blatant attempts to divide the population.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected on December 12, 2019 with a record low voter turnout, estimated at around 40 percent. He promised to begin a dialogue with the Hirak, to prohibit all hateful, racist and regionalist speech and to guarantee freedom of expression (among other promises). Yet he has done exactly the opposite. Political figures—including deputies—who make racist remarks, notably against the Kabyles, are still free and are even being protected. Media outlets that do not espouse the editorial line of El-Mouradia [the presidential palace] are being censured and journalists are being arrested and imprisoned for doing their jobs.
Q: How have the prisoners of opinion (such as Karim Tabbou and Abdelouahab Fersaoui) been affected by COVID-19? More generally, how would you describe the state of prisons in Algeria?
These individuals are doing relatively well and keeping their spirits high, according to the volunteer lawyers who have been regularly visiting the prisons where journalists, political activists and members of associations are all being held. There hasn’t been any news of large-scale cases of the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. At the same time, we deplored the death of a detainee [from the virus] at the prison in Koléa in the province of Tipaza (to the West of Algiers), where the political opposition figure Karim Tabbou and the journalist Khaled Drareni are both being held.
Q: What is the state of the Algerian health care system now, after several years of mobilization and strikes denouncing the neglect of authorities?
It’s hardly a secret that the health sector in Algeria has been ravaged. A study by the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) places it among the weakest in the world. Algerians know this very well. Health care workers are now facing the coronavirus pandemic with a shortage of masks, gloves and disposable gowns. The Italian experience, a country that is very close to ours in many respects, has encouraged our citizens to mobilize and to respect the confinement since they know this is the only thing that can save them.
Q: How have Algerians organized to face the crisis? What forms of solidarity have they developed, in parallel with (or in opposition to) the state?
There are several forms of solidarity. First, at a smaller scale, at the level of families, neighborhoods and villages, people are disinfecting [their surroundings], sewing masks and gowns and collecting money to help the most destitute. Some open their garages, their homes or reception halls to welcome the homeless, or offer lodging for those working in the health sector. Others organize meals to give to hospitals and to the police who are mobilized on the street or in their barracks.
These actions of solidarity undertaken by citizens are often in parallel with state actions. For example, members of civic associations—many of whom participate in the Hirak—help their municipalities with disinfection and even transport medical material from China. Volunteers are placing orders with Chinese companies for needed supplies and personally traveling to China to transport the material back to Algeria. Faced with this health emergency, political differences are momentarily set aside.
Q: How would you describe life in Algeria during the COVID-19 pandemic? How has confinement changed the daily rhythm of life? What are Algerians doing to pass the time?
Algerians, like other countries around the Mediterranean, are people who like to be outside in the sun. But the city streets are currently empty and the legendary Moorish cafés are closed. Algerians are developing many new habits, like wearing masks and gloves, as well as practicing social distancing, which is so foreign to our people. Except for semolina [used in making couscous], there are not any food shortages. All the stores are, for the moment, well-stocked.
On social networks, we are seeing an enormous production of comedic and humorous works, a discovery or rediscovery of Algerian cuisine, as well as contests and challenges of all kinds to pass the time. But the subject that most concerns the population (the majority of which is Muslim) is how Ramadan, the month of fasting that began last Friday, will proceed. Ramadan is normally associated with sharing, vigils and praying in mosques.
As for the Hirak activists, they are trying to stay up to date with the news of people who are summoned by the police and the trials of political prisoners. Volunteer lawyers are still there to defend them. Each Friday, the activists publish their slogans on social media, proclaiming: “We are here! The Hirak has not run out of steam!”
[For more on the Hirak in Algeria, see Robert Parks, “From Protesta to Hirak to Algeria’s New Revolutionary Moment,” Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).]