The effects of COVID-19 have tampered the longest political rampage in the world’s 10th largest country and Africa’s 8th most populous country. The Arab nation of Algeria has experienced massive nonviolent demonstrations every Friday since 22 February 2019.
The four-term leadership of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has concluded with his resignation as Algerians demand democratic change through a protest movement called Hirak. This prolonged protest has also led to a double delay in the elections of a successor. On 12 December 2019, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a Prime Minister under President Bouteflika, won a record low election vote. This long demand for corrupt officials to leave power has been halted by the health concerns of COVID-19.
In one of Human Rights Watch’s reports, Tebboune promised to seek “radical” political reform “to break with the bad practices, moralize political life, and change the mode of governing” in a dialogue with the Hirak protesters. Though Algiers streets have been empty for a month now, dissatisfaction and discontent still lingers in the minds of Algerians as Tabboune has not offered presidential pardon for dozens of activists who were jailed. Imprisoned activist Karim Tabbou was among the protest leaders who told demonstrators to suspend their marches, according to Reuters. It is unacceptable that Hirak leaders were not included amongst some 9765 prisoners who were freed in February 2020.
13 March was the beginning of the reduction of protesters whilst the government ban on public gatherings officially ended the long justice quest on 17 March. Unfortunately, this lockdown led to the courts sentencing key Hirak figures Karim Tabbou and Abdelouahab Farsaoui on 24 March and 6 April respectively, to one year each on vague charges such as “harming national unity.”
Unjustified charges have also been leveed on Khaled Drareni, a journalist-activist who has been reporting on the demonstrations since 27 March, as Human Rights Watch reports. Similarly, online youth activists like Walid Kechida were arrested and websites were blocked by the authorities. The government again showed its impartiality by freeing 5,037 inmates excluding Hirak detainees. Human Rights Watch states that the Algerian government is using the COVID-19 crisis to try to put the genie of pro-democracy protests back in the bottle.
Peaceful protesting is a universal right for every citizen and should be respected by every government. Tabboune’s administration should devise amicable peaceful resolution methods. Karim and all Hirak activists should receive fair trials and be released from jail. It should be universal understanding that imprisoning key human rights activists has never brought peace in any country before. COVID-19 has brought an end to the tens of thousands of Algerians weekly frequenting the street movements but this should be the time for the government to devise sustainable solutions, rather than carry out acts which will aggravate and spur more tension. Conducting a dialogue involving negotiation should be initiated to foster a sustainable peaceful situation and prevent the possibilities of further protests after COVID-19 ends. Peace is achievable now and actions should be done with reasonable consideration of every Algerian.