Algeria Elects Parliament Amid ‘Repression’ Of Protest Movement

A man casts his ballot at a polling station in Bouchaoui, on the western outskirts of Algeria’s capital Algiers, on June 12, 2021 during the 2021 parliamentary elections. (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)

 

 

Algeria voted Saturday in a parliamentary election overshadowed by a crackdown on a long-running protest movement that has campaigned for a mass boycott.

Pro-government parties have urged a big turnout for the “crucial vote” which they hope will restore stability after two years of turmoil since the forced resignation of veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The protest movement, which had held weekly demonstrations for reform until they were effectively banned last month, has denounced the election as a “sham” that betrays the hopes of the hundreds of thousands of Algerians whose protests forced Bouteflika from power.

Seven leading protest movement figures were arrested ahead of polling day while police deployed heavily in the capital Algiers to preempt any attempt to rally.

Polls close at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT) and results are not expected before the coming days.

Authorities are hoping for a solid turnout, but the two previous national votes since Bouteflika stepped down — a presidential election and a constitutional referendum — both saw record low voting after the protest movement urged a boycott.

In Algiers, only a trickle of people were seen entering polling stations on Saturday morning, with most people getting on with their daily lives.

 

A woman picks up a ballot as she prepares to vote at a polling station in Bouchaoui, on the western outskirts of Algeria’s capital Algiers, on June 12, 2021 during the 2021 parliamentary elections. – Polls opened in Algeria for a parliamentary election overshadowed by a crackdown on a long-running protest movement that has campaigned for a mass boycott. Pro-government parties have urged a big turnout for the “crucial vote” which they hope will restore stability after two years of turmoil since the forced resignation of veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (Photo by RYAD KRAMDI / AFP)

 

“I’ve never voted, and this time it’s no different. I don’t believe it would change anything,” said Fatiha, a shopkeeper in her 50s.

Hamid, a 60-year-old office manager, said he had voted for the sake of “stability”.

“We are surrounded by danger. Those who reject this election aren’t putting forward any realistic alternative,” he said.

In the opposition stronghold of Kabylie, a mainly Berber region east of the capital, most polling stations in the main cities of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou remained closed, said Said Salhi, deputy head of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH).

Boycott calls from the region’s two main parties were almost universally respected in the previous two votes since Bouteflika’s ouster.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected on an official turnout of less than 40 in late 2019, put a brave face on the likely low legislative turnout.

“For me, it’s not the turnout percentage that’s important, it’s whether the lawmakers that the people elect have sufficient legitimacy,” the president said after casting his vote at a polling station on the outskirts of Algiers.

More than 13,000 candidates are standing for the 407 seats in parliament, more than half listed as “independent”.

– ‘Repressive atmosphere’ –
The LADDH vice-president deplored the crackdown that preceded the vote.

The “repressive atmosphere and the restrictions placed on human rights and freedoms mean these elections have no democratic value”, Salhi said.

The protest movement has urged boycotts of all national polls since it mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in 2019 to force Bouteflika and his cronies from power, after the ailing president launched a bid for a fifth term.

It returned to the streets in February after an almost-year-long break caused by the Covid pandemic.

But the government stepped up its crackdown last month, blocking protests and detaining hundreds of activists who have defied new restrictions on public gatherings.

Late Thursday, leading opposition figure Karim Tabbou, independent journalist Khaled Drareni and the director of a pro-reform radio station, Ihsane El Kadi, were among seven people detained. The three were eventually released on Friday night, a campaign group said.

“These arrests mark a chilling escalation in the Algerian authorities’ clampdown on the rights to freedom of expression and association,” Amnesty International said in a statement, reporting more than 200 people were in detention in connection with the protest movement.

– Old guard and economic woes –
The president claims to have responded to the protesters’ main demands “in record time”, and says those still protesting are “counter-revolutionaries” in the pay of “foreign parties”.

The protest movement says Tebboune’s past role as premier under Bouteflika confirms its narrative that the old guard, in power since Algeria’s 1962 independence from France, retains an undiluted grip on power.

Established parties linked to Bouteflika’s rule — the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Democratic National Rally (RND) — are seen as likely to lose seats.

Islamist parties are hoping to take advantage — but with their vote split between five rival factions, they may struggle to make real gains.

Africa’s fourth-largest economy is heavily dependent on oil revenues, which have slumped in the face of the global economic slowdown. Unemployment stands at more than 12 percent, according to World Bank figures.

It has also been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 3,500 lives in the country, according to the health ministry.

Algerians Hit Streets To Protest Second Anniversary Of Hirak Movement

Algerians rally in the capital Algiers on February 22, 2021, marking the second anniversary of the country’s anti-government “Hirak” protest movement./ AFP

 

Thousands of Algerians marched Monday in the capital and other cities to mark the second anniversary of the North African nation’s anti-government “Hirak” protest movement, AFP journalists said.

The protest movement in April 2019 forced longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika into resigning, and Monday’s demonstration in Algiers is the largest since rallies were suspended in March last year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Police were deployed in force in Algiers, with helicopters hovering overhead.

“We are not here to celebrate, but to demand your departure,” the protesters shouted, referring to a regime that they see as being little changed from the one headed for two decades by Bouteflika.

“The fateful hour has arrived,” read one banner brandished by demonstrators.

Security checkpoints created traffic jams across the city, with identity checks carried out around key flashpoints, with several arrests made.

Police tried to block protesters from gathering around the Grand Post Office, which was at the heart of the mass protests that kicked off in Algiers and several other cities on February 22, 2019 to oppose Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.

Elsewhere in the country, marches were being held Monday including in Annaba, Oran, Setif and Mostaganem, according to witnesses and accounts on social media.

– ‘Same old people’ –
Demonstrators kept up their action after Bouteflika’s resignation, demanding a sweeping overhaul of a ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.

They only suspended marches last March due to coronavirus restrictions, but calls circulated on social media for a return to the streets from Monday.

On the eve of the anniversary, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in December 2019 on a very low turnout in a poll boycotted by the protest movement, announced a limited government reshuffle, in a bid to head off renewed rallies.

The reshuffle saw few major changes by Tebboune, who was once a prime minister under Bouteflika.

Among those retained are Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad and Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati, seen as a symbol of Algeria’s judicial crackdown on protesters and opposition activists.

Tebboune also signed a decree dissolving parliament, clearing the way for early elections, for which no date has yet been set.

In a gesture of appeasement on Thursday, he announced pardons which have led so far to the release of almost 40 pro-democracy activists, including opposition figure Rachid Nekkaz and journalist Khaled Drareni, who has become a symbol of a struggle for a free press.

Zaki Hannache, a 33-year-old activist, said Hirak supporters were unimpressed by the president’s reshuffle and his call for early legislative polls.

“The reshuffle doesn’t interest me, it’s the same old people. Same thing with parliament, the new ones (deputies) will work, like the current regime, for their own interests, not for the people,” he said.

Last Tuesday, thousands of Algerians rallied in the northern town of Kherrata, where the first major protest erupted in 2019 against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term.

The first nation-wide protests were held a week later.

Algerians Protest Against December Presidential Poll

Algerians shout slogans and march in the streets of the capital Algiers as they participate in a night demonstration against the upcoming presidential election, on November 21, 2019.
RYAD KRAMDI / AFP

 

Hundreds of Algerians took to the streets of the capital Thursday to protest against next month’s presidential election, despite a crackdown during which dozens were arrested.

Around 300 protesters chanted “We will have freedom!” and “We will not retreat!” and banged on pots as motorists showed their support by sounding their horns, AFP journalists said.

Police broke up the Algiers protest and some 30 people were detained, the journalists added.

The demonstration came hours after an examining magistrate charged 29 people arrested during a similar protest on Wednesday night with holding an “unauthorised gathering”, lawyer Zakaria Belahreche said.

If found guilty they could face one year in jail.

Five candidates will contest the December 12 poll, but protesters allege the vote aims to cement in power the political elite linked to former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika who resigned in April under pressure from the street.

The ailing Bouteflika, 82, was forced to quit after demonstrations erupted in February against his bid for a fifth term.

Since then Algeria has seen weekly Friday protests demanding major reforms to a political system that has been in place since independence from France in 1962.

To protesters’ disappointment, all five candidates seeking to replace Bouteflika are known to have links to him, and two are former prime ministers who served under him.

Ex-premiers Ali Benflis, 75, and Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 73, are considered the two frontrunners in the race.

Algerians In Diaspora Celebrate Bouteflika’s Resignation With Movement

Algerians gather during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Algiers on April 5, 2019./ AFP

 

For weeks, expat Algerians have been streaming home, some just for the weekend, to play their part in the historic changes sweeping the country.

“I took unpaid leave to come and march in Algeria, to be here physically,” said Chahrazade Kaci, who arrived back from London just days before president Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in the face of huge protests.

“It’s a duty,” said Kaci, 52, who has spent almost half her life in the British capital since going into exile at the height of Algeria’s 1990s civil war.

Sports shoes on her feet and an Algerian flag draped over her shoulders, she held aloft a sign in English: “Call to all Algerians living abroad — return home and support our citizens in their struggle to build the 2nd republic.”

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Kaci was one of many returnees among the immense crowd that filled the streets of Algiers on Friday, the first mass demonstration since Bouteflika announced on Tuesday he was stepping down after two decades in power.

Flying in from Europe, the Gulf and North America, some have used up annual leave or taken extra time off work to take part.

“Since February 22, I haven’t been able to sleep,” Kaci said, referring to the day of the first mass protests against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office.

“I’m addicted to the internet, I follow developments 24 hours a day and I don’t miss anything on social media,” Kaci said.

She was joined in the crowd by her former husband Salah Allali, who had flown in from Qatar, while her daughter Nada, who was born in Britain, and nephew Yazi Nait-Ladjemil had both come from London to take part in the protest.

Kaci herself arrived back in Algiers the previous Friday and “joined the march right from the airport”, she said.

Following Bouteflika’s resignation, protestors are now pressing on with calls for sweeping reforms and the departure of key figures in the 82-year-old’s entourage.

Bouteflika’s departure was “just the beginning,” Kaci said. “Still to come is the departure of the rest of the ‘gang’ and the building of a second republic.”

Protestors say they want to see the resignations of the powerful “3B” — Senate speaker Abdelkader Bensalah, head of the constitutional council Tayeb Belaiz and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui.

– Return and ‘rebirth’ –
Born in Algiers, Kaci studied marine biology, but like many Algerians, left the country when it plunged in the early 1990s into a decade-long civil war that left at least 200,000 people dead.

Back in Algiers, returned expats say they are surprised by the country’s new-found freedom of speech and the strong presence of women at the vast, largely peaceful marches.

Kheira, 65, also took unpaid leave from her job as a teacher in Montreal to take part in “these historic marches”.

She had moved to Canada in 2000, to be reunited with her children after sending them there at the height of the civil war.

“My children have everything there, but they are ready to come work and invest in their country,” she said.

Former trade unionist Salah Allali, who also sought refuge in Britain in the 1990s, took an extra week of holiday without pay to be able to head home.

“The regime must understand that this revolution must end with its departure,” he said.

Yazid Nait-Ladjemil, who has lived in London for the past two years, took part in several demonstrations organised by Algerians in the British capital, but also returned home to play a role in the protests on the ground.

He said he would not rule out a return to his country.

“It’s a rebirth — before, (Algeria) was a bit depressing,” he said. The demonstrations “give me a sense of hope.”

Algerians Protest Bouteflika Bid For Fifth Term As Deadline Looms

Algerians shout slogans and raise signs and national flags as they protest outside the city hall in the northern coastal city of Oran, about 410 kilometres west of the capital Algiers, on March 1, 2019, during a rally against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in power. April 18 election. AFP

 

New protests broke out in the Algerian capital on Sunday against a fifth term for ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who faced a midnight deadline to register for April elections.

Chanting “Bouteflika go away”, dozens of students rallied in the city centre of Algiers cordoned off by police, AFP journalists said, as similar protests were reported across the country.

Bouteflika’s announcement in February that he would seek another term despite his failing health has unleashed angry protests.

The 82-year-old, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since a 2013 stroke, has remained invisible and silent on the demonstrations since they broke out last month.

Adding to concerns about his fitness for office, the president flew to Switzerland a week ago for what his office described as “routine medical checks”.

On Saturday, he sacked his veteran campaign manager Abdelmalek Sellal, a former prime minister who successfully oversaw Bouteflika’s past three re-election bids, state media said, without giving a reason.

Sellal was removed ahead of a deadline of midnight (2300 GMT) Sunday for contenders to register for the presidential race, and replaced as campaign manager by Transport Minister Abdelghani Zaalene.

There are no legal requirements for candidates to be physically present to submit their bid to the constitutional council, but in 2014 Bouteflika registered in person.

Police deployed massively around the council’s headquarters in Algiers on Sunday and the road leading to it was blocked, while journalists seeking to cover the arrival of candidates were locked in a room.

In the run-up to the deadline six candidates had registered, including prominent retired general Ali Ghediri, while businessman Rachid Nekkaz, who has cultivated a mass following among young people, said he would follow suit on Sunday afternoon.

Protesters to be ‘disappointed’

An analyst who declined to be identified said Sellal’s sacking could be a tactic to calm the growing protest movement against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.

An editorial Sunday in El-Mouhajid newspaper, a mouthpiece of the government, suggested that Bouteflika would not pull out of the race under pressure from the street, saying protesters will be “disappointed”.

The sacking came after days of protests that have seen Algerians, including lawyers and students, take to the streets of several cities, including Algiers where protests have been banned since 2001.

The first rally against Bouteflika’s bid for re-election drew tens of thousands on February 22 with protesters chanting mostly “No fifth mandate”.

The scale of the protests has surprised many in Algeria and represents the biggest challenge in years to the authorities.

On Friday tens of thousands of Algerians were back on the streets in the capital, second city Oran and other towns across the North African country.

Tear gas and stones

During the protests in Algiers clashes erupted between police and protesters when some of them tried to march on the Government Palace which houses the prime minister’s office.

Riot police fired tear gas at the protesters, used batons to keep them at bay and also threw at them stones which the demonstrators had initially hurled at the offices, AFP reporters said.

According to a police toll, 56 police officers and seven demonstrators were hurt and 45 arrests made in Algiers.

Bouteflika, who has been in power for two decades, gained respect from many for his role in ending a civil war in the 1990s which according to official figures killed nearly 200,000 people.

Officials have warned that the protests risk dragging Algeria into instability, with the prime minister comparing the rallies to those that sparked Syria’s war.

Protesters have been mobilised by calls on social media which have resonated with young Algerians, many of whom struggle for employment in a country where half the population is under 30.

Reporters at state radio have complained that their bosses have imposed a blackout on coverage of the protests, and last week journalists also took to the streets to protest against alleged censorship.

Algerians Vote In Low-Key Polls

Algerians cast their vote at a polling station in Algiers on November 23, 2017 as Algeria goes to the polls for local elections. Photo: RYAD KRAMDI / AFP

Algerians trickled to the polls Thursday to vote in local elections after a low-key campaign that has brought no expectation of change in the North African state.

In a rare public outing, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is expected to seek a fifth term in office in 2019, appeared in a wheelchair to cast his ballot paper at a polling station in Algiers.

Bouteflika, 80, who won a fourth term in 2014, has used a wheelchair for public appearances since a 2013 stroke.

Dozens of political parties and four alliances were competing for seats in over 1,500 city councils and 48 state legislatures.

Only the president’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and its coalition ally, the National Democratic Rally (RND), have a nation-wide presence. They are expected to romp to victory.

Smaller parties have complained of bureaucratic obstacles to registering their candidates. Although a total of around 180,000 contenders were standing, voters have shown little enthusiasm for the poll.

“At each election we are promised a change… We are still waiting,” said Said Mohamedi, 65.

Another member of Algeria’s 22-million electorate, Mohamed, an unemployed 30-year-old, said he would not vote because “it will do absolutely nothing, things won’t change”.

Sociologist Nacer Djabi told AFP that turnout would likely be low, as in previous polls.

The campaign mainly focused on issues such as “the difficult economic situation… the 2018 budget law and the 2019 presidential election”, said analyst Belkacem Benzenine of Oran’s Centre for Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology.

“Issues relating to local development… have been addressed only superficially,” he said.

A parliamentary election in May was marred by a 35-percent turnout and voter apathy over what many see as broken government promises and a political system tainted by corruption. Official results in the local polls are due on Friday.

AFP