Rabat – Human Rights Watch has slammed Algeria for its perceived crackdown on dissent, as well as efforts from the Algerian government to preempt the success of the ongoing wave of anti-establishment protests in the country.
In a recently published report, “Algeria: Tightening the Screws on Protests,” the advocacy group painted an extreme portrait of Algeria’s subtle yet perceptible crackdown on anti-government expression.
This ranges from the waving of anti-establishment symbols (Amazigh flags, for example) to reports in independent media critical of the post-Bouteflika government, or even calls anti-military or government-bashing comments by some prominent dissidents.
Among HRW’s long litany of complaints against the current Algerian regime is the arbitrary arrest some of the most prominent figures of the “Friday protests,” the blocking or harsh censoring of independent, critical news outlet like TSA, as well as the criminalization of waving Amazigh flags.
“Starting June 21, security forces began large-scale arrests throughout the country, targeting marchers with Amazigh flags, a symbol of the large ethnic community of the same name, also known as Berbers. About 40 protesters remain in custody, most in Algiers. All are under investigation for “harming the integrity of the national territory,” which carries sentences of up to 10 years in prison, under penal code Article 79,” HRW detailed.
According to the report, even as “Friday protests” continue since February, when former President Bouteflika was forced to step down, the government has been deploying its wrath on determined protesters demanding bold political changes.
In the current Algerian context, HRW suggested, holding views critical of the regime or waving flags deemed insulting come with heavy, disproportionate, and arbitrary measures like imprisonment.
Hamid Guemmouch, the Director of TSA, explained to HRW how his outlet has recently been targeted. He said the media’s internet website was blocked on numerous occasions and they were left without any explanation from the authorities.
“This is an arbitrary block ordered by the authorities. We tried to contact the government to get explanations, but they refused to answer our questions. This blockage is a serious threat to our survival as an independent website,” he said.
In addition to heightened censorship, Guemmouch went on to explain, the government withholds advertisement deals from critical outlets, distributing them to state-owned and other pro-government media organizations. This, he argued, is aimed at forcing critical news into silence or untimely bankruptcy. “The old practices of the authorities have not stopped,” he lamented.
Other sources concurred. Like the TSA director, they all told tales of how the post-Bouteflika authorities are deploying state power to either sidestep popular demands or force the faces of dissent into silence and eventual submission to the agenda of the authorities.
The perception is that the current regime wants to preserve its power as long as possible, in defiance of sustained, popular demands for a fair, well-organized, and quick democratic transition.
The news comes as many analysts perceive a gradual decline in effectiveness and impact in the course of six-month Algerian protests.
Begun in February to force President Bouteflika to give up on his reelection bid, the “Friday protests” gained worldwide traction after a besieged Bouteflika stepped down.
Bouteflika’s resignation did raise doubts in some quarters, prompting questions as to what would be next in the Algerian masses’ fight to get rid of the whole Bouteflika establishment, including the current regime’s most powerful men.
However, the broad, popular expectation was that the same urgency and determination that forced Bouteflika out would eventually overwhelm the remaining Bouteflika cohort, forcing them to leave room for a new crop of young, in-touch political leaders.
There was hope that Algeria’s would not be the bold yet short-lived “business-as-usual” type of social movements until now witnessed in much of the MENA region. But this certainty is gradually turning into a doubt about whether Algerians will get the radical changes they are asking for.
While the determination is the same among protesters, William Lawrence, a North Africa specialist at George Washington University recently told France 24, “the regime has played its cards right.”