Algerian Hirak rolls up its sleeves against coronavirus

Truce of the social protest movement, which now focuses on health awareness to curb the epidemic
A group of demonstrators parade through the streets of Algiers on February 18 in the 56th consecutive Friday of protests

AFP/ RYAD KRAMDI  -   A group of demonstrators parade through the streets of Algiers on February 18 in the 56th consecutive Friday of protests

The Hirak - the social movement that has been protesting for more than 13 and a half months against the Algerian political system and demanding the re-founding of the Republic - has not emerged unscathed from the coronavirus crisis and has been forced to suspend its regular activities. With the impossibility of holding demonstrations - this would have been the 60th Friday of general marches, the fourth with no street activity - due to the containment measures in place since 23 March, the movement has reinvented itself, changing its strategy and aims. “Now we have another function for society: we have put the street protests aside and are dedicated to helping and raising awareness of how to act in this crisis of COVID-19,” explains to Atalayar Soumeya LM, a young Algerian member of the movement living in Barcelona.

“The new way of fighting is to try to prevent the pandemic from spreading in the country,” Algerian activist Narimene Mouaci, 24, who lives in Spain, explains to this publication. “The protest movement has been the first to be confined to Algeria,” says Algerian student Hanane Semane, who is attending Atalayar from the French city of Nice. At first there was a debate within the Hirak movement about how to deal with the new situation, because part of the movement saw the restrictive measures decreed by the authorities as a way of making them abruptly stop their activities. “Our enemies have taken advantage of the situation to question us and hit us, for example, with arrests,” says Soumeya, 27. 

Like the rest of the Maghreb countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Algeria, which is the country in the region most affected. At the time of writing, there were 1,666 cases, 235 deaths and 347 recoveries. But the limited scope of screening in large areas of the country makes it more than likely that the actual number of those infected is much higher than the official number. On March 15, the Algerian authorities announced a series of austerity measures to deal with the economic impact of the pandemic, the first corollary of which has been the fall in oil prices. Hydrocarbons account for between 90 and 95% of the total value of Algerian exports.  

Un varón se hace la prueba de la COVID-19 en un centro médico de la capital argelina el miércoles 26 de febrero de 2020
AP/ANIS BELGHOUL - A man is tested for COVID-19 at a medical centre in the Algerian capital on Wednesday 26 February 2020
The priority of activism, fighting the coronavirus 

“At first it was very difficult because many people couldn't see what was going on. It all started with a government decision to close the schools, but without a major awareness campaign”. “If people got the idea, it was because Algerians are connected to the rest of the world, especially France,” says Semane, 29. "The movement reacted directly when there were only ten cases and one or two deaths", she added. “Medical and pharmaceutical students linked to the Hirak movement have led this work of raising awareness,” says Mouaci, who works from Spain in the defence of women's rights and secularism in Algeria. 

From Tremecén - in the northwest of the country - Otman, a 27-year-old public sector employee and member of the movement in the locality, talks to Atalayar to emphasize that the Hirak's involvement in raising awareness of the pandemic had begun before Algiers decreed the lockdown: “Activists have been organizing anti-COVID-19 awareness, disinfection and sterilization campaigns in public places for many days. In this regard, some groups are becoming directly involved in talking to local businesses to help manufacture sanitary and hygienic materials for distribution to citizens”. “The coronavirus crisis is highlighting another pending issue in Algeria for the future: the need to have a decent health system, and now it is time to denounce it,” explains Mouaci. “The Algerian hospitals lack equipment and it will be difficult for our health system to cope with the volume of people who may be affected,” fears the young translator.

However, the movement is still active on social networks - and has been since its foundation, with an official date of 16 February 2019 - where debates on democracy and freedoms are held, photographs are shown and the usual slogans are disseminated, and protests are made against arrests of activists or journalists, as has happened following the imprisonment of Khaled Drarerni, director of the digital Casbah Tribune and correspondent for TV5 Monde. Drareni has been accused by the Algerian justice system of “inciting an unarmed demonstration” and “attacking national unity,” the Efe news agency reported on Wednesday. In addition, on Monday, one of the leaders of Hirak, Abdelouahab Fersaoui, was sentenced to a year in prison for “attacking the integrity of the national territory” and “inciting violence”, according to the Algerian daily Liberté. 

Marcha antigubernamental en la ciudad argelina de Bordj Bou Arreridj, situada a unos 240 kilómetros al este de Argel, el 14 de febrero de 2020
AFP/AMAL BELALLOUFI - Anti-government march in the Algerian town of Bordj Bou Arreridj, some 240 kilometres east of Algiers, on 14 February 2020
Hirak's future in the air 

“There is fear of losing the street after all this happens in a country like Algeria, where in recent months there have been gains in civil liberties,” admits Soumeya. “The social movement, which is self-governing at the moment and is being led from the activists' homes, will return. Although we don't know with what strength,” confesses Semane. “The movement is still preparing for the post-epidemic stage, because its demands are profound, it is fighting for a radical change in the way the whole country works, and because of its genuine leadership and organisation, it will be back on track,” a 58-year-old financial auditor and Hirak activist said from Algiers to this publication on condition of anonymity. 

“I think that, once this crisis is over, two things can happen with the Hirak: the first is that the movement returns with force because the government is mismanaging the situation of the coronavirus (the situation of the hospitals is catastrophic) and there is also an economic crisis because of oil prices,” explains Otman from Tremecén. “The other is that the system is taking advantage of the confinement and the pandemic to settle accounts with the activists,” continues the young man. “But I personally believe that after the pandemic the Hirak will come back strong and many people will join him,” he says optimistically. Hind T, a 31-year-old publicist from Algiers, sees it in the same spirit: “We will come back stronger, more numerous and more determined”. 

“I think the regime will come out of this weaker than ever, while demands for radical change will be strengthened. I think this will happen because this episode of pandemic will put, and is already doing so, in evidence the absolute incapacity of the current 'Power' to manage any kind of crisis, be it health, social or economic, due to the illegitimacy of the Executive and the lack of confidence that a large part of the Algerian population has in it, as well as its technical inability to manage the crisis efficiently, since it is not prepared to face such situations. And this is clearly seen in the executive's actions over the last few days, proposing measures in a piecemeal fashion, demonstrating that he lacks a comprehensive plan to manage the crisis in the short, medium and long term,” the Algerian financial auditor explained to Atalayar. “The president has missed a wonderful opportunity to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people, because it was society that anticipated it; it decided on the one hand to stay at home and on the other to help by buying materials for hospitals that lacked the means from its own pocket,” says Hind. 

El presidente argelino Abdelmadjid Tebboune
PHOTO/SAUDI PRESS - Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune

Meanwhile, the government is trying to deal as best it can with the delicate situation: President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced on 15 March a decrease in imports - expected to fall from 41 to 31 billion dollars - and a cut in public spending of 30%, although he promised not to touch pensions, public salaries or health spending. “Both the Algerian 'sanitary desert' and the dependence of our country's economy on hydrocarbon exports are the consequence of 60 years of mismanagement, which makes the current situation even more difficult,” laments the aforementioned auditor from the Algerian capital in a similar way. 

The truth is that the political cocktail - the process of reforming the Constitution has also been postponed - economic and social, with the explosive addition of the pandemic, suggests that the malaise will become more profound in Algeria in the coming months. Last Saturday, the authorities of the Maghreb country decided to extend the partial confinement measures - with a daily curfew from seven in the evening to seven in the morning - until 19 April. For the time being, however, there is a truce. “To be free, we must first be alive,” Mouaci sums up the current feeling of the members and supporters of the Hirak, now resigned to fighting an enemy much smaller than corruption, arbitrariness or injustice.